Gay couple Pritam and Manish, who did not wish to reveal their surnames, set up an Instagram account, Vagabondboiz, in December 2020, for instance, to announce their relationship to their friends. It wasn’t an easy decision, especially for Manish, who had just come out to his single parent and was struggling to make his parent see things from his perspective.
Vagabondboiz was not meant to be an advocacy account for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community but rather an archive of their relationship, filled with pictures of them lovingly looking into each other’s eyes.
“People don’t understand non-straight couples,” said Manish, a 22-year-old engineer from a city in northeast India. That’s what they wanted to change through their account. “We wanted to show our love, show that it is normal love.”
Six months and 35,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram later, the couple now gets 10-15 messages every day from people who have mustered the courage to own their identity thanks to Pritam and Manish’s posts on social media.
Their public display of affection (PDA) has also softened some hardcore homophobes, they said. A heterosexual person recently reached out to them, admitting their posts had changed his perception of the gay community. “He said he feels terrible about the things he said to gay couples in the past,” said Manish.
Moreover, the duo has had to add “DM for business enquiries” as an afterthought to their social media bios because brands are keen to collaborate with them now.
What couples such as Pritam and Manish have achieved is quite out of the ordinary, according to social media experts. For heterosexual couples, PDA on the internet comes down to personal choice. For people from the LGBTQ+ community, though, putting up posts tagged #lesbiancouple, #gaylove, #queergoals and so on often invites hate, abuse and even death threats.
However, they now have a community that takes up the cudgels for them every time someone posts a hate message on their account.
Maitrayanee recounts an instance when someone left a comment saying, “I’ll slit your throat”, on one of her posts with her partner. “My followers defended us,” said the 25-year-old from Guwahati who identifies as bisexual. “You can’t let them get to you anymore.”
As brands make a beeline for associating with them, some of these couples are also refusing to align with those who only want to “make sales out of their community”.
“We reject offers that come only for Pride month (June). We are here to create awareness and not just do business,” said Divesh Tolani, 19, who runs a couple account called honey.imm.home with Atulan Purohit, 24. Started on Valentine’s Day last year, the duo’s account has more than 70,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram.
“We started this to make our close friends jealous of our travels but ended up inspiring people,” said Purohit.
Seeing is normalising, said the cisgendered gay couple from Mumbai.
Parmesh Shahani, a corporate LGBTQ inclusion advocate and author of ‘Queeristan’, calls these couples change agents who are as important as the people who fought in the court against Section 377, which criminalised sex between adults of the same sex, and those fighting for their rights through non-governmental organisations. “These are the people leading the operationalisation of the court judgement, translating it into our societies.”
Is it an age thing?
While most social media accounts have been set up by LGBTQ+ couples in their late teens and early 20s, they said their expression of love on social media has very little to do with their age.
“If they have support from their family or enough allies within the community, they feel more comfortable sharing their love on social media,” said Sushmita Gowda, a queer-affirmative therapist from Bengaluru. This is if they are actively sharing other details of their lives on these platforms already. “Some queers don’t even go to queer parties,” she said, adding a large part of the community has yet to come out.
A significant part of the community is also not as privileged as the rest to be able to express their love online, said Tolani from Mumbai, acknowledging that privilege exists even within sections of this minority.
The transsexual community, for instance, doesn’t get to speak about these things. “Trans people, especially in India, are striving to exist. Things like love, marriage, owning a home, are simple pleasure they are deprived of,” said Anjali Rimi, a Hyderabad-born and US-based transgender activist. “While same-sex couples get normalised as they post pictures wearing the same shirts, going camping, we are trying to survive, all while craving for love.”