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 a niche audience that has so far been underrepresented on social networking platforms, Sunali 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 in the iconic National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and later at IIM Ahmedabad, Sunali 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 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 judgement 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 centuries 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 Sunali, referring to the current trend of casual sex encounters without long-term emotional commitment. Though Grindr is the most often-used app by the gay community in Indian metros, it is male-dominated, and others on the LGBTQ+ spectrum 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 Sunali, who has worked with over 100 startups.
More focused on designing business apps, this new venture is challenging for Sunali not only because it is in the consumer space but also because it fills in 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.
Sunali 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 Sunali, calling family acceptance the most debilitating obstacle in the lives of the LGBTQ+ community. “Once parents accept them, they can face the world.”
First published in eShe’s April 2021 issue
Syndicated to Money Control