Walking down the street in south east London with their cockapoo puppy, Yasmin* and Rohaan* look like any other couple in their early 30s. Yasmin teaches at a primary school and Rohaan is an estate agent. They've just bought their first flat together, and are planning on having a baby in the next few years. But, despite all this being true, Rohaan is gay and bisexual Yasmin is in a relationship with another woman.
Theirs is what's known as a mixed-orientation or 'lavender' marriage, where partners of different sexual orientations marry to conceal their true sexuality. For Yasmin and Rohaan it was their family's religious and cultural beliefs surrounding same-sex partnerships that led them to marry each other.
After finishing uni in 2009, Yasmin met Rohaan while working at a property management company. "The owners of the company were very close family friends and the team were pretty much exclusively Muslim," she says. "So I knew I’d have to remain conservative about my sexuality and relationships. Rohaan and I often flirted and I was definitely attracted to him. After a few months, he asked me to go for dinner with him and then we started dating.
"We're both Muslim, so even though we were in a romantic relationship, I wasn’t anticipating anything physical. I'd had sexual relationships with men and women in the past, but Rohaan is more religious than me, so I assumed he intended to wait until he was married to have sex."
Born in the UK to Persian parents, Yasmin describes the community she grew up in as "much more liberal and open-minded" than Rohaan's. He moved to London from Pakistan -- where "homosexual activity" is illegal - when he was 20.
Once they started dating, Yasmin began to notice that whenever she mentioned her gay friends, Rohaan seemed very interested. "He tried to bring them up whenever he could, and I assumed his inquisitiveness was him being judgemental and intrusive. One day I snapped at him," she says. "I told him that if he had a problem with them, he'd also have a problem with me because I am bisexual."
He didn't speak to her for a while, and Yasmin assumed their relationship was over. But soon Rohaan told her he thought he might be bisexual, too, and swore her to secrecy. A year later, he came out to her as gay.
"Once I knew he was gay, we fell into a really close friendship but never actually ‘broke up’," she explains. Because their families still thought they were in a relationship, they started asking if they planned to marry. And Rohaan's family became adamant the wedding should be soon.
"Rohaan felt under a lot of pressure to get married to a woman and couldn’t see a way out, as his family would not be happy if he remained single. He knew they would outright disown him if he came out as gay," she says. "As for me, my family are tolerable of the LGBTQ+ community, but telling them I'm bisexual would definitely damage our close relationship irreparably."
By 2013, Rohaan had just started dating a man and the pressure was starting to seriously affect his mental health. "Rohaan’s parents are lovely, kind, generous people but they are from a country where homosexuality is illegal and they have their own religious beliefs which absolutely forbid it. He was worried his parents would arrange a marriage for him, and he basically begged me to marry him as a ‘cover marriage’. I thought it over and couldn’t really see an alternative option," she says.
Her parents were ecstatic and wanted to go all out with the celebrations, but Yasmin struggled with "the deception" and tried to keep the wedding as low-key as possible. "I couldn’t cope with them spending so much money on a false marriage," she explains. "I felt incredibly guilty for lying."
They moved in together in April 2014 and got married in October at a register office, then had a religious ceremony and celebration with their families. "Neither of us look back on our wedding day fondly," Yasmin says. "Rohaan and I hardly said a word to one another for the whole day. I had a lot of self-hatred for lying to my family and in front of Allah. Rohaan’s family are wonderful people and they were absolutely overjoyed on the day, which made me feel like the worst person in the world. If they knew the truth, they would be devastated. This way, everyone can happily live the life they want to live. I don’t agree with the lies but I believe we are making the right decision."
In many ways, Yasmin and Rohaan are like any other monogamous married couple. "We do get on very well. I love him dearly as a friend and I enjoy having him around every day. We live together in our flat and we have a new puppy! We are like half best friends and half old married couple," she says. But Yasmin also has a girlfriend she's been official with for four months.
"She has no issue with my situation with Rohaan, and they get on with each other. But she isn’t Muslim and is openly gay, so is struggling with not being able to act like my girlfriend in public. I don’t really know how we are going to tackle this in the future; I can’t expect anyone I go out with to never be openly in a relationship with me, but I am terrified of my family ever finding out," she says.
As Rohaan's family live in Pakistan, he is more relaxed about being seen out with same-sex partners. "He is single right now but he has had a few boyfriends in the past and for the most-part they live their relationships openly. This causes me anxiety because I am worried someone in my family will see them out together."
Both Yasmin and Rohaan would like to be parents, and they're currently discussing how that would work. "I'm a little hesitant about how it would affect our future relationships being married to each other, owning a property together and having kids together," Yasmin explains. "If I end up with a man, how will he feel about all of that? My other obstacle is what we do when we get into a serious relationship with other people. Where will we all live while keeping our families off our cases?"
They've also discussed moving abroad so they can live separately and have separate relationships without their families knowing.
Yasmin adds, "It's stressful and worrying, but it's the sacrifice we have to make to know we are free to fall in love with whoever we fall in love with."
*Names have been changed
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