The LGBTQIA+ community at large, found the prejudices against them exacerbated in the face of the pandemic that has plagued the world since 2020. Just like communities marginalised on the basis of their caste, gender, religion, etc., the LGBTQIA+ community in India were reportedly subjected to physical and emotional violence. For many of them, the idea of ‘home’ had ceased to be associated with a safe space, even as global health organisations and state structures urged everyone to ‘stay safe, stay home’. And as a survey indicate how at least one-third of the LGBTQIA+ people met people digitally to date or for friendship in 2019, even before the pandemic-induced loneliness could come about, As You Are‘s launch comes at an apt time.
Joseph Patrick McAulay highlights in his blog how the pandemic amplified the preexisting barriers, “with LGBT+ people being more likely to experience mental illness, more likely to make less money than heterosexuals, and to be more at risk of homelessness due to housing precarity.”
In an article for Quartz India, Neel Sengupta writes how “there is little discourse on the impact these spaces [of domesticity] have had on LGBTQIA individuals, many of whose lives are subject to increased supervision and regulation,” for the question of belonging and finding safe spaces — to express their desire, perform, and just be themselves — remains a fundamental one to queer people. And a pertinent one as India witnesses a second wave of coronavirus pandemic. And for queer people seeking respite from the personal and enforced abstinence, getting to meet people digitally, even better, in a safe digital space, could be some respite as dating apps observed a considerable surge in usage as the pandemic struck.
And the newest of the lot is As You Are (AYA), India’s only homegrown dating app for the LGBTQ+ community, promises to be a “no-pressure app” looking to transform dating experience for queer people. The app was launched in June 2020.
Below are excerpts from an interview with Sunali Aggarwal, the founder of AYA.
Disclaimer: This writer downloaded the app and was provided premium access to test the same for 15 days. He confirms that he is a neutral party, and is not involved in the promotion of the app.
What inspired you to create AYA?
Sunali Aggarwal: I created AYA based on firsthand experiences of queer friends, who found it very difficult to find love while being closeted. Queer folks are conditioned to hide their sexuality, which makes it difficult to be in a relationship. But at the same time, Section 377 has been abolished. This opens up a lot of opportunities for creators like me. And with AYA, I want to help queer people, not just from a relationship standpoint but from a perspective of living their life as they want to.
How long have you been working on AYA? And what lessons from your professional journey so far, as a serial entrepreneur and as a UX designer, would you say contributed to the development of AYA?
Sunali Aggarwal: I think AYA is the most beautiful project I have ever worked on. It brings together empathy, design, technology, and business. Being a UX designer, I could very well-knit all aspects to build AYA. I have been working in the domain of UX for the past 18 years now. But every project comes with its nuances and domain knowledge that one needs to acquire to make it effective. Because I have this vast experience, I could take up the challenge or shall I say the opportunity of developing AYA. I believe one should work on things they strongly believe in. And because I come from a design and tech background, I know there is so much more we can do, and we must do.
Given that there is a flood of dating apps already, what makes you believe that AYA is uniquely positioned to address the dating challenges of its userbase, which happens to be queer people primarily?
Sunali Aggarwal: You are right, there is a flood of dating apps in the market, but AYA is focused only on queer Indians. We plan to take this app globally for queer Indians across the world. What makes it unique is the focus and niche we are catering to. The disappointment with most dating apps is on the rise, since connecting on these apps is focused on personal appearances. Also, because the dating industry is moving toward niche apps, which will replace generic dating apps soon.
The challenge we are addressing: We ensure that most profiles are verified, that there is a real person you are chatting with! More and more apps are getting into paid background checks (see Note 1). AYA also intends to build an ecosystem where all profiles are verified. But we are hoping to ensure we make AYA a more content and person-oriented app.
How would you say the dating landscape has changed in India from Yahoo chatrooms to Planet Romeo to Tinder? And what is the role of AYA in this ever growing space?
Sunali Aggarwal: Good question. Dating apps are built around one core proposition: “Who are you going to chat with and why?” In chatrooms, we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever without fear of being caught because we knew that nobody could ever see us. In current dating apps, a lot of emphases is on how one looks. When you are swiping through profiles, how much time do you spend on them? Not much. You stop at someone who appears nice, isn’t it?
