January 07, 2013
MUNICH - Wearing a bright checked shirt, the man is strikingly tall, fit, with very short brown hair and brown eyes. He smiles a lot. Right now he’s looking for a suitable female partner – not in cafés or bars as such a search might have been conducted just a few short years ago, but in the virtual world.
In his profile it says that Freddie (not his real name) doesn’t smoke and eats a lot of fast food. But he also likes healthy fare – particularly Italian, French, Asian cuisines. Like lots of other guys, he’s into movies, travel, playing sports, listening to music, and going out.
One thing stands out about him, however: Freddie can cook. At least so it says in his profile. "It’s true," he confirms. His profile picture, where he’s shown in a suit, makes him look cool – cooler than he does in real life, at least this evening. The photograph is geared to make him appeal to as any women as possible.
A 40-year-old doctor from Munich, Freddie has had it with being single. And Andreas Laufer is helping him change the situation. Laufer wrote Freddie’s online profile, and is actively looking for a suitable woman for him on the net. This isn’t a friendly thing – it’s a professional service. Laufer earns good money doing this for men like Freddie.
Meeting women? For a windsurfing pro like Andy Laufer – this is no problem. Dubbed the "German sailing legend" by the international press, the 43-year-old Laufer recently announced his windsurfing comeback. But after he officially quit his sporting career in 2005, he launched another: first in finance, which he came to realize was not for him, and then – always having been one for unusual ideas – in Sept. 2012 an "online ghostwriting agency."
He started Suredate with 47-year-old business partner Ingo Möbius, to help people like Freddie.
His job is to get dates for lonely hearts – finding a partner on the Internet is hard work and requires a great deal of time, which is something that workaholics like Freddie don’t have a lot of. The doctor is presently one of four clients the agency is focusing on. Laufer and Möbius have so far had 20 male clients.
Freddie corresponds exactly to Laufer’s ideal client profile: well-paid job, very busy, middle-aged – and looking for someone. "I don’t have the time or the inclination to do a lot of writing and checking out profiles," Freddie says. Laufer and Möbius, who have known each other on the windsurfing scene for over 25 years, are familiar with this attitude from their friends. It gave them the idea for their agency. They tried their business concept out on a friend who was desperately seeking a partner but held a low opinion of online dating. The test run was a success.
In Germany – where a study by online dating site Partnersuche.de revealed that eight million people use online singles sites – the concept filled a gap in the market although it’s nothing new in the United States where "virtual dating assistant" services have been up and running for three years.
Munich couples therapist Andrea Bräu says she knows why so many people are looking for partners on the Internet: "The Internet is ever more a fixture in our lives. I can get anything I want on the Internet, so why not a partner?"
But Laufer’s ghostwriting agency goes a bit further than online dating sites, according to Bräu. She may find it "decadent," but she’s also convinced that relationships that originate online can last: "Ten years ago meeting people through the Internet was kept very hush-hush. That’s totally changed now."
A tradition from the Middle Ages
While Laufer can do a lot, he can’t do miracles: "The client has to be realistic," he says. If he hasn’t organized a minimum number of dates within a month, the client gets his money back. All-around service costs 699 euros a month. "That’s cheaper than in the U.S.," Laufer says.
As soon as a date is lined up, the client gets a memo listing a place and time and enough information about the woman so he can take up where the dating assistant left off.
According to the two business partners, they’ve had a high success rate – even when the dates have been in other cities. "I’ve had three dates, one of them in Berlin," says Munich-based Freddie, adding that his Berlin date is coming to Munich to visit for a couple of days. He says he’s thoroughly satisfied with Laufer and Möbius’s selection so far, and that the agency has been thoroughly professional.
Any moral scruples about any of this? Freddie hesitates, looking for the appropriate way of putting it. "It’s a little stupid, but it’s so convenient. And what you write isn’t so important. Eighty to 90% is your picture and the impression on the first meeting." Couples therapist Bräu sees it differently: “When you chat with somebody you can read a lot between the lines and learn quite a bit about a person. Even just how quickly somebody answers and the things they bring up say a lot," she says.
But Laufer and Möbius disagree: "Politicians have assistants who write their speeches. We’re picking up on a very old tradition. In the Middle Ages you had members of the elite using scribes to write their love letters."
So far they have one love story to their credit, but "the big goal is to be the ones behind a wedding," says Laufer.
Maybe that person will be Freddie, because at the moment things are looking up what with the visit from his date in Berlin. He has already told her, he says, that he was not the one who contacted her and flirted with her on the Internet. Her reaction? A short moment of silence. Then laughter. She thought it was funny, says Freddie, adding: "But I only told her after it was clear we were really getting along."
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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