Vikas, a 38-year-old project manager for a utility company in Jalandhar, a city in the north Indian state of Punjab, had been looking for a same-sex romantic partner for several years with no luck. Following a number of failed attempts to meet someone through friends and data apps, Vikas decided last year to sign up with the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau. After reading several reviews and articles about the India-based matchmaking service, which was founded in 2015, he was hopeful that it could help him find a partner with whom he could settle down for the rest of his life.
However, 12 months and $500 later, Vikas said the bureau fell far short of his expectations. After being promised one foreign profile for review every week, he said he received only eight profiles, just half of them international.
“I didn’t match with a few due to some drastic differences, and the bureau informed me that the rest had rejected my profile,” said Vikas, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy; apart from his family and close friends, no one knows he is gay.
"I really believe she started the organization in good faith, but it is not being run in an ethical way now."
Reeta Loi, Former Client
In March, Vikas wrote to Urvi Shah, the CEO of the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau and the only available contact for the company, to ask her to send him more profiles or give him a refund. Shah responded that the agency was temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and his refund — which had been promised over the phone before registration if the bureau was unable to find him a match within a year — was denied, according to Vikas.
Vikas is not alone in his disappointment with the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau, which claims to work with gay men and lesbians of Indian descent all over the world to help them find a suitable long-term partner. In fact, the matchmaking service was the subject of a Vice Media report last month titled “The Arranged Gay Marriage Scam.” The 20-minute documentary follows two U.K.-based clients of the service — the documentary’s host, Reeta Loi, and a man referred to only as Keith — who, after 11 months, each received just a handful of dating profiles. At the end of the film, Loi questions the veracity of the matchmaking profiles and calls the bureau a “malicious” scam that is “taking advantage of a section of society who are desperate to find connection and desperate to find love.”
The film has outraged many in India’s LGBTQ community, who have demanded answers from Shah, who was initially responsive to NBC News’ inquiries but then stopped answering questions. So is her service an outright scam or just an unprofessional business that overpromises and underdelivers? While the Vice film documents the experiences of two clients, NBC News, which profiled the Arranged Gay Marrige Bureau back in 2018, reached out to other clients to ask about their experience with the service.
After finding clients by calling out in various LGBTQ groups on social media and WhatsApp, NBC News interviewed five people who responded and were able to share proof of their registration with the bureau. During conversations with these clients, there were a number of common threads in their experiences. Four of them said that while the bureau promises to send one matchmaking profile a week, it never works that way. The lucky ones reported receiving 15 to 20 profiles a year, and three of the clients said there were months-long gaps in communication, which Shah then tried to justify.
“Urvi cited personal problems, which seemed like excuses, when I wrote her a stern email in January after she had stopped responding to my calls and emails completely,” recalled a 27-year-old man from Gujarat, a state on India’s western coast, who said he had stopped receiving profiles for several months. “Post that, she sent me three profiles, but only to appease me, as none of them matched my requirements.”
NBC News, however, found three relatively satisfied clients, though most of them expressed misgivings about certain aspects of the service. While these individuals shared their real names and other personal information with NBC News to verify their identity, they all asked to go by just their first name or no name at all, as they are not out to many people in their lives. Homosexuality is still taboo in most parts of India, and gay marriage is not legal.
A New Delhi-based gay man said he received a profile every few days and met all five of his matches. His fifth match has been his live-in partner for the last year and a half. He did, however, disclose that he “paid double” the usual fee and asked the bureau to “expedite the service.”
Akarsh, a Bangalore-based management professional, said he received profiles as promised in the first few months, but then the service slowed down considerably, and he received less than 10 profiles over the following year.
During the two years he was registered with the service, Akarsh said he was matched with two people. “I don’t think the profiles sent to me were fake,” he said. “I was in touch with both of them for weeks, and am sure they are genuine.”
However, Akarsh said he thinks Shah’s claim that the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau has 3,700 clients, about two-thirds of them in India, “may well be a misrepresentation,” as he said, “it takes them time to find matches.”
Deepak, a Bangalore-based software professional, said he signed up with the bureau earlier this year. While he has received only seven or eight profiles, less than he was promised, the selection met his preferences, and he has been able to have conversations with a few of his matches.
“I’m assertive and good at following up, so I usually get the services promised to me,” Deepak, 35, said. He has no complaints with the service.
‘Misleading’ and ‘distressing’
The Vice report calls into question the veracity of the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau’s matchmaking profiles and whether they are culled from other dating services.
“I copied and pasted the language used in the profiles received by Keith and me and could trace all four of them back to other online dating sites,” Loi, a London-based artist and musician, told NBC News. “That was when this service became really questionable to me.”
Shah, however, said she’s “not accountable for someone making their profile using Google,” implying that it was the user who copied and pasted while creating their profile, not the bureau stealing profiles from other dating sites.
Shah also said she doesn’t guarantee finding matches and has a no refund policy “unless a client hasn’t spoken to anyone after at least six months of registration.”
Vice also flagged some of the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau’s social media posts, which appear to take credit for matchmaking success stories that in fact had nothing to do with the bureau.
For example, an article from an Australian newspaper with the headline “Same-sex marriage in India” was posted to the bureau’s social media accounts with the caption “Urvi Shah helping LGBTQ community find love.” While those who clicked on the article and read it would see that the happy same-sex couple featured in the image did not meet through the bureau, those who didn’t bother to click through would assume they were satisfied clients of Shah’s.
“While the article does not say the bureau matched us, it should have been more explicit about the dissociation,” the couple, who had “never heard of the bureau before,” told NBC News. “The bureau’s social media post about the article, which comes with our photo, could be misleading."
Satya Banerji, a Mumbai-based media lawyer, said that as long as the social media posts link back to the original sources, the poster can’t be blamed. Culling profiles from other sites, however, can definitely be a serious offense, if that is indeed what is happening, according to Banerji. And if a customer of a business in India believes they've been scammed or have not been provided agreed upon services, they can file a complaint in their city’s consumer court or seek legal advice for redressal, he added.
While the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau has at least a handful of satisfied clients, a number of other clients complain of unprofessional behavior, including broken promises of providing a steady stream of matchmaking profiles, big gaps in communication and preferential service for those who are willing to pay extra.
“It can be distressing for people like us, who have faced ridicule and rejection in all walks of life,” Vikas said.
Following conversations with the bureau’s clients, including the host of the Vice documentary, there’s a general sense that Shah launched her company with good intentions but lost her way at some point.
“I really believe she started the organization in good faith, but it is not being run in an ethical way now,” Loi said.
While Shah stopped responding to NBC News' inquiries about her matchmaking service, she denied any wrongdoing in the Vice report and said "the bureau is 100 percent legitimate and real."
Nonetheless, the controversy surrounding the bureau appears to have negatively affected LGBTQ sentiment in India.
“It saddens us to see someone take advantage of a vulnerable community, the same community that is giving them business,” said Balachandran Ramiah, a member of Gay Bombay, a support group creating safe spaces for its 18,000 gay members in Mumbai.
The Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau is not the only same-sex matchmaking platform in India, but there is fear that its apparent lack of professionalism will have a ripple effect.
“After such an experience, it’s going to be difficult for the LGBTQ community to put their trust in such businesses,” Manvendra Singh Gohil, an LGBTQ advocate and the first prince in India to come out as gay, told NBC News.