So, dating apps today force you to pay attention to how you look besides being who you really are. Data suggests that more and more millennials misrepresent themselves on social platforms. They can hardly write a line or two about themselves. If you ask them to talk about themselves, they may have nothing to say. But for the queer community, things are different. Yes, looks are important but the community values a person’s personality as a whole. AYA wants to make it easier for them to talk about themselves and create a more holistic profile. So, even if they do not want to share a picture, you would know what kind of person they are from their profile.
Have you used dating apps before and/or during the development of AYA? If yes, how was the experience?
Sunali Aggarwal: I have never used a dating app before. I started looking at dating apps when I was researching for AYA. And to be honest, all of them, baring a few, felt very shallow. A lot of people feel the same way and a lot of people do not sign up for dating apps fearing harassment.
Interestingly, AYA was launched at the peak of the pandemic, when people across the world were living in isolation and were bereft of the comfort of touch. And the queer community was particularly facing a severe crisis. Was this launch a strategic decision? How do you think it helped people build connections during this crisis?
Sunali Aggarwal: Launch decision was not strategic. We had just finished doing a pilot in December 2019 and were now looking to roll out the app. Pandemic just happened, and we built the entire product through it and managed to launch it as well. Interestingly, what the pandemic did to people is that it made them realize the need for companion(s). And that led to the surge in usage of dating apps. But I strongly believe it will in turn lead to a surge in people looking for long-term relationships, and they need apps, in today’s time, to give them that.
While I was using the app, I figured out that it’s very extensive in capturing the personality type: like there were questions on pet preferences, smoking, eating habits, etc. How did you go on about researching whether these traits help find a better match? Did you consult with a professional here? Or was it instinctive?
Sunali Aggarwal: We did extensive research before arriving at this set of questions. The challenge is, when an app is new or not so popular, people do not like to give too much data. We had to find a ‘sweet spot’ where members could answer questions quickly and it would still capture a lot about their personality. Since queer marriages are not legal, we are still somewhere between a dating app and a matchmaking app. Hence, the question-set kind of covers personality types for both.
I’m also impressed with the language. Like there’s no “large” for body type… Again, was it deliberate or did you meditate and discussed a lot on these aspects, too?
Sunali Aggarwal: Yes, we did a lot of discussion on this. We were very careful in giving options to our members which did not sound offensive. That’s the empathy we bring.
But location and gender can’t be changed. Why so?
Sunali Aggarwal: We do our verification based on gender (see Note 2). So, we do not allow members to change that. Also, cisgender men who pose as women cannot misuse this feature. Location is fixed because we have restricted free accounts to look at profiles from their city only. Premium accounts can look at profiles from anywhere.
If you’re to tell me one thing, one each that makes AYA different from Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, and OkCupid, then what would that be?
Sunali Aggarwal: We do not want shallow swiping like Tinder. Grindr is very male-dominated. Bumble is very complex and OkCupid asks too many questions.
Also, tell me one thing that you’d want to learn and implement in AYA from all these apps?
Sunali Aggarwal: Their marketing, ha-ha!
I see that the statistics look very promising, given that AYA was launched in June 2020: It has been downloaded 9,500+ times and is observing a rise in its userbase across the country. I was wondering if you had a countrywide audience in mind while you’re developing this app? Also, is it set for an international rollout?
Sunali Aggarwal: We have 10,000+ downloads now (see Note 3). We still have a countrywide audience. But the challenge in India is the social stigma attached to not just being an LGBTQ+ person but also dating. Things are getting better, and they will only get better. We definitely have a countrywide audience in mind, and are also looking to roll out internationally wherever queer marriages are legal like U.K., USA, Canada, Australia to name a few geographies.
What can we expect in the future from AYA?
Sunali Aggarwal: Lots! We are working on a new feature set. Voice will play a major role going forward. We’ll be building a queer-to-queer service platform where one can get access to services designed specifically for queer folks. I am very excited about this!
What message do you have for prospective users to convince them to join AYA?
Sunali Aggarwal: If you are new to dating apps, then AYA is a great place to start! It understands that you are so much more than your profile picture and the person you want to be with is also not just a display picture. AYA is a no-pressure app, we don’t ask to you link Facebook, or Instagram, or any other social platform that could let you out. We understand you are not ready to be out yet and it’s okay to take your time.
Note 1 — It has been confirmed from the founder that AYA does not do paid background checks. The same is mentioned in the app’s terms of service.
Note 2 — Currently, a user has these options for selecting gender while creating their profile: Female, Male, Transwoman, Transman, and Nonbinary.
Note 3 — As updated on 27 March 2021 on Google Apps play store.
Featured Image Source: Play.google.com