Cult Culture

“Desperately Seeking Soulmate” explodes a cult that preyed on queer and trans followers

Joining a cult is frighteningly easy to do, especially if you’re already in a vulnerable place. For thousands of hopeless romantics, the cult-ish business “Twin Flames Universe” promised unconditional love and delivered pain, gaslighting, and some truly concerning advice.

A new Amazon Prime series takes a closer look at what made “Twin Flames Universe” so popular for queer daters, and brings some shockingly depressing (if not entirely unexpected) revelations to light.

Most cults prey on those who feel lost, scared, and desperate to make a soul connection with someone—or something—higher than themselves. In this respect, Twin Flames Universe—a long-running online community for those seeking their predestined spiritual soulmate, or “twin flame,”—was no different than usual. Headed by two self-styled “gurus”, Jeff and Shaleia Ayan, the series of classes, YouTube videos, and thriving Facebook community managed to bilk millions out of vulnerable people eager to be matched with the loves of their lives. And somehow, they’re still going strong. Alice Hines’ 2020 Vanity Fair profile, which exposed Twin Flame Universe’s leaders’ cult-like behavior and practices, has now been turned into a three-part Amazon documentary. In it, you get the usual talking points: folks looking for love soon found themselves hooked into paying astronomical sums for a YouTube video library on how to find your twin flame, only to end up as lonely as before, and broke besides.

But there’s a twist: though several queer and trans members were first drawn to Twin Flames Universe, things got homophobic quite quickly after Jeff and Shaleia started promising to play matchmaker for group members. One lesbian couple found themselves being held up as the ultimate love story one day, only to be forced into a straight paradigm the next. Jeff and Shaleia not only encouraged a trans woman to go after a conservative man and place herself in dangerous situations for the sake of being with him, they encouraged cis people to transition to better fit their hetero-centric idea of what the twin flame connection represented.

Trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson shows up in the documentary to offer some important context. What Twin Flames Universe was doing wasn’t in anyone’s best interest: they were praying on queer and trans folks in order to make their business seem more viable, and the result was messy, dangerous, and completely wrong-headed.

Most cults start out by putting forth a welcoming, nonjudgmental approach in order to rack up numbers. But as soon as Jeff and Shaleia found themselves operating in a much higher tax bracket, things started to change quickly. They’d promised the gift of love eternal, and now they had to deliver.

“Desperately Seeking Soulmate” is a painful and absorbing watch, and a reminder to everyone that being queer doesn’t always protect us from the kind of cult-based thinking that so many creators use to steal our time, our attention, and our money. In some cases, our queerness can make us that much more vulnerable to the con.

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