When it comes to the laws of Google, “LGBTQ+ matchmaking” is hardly a search-worthy term. And so when Sunali Aggarwal launched AYA – As You Are, India’s only homegrown matchmaking app for the LGBTQ+ community, she went with the more common descriptor: “dating app”.
“It’s an SEO (search-engine optimisation) requirement,” says the 40-year-old Chandigarh entrepreneur who wants to still be clear that AYA, launched in June 2020, is a serious platform for those looking for serious relationships.
Besides the first-mover advantage of addressing the needs of an audience that has so far been underrepresented on social networking platforms, Aggarwal has several things going for her: the energy of a second-generation entrepreneur, the creative thinking of a design graduate, and the skills of a tech professional with years in the field.
Having been exposed to the challenges of the LGBTQ+ community since her student days at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and later at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Aggarwal researched existing dating and social-networking platforms and saw a clear gap in the market.
“This community already has challenges to begin with,” says the UX (user experience) and product designer, who co-founded Mobikwik.com in 2009.
In September 2018, India’s Supreme Court made a historical ruling on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to decriminalise consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex.
Though the judgment was hailed by human-rights activists and the gay community worldwide, it did little to address deep-seated social and cultural taboos that the LGBTQ+ community has grappled with for decades in India.
Most still don’t express their sexuality due to fear of ostracism and discrimination, and those who do find the courage to come out of the closet find love and romance to be a potholed journey, ridden with complexities, incompatibilities, and lack of avenues – both offline and online.
“Apps like Tinder have facilitated more of a hookup culture,” says Aggarwal. Though Grindr is the most often-used app by the gay community in Indian metros, it is male-dominated, and other LGBTQ+ have no options for finding meaningful matches.
That’s where AYA comes in. Launched during the pandemic, the app’s key features are customised keeping in mind the suitability and sensitivity of the users.
Prioritising accessibility and anonymity, it offers users a ‘no-pressure’ zone when it comes to declaration of sexual orientation and gender identity. The focus is on the user’s profile rather than their photograph – unlike in regular dating apps where users often browse based on the photograph alone.
The app also offers a three-level verification protocol. Available for Android users, the app has had about 10,000 downloads so far. “We are working on including regional languages as English may not be the official or first language for a large majority,” says Aggarwal, who has worked with over 100 startups.
More focused on designing business apps, this new venture is challenging for Aggarwal not only because it is in the consumer space but also because it tries to address a pressing need among sexual minorities. “We have been trying to create awareness about mental health, besides gender identity and sexual orientation through our blog – because people often don’t know how to identify themselves,” she says.
Aggarwal wishes for the day when – like ‘regular’ matrimonial apps – Indian parents sign up to register their LGBTQ+ children for prospective matches. “I wish more Indian parents would accept their children’s sexuality,” says Aggarwal, adding that lack of family acceptance is one of the most debilitating obstacles in the lives of the LGBTQ+ community. “Once parents accept them, they can face the world.”
First published in eShe’s April 2021 issue.