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I had my first date with my current partner just weeks before the lockdown started. As is the case with many queer couples in India, we met on a dating app. We had both just moved to the city we are now in, unaware we would be told to stay home soon after. Before we knew it, the pandemic would make this city our default home. Oblivious to what the future had in store for us when we first met, we spent a grand total of a month quickly and surely falling behind the usual — and what now seems extraordinary — rituals of dating. A drink at the bar, a picnic in the park, a pop-up film festival, a shared piece of pie, going about the city in close proximity with strangers — the things that now seem unthinkable without the careful and exhausting calculations of who to meet, where to meet, how long to stay, how to stay safely distanced the whole time.
In late March, as India went into lockdown with just four hours’ notice, before anyone could get their bearings, we would both find ourselves suddenly stuck in our own apartments — separated by a 30-minute drive. This involuntary quarantine would last for the next three months, turning into a self-imposed one in the months that followed.
Almost nine months later, we can now joke about the early days of what my partner calls ‘our pandemic relationship’. Our ‘dates’ moved back online, exactly as we had started. Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangout replaced the newest brewery and the pop-up bookstores. Stripped of the usual distractions of dating, the patterns of our intimacy felt very different and, more often than not, completely upended. In the absence of much else to do, we talked, revealing the little things about ourselves that partners get to know through months of being in close proximity. After the lockdown was lifted mid-June, we both took turns showing up at each others’ apartments on weekends and spending the next 48 hours staying put.
That said, we know only too well that we were lucky to have met each other before the pandemic, and the lockdown kicked in. If my ‘pandemic relationship’ was unsettling and demanding new rituals, dating from scratch during the pandemic was like developing a whole new vocabulary - a whole new dating guide. For Sharanya, a 32-year-old cis woman, it meant having the ‘Covid talk’ every time she attempted an in-person meeting with a potential partner, meeting them on one of the half dozen dating apps she had downloaded over the course of the last few months. It meant asking questions like: does your job require you to be around other people? What precautions do you take during these interactions? Do you live with other people? Do you go to restaurants and other public spaces? Anyone not eager to participate in a conversation like that would give her pause. “Four out of five times I was too anxious and settled on a Zoom date before moving on to the next person,” she quips.
A friend, a single cis woman in her mid-20s, who, like me, moved to a new city where she knew very few people just months before the pandemic, recalls having to cancel her first pandemic date after the guy she was set up with by a mutual friend told her he might have caught the coronavirus. It took multiple negative tests and video calls before he convinced her to finally meet in person — three months after they started chatting on a dating app. In what she says was “not my best decision”, they hung out in her car with the windows rolled down, both wearing masks for the whole 60-minute meet-up. “We hugged at the end of it”, she told me later, “but I was nervous the whole time.” Would she do it again? She would and she has. “The anxiety is undeniable, but meeting new people is also what helped me stay sane during the past few months,” she adds.
A single colleague, a 28-year-old straight cis woman, and self-described “compulsive dater”, agrees about the anxiety of planning dates in the age of corona. She switched from random hookups to often weeks-long virtual dates. The few in-person dates she agreed to go on “felt too exhausting”, she admits, each involving careful considerations on where to meet, making sure her date would get tested, and what precautions they both needed to take. “Good hygiene and being socially responsible are obviously priorities now”, she points out.
Nearly a year since the first few reported cases of the pandemic, and an emerging second wave in many parts of the world, the exhaustion is beginning to show. “For months I didn’t meet people at all, letting Zoom take over as the default diner,” says Arleta, a bisexual cis woman in her late 30s. “Now that I have started meeting dates in person, I find myself communicating with potential partners in ways I never did before, discussing who else I am meeting, dating, and more importantly sleeping with.”
For many straight people, dating and sex in times of corona has meant having the kinds of conversations that their queer peers have been having for years. “As a queer person, I have always talked about testing with all potential partners. And contraception when necessary,” explains Neil*, a 28-year-old queer cis woman who has cis and trans partners. Of course, the pandemic has meant she has had to be “way more communicative, especially with cis men about our respective health and lifestyle choices, about the kind of precautions we have been taking, and what kinds of exposure we have had. They’re [cis men] usually so much more evasive, in my experience. But I’m pretty blunt about telling them to get tested before we see each other.”
For some, the shift to virtual dating was not really a big shift and easier to get used to than others. “I actually prefer doing a lot of videos and calls before meeting a date in person. It allows me to develop some sort of trust and gives me a sense of familiarity before I meet someone in person,” says 37-year-old Joanna*, who identifies as queer and non-binary. “For me, dating during the pandemic wasn’t actually that different. I guess everyone else is just now starting to catch on.”
*Names changed on request.