“Experience a revolutionary arranged marriage system designed exclusively for gay men and women. We are the leading progressive personal matchmaking service, with a unique focus on same-sex matches that result in marriage. All the work is done by your very-own matchmakers with whom you have direct contact with throughout the entire process.” (sic)
These lines in the ‘About Us’ website section of International Marriage Bureau for Gays and Lesbians, popularly known as Arranged Gay Marriage (AGM), seemed innocuous enough to attract same-sex individuals looking to find a match to ‘settle down’ with. After all, many gay and lesbian folks wanted to find their soulmate but did not have any idea of how to find one. This became even more important if their families had not accepted their orientation. And this is the emotion which AGMseemed to have caught on to attract clients.
On the surface, it looked like a match made in heaven (pun intended) between same-sex people looking to find their life partners and a “one of a kind International Arranged Gay Marriage Agency” (sic). But if you scratched deeper under the surface, you would be shocked to know that the only thing “revolutionary” about this agency was that it was a scam. And the stakes involved were high: US$300 registration fee for “any person” living abroad looking for a partner in India, and US$600 if “any person is looking for a partner anywhere in the world.”
A new documentary titled ‘The Arranged Gay Marriage Scam’ by VICE reporter Reeta Loi uncovers the murky world of this matchmaking service. The documentary chronicles the 11-month ordeal of Reeta, who is looking for a partner, as well as Keith, who is finding a husband. Both are from conservative, traditional Indian families living in the U.K. Reeta’s interactions with Urvi Shah, the agency’s founder based in India, make her suspicious and she decides to investigate further. What she uncovers leaves her shocked.
Filling an emotional void and the desire for a ‘cultural connection’
When Reeta came out as gay, she was disowned by her Punjabi family. Besides losing her immediate family, she also lost contact with her extended family, her customs, language, food and traditions. She wanted a long-term relationship which would help her establish a ‘cultural connection.’ And she admits that being a single Indian woman, when she heard about the AGM bureau, she “had to sign up.” And why not? The testimonials on the website looked impressive.
35-year-old Keith, a musician, also had a familiar story. Keith came out to his parents when he was 19; he was asked to leave home before being brought back after three days on the assurance that he would not tell anyone about his sexual orientation. All his cousins and friends had arranged marriages and had ‘settled down’, and he felt his life was headed nowhere in terms of relationships. He did not want to miss out on the opportunity when he came across one.
For both Reeta and Keith, coming out had impaired their relationships with their respective parents. AGM gave them the hope that they would find someone with whom they could establish new traditions and new families. When Reeta asked Urvi why she used the term ‘arranged marriage’, the latter responded by saying that she respected traditions and wanted the bureau to be a “parent” to people who had not disclosed their orientation to their families.
The lack of emotional support from family and the desire for a cultural connection is what AGM used to its advantage. Reeta seemed impressed with the description of the bureau as a parent – it would, in some way, fill the emotional void after her family disowned her. Playing to the emotional quotient also meant that people would find it to be a safe platform and feel comfortable signing up for its service.
Taking vulnerable people for a ride
During the documentary, there is a segment where Keith’s parents are introduced. His mother admits that she was “quite shocked” that he chose to go down this path. She was concerned about the bureau’s authenticity and hoped that it would not take them for a ride because “they’re vulnerable anyway.” She did not know it then, but her words would turn out to be prophetic.
By the fifth month, a certain level of disappointment had set in. Hardly two or three profiles had been shared with both Reeta and Keith, and none of them could be considered “matches.” When six more weeks passed without any contact or additional profiles from Urvi, Reeta decided to do some research. A careful reading of the profiles made her even more suspicious and she undertook a detailed investigation. On hindsight, Reeta realized that many aspects of the entire operation were suspect.
Her investigations confirmed her suspicions. From the profiles of couples on AGM’s social media handles to the actual address, everything was fake or had been lifted from other sources. What made this scam so horrendous was that it was taking advantage of a community which was already vulnerable and whose members were “desperate to find connection and desperate to find love.”
“Why Can’t I?”
You can take an Indian out of India, but you cannot take India out of an Indian. Keith wanted to follow tradition and go through an arranged (gay) marriage, just the way his cousins and friends had done. His innocent belief was, “Why Can’t I?” The search for an answer to this question led him to the Arranged Marriage Bureau. After months of futile effort and losing out on hundreds of dollars, he was still not able to answer that question.
When Reeta confronts Urvi after several unsuccessful attempts at contacting her, the latter is defiant and feigns complete ignorance. In fact, Urvi expresses “shock” that the images and profiles are being duplicated on other matchmaking sites! All she had to say in her defense was that she had “no clue.”
Urvi claims that the bureau is “100 percent legitimate and real.” The website is operational, but one look at the ‘testimonials’ and you will realize that something does not seem right. To increase the bureau’s credibility, the website carries several logos, including those of mainstream media houses. In the end, Urvi wants to be given a chance to prove herself right, saying that she will get back to Reeta with as many “things” as she can to establish the bureau’s legitimacy.
Urvi seems to be a known face in the queer community in Gujarat, routinely doing videos, interviews, photoshoots and more with well-known brands. The most we can do as the queer community now, to protect ourselves from people like Urvi is to report the page and business she runs, and ensure our friends and family in the community know about this.
So far, no one from AGM has volunteered to come forward and provide any evidence to prove their innocence or their authenticity.