India's gay prince on forefront of country's LGBTQ movement
Since coming out publicly in 2006, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil has emerged as one of the country's most vocal advocates for LGBTQ rights.
By Priti Salian
No one in the history of Rajpipla, a municipality in the western Indian state of Gujarat, would have predicted a member of their region's royal family would some day be ostracized for being gay.
“It was the most challenging time of my life,” Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, now 52, said of coming out publicly nearly 12 years ago.
It took Gohil, the first openly gay Indian royal, 40 years to come out. But once the news broke in a local paper, it created a nationwide sensation within a matter of hours.
“It was the first day of Holi,” he recalled. Holi is India’s festival of colors, when wood and dung cakes are burned in a bonfire to signify the victory of good over evil. “The same pyre was used to burn my effigies,” Gohil lamented.
But he said it was possibly his parents who were most unsettled by the news. In less than three months, they publicly disowned and disinherited him for being gay, a decision they later withdrew for legal reasons.
Since coming out in 2006, the road has not been easy for the prince, but despite the hurdles, he has emerged as one of the country's most vocal advocates for LGBTQ rights.
For someone who had grown up with protocols and restrictions and led a closely guarded life, coming out to the world wasn’t an easy decision, Gohil said.
“Don’t do this, behave this way, dress like that, were restrictions thrown at me all the time,” Gohil explained. As a schoolboy, he could not leave the home unaccompanied to attend birthday celebrations at his friends’ homes. His nanny looked after his every need around the clock.
“I first crossed the road all by myself when I was 16,” he said. A lot of his time after school was spent teaching English to the servants in their mansion, whom he and his sister addressed as their “22-men army."
“Because of this kind of protection, I became an introvert,” Gohil explained. “Whenever I wanted to do something of my choice, I’d think about it many times over, and something within me would always hold me back,” he remembered.
He said this is partly why he kept his sexual identity hidden for years, even after he was certain he was gay.
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Born in Rajasthan, a state in the northwest part of India, Gohil spent his student life in Mumbai. “As a teenager, I was attracted to boys,” he said, but his lack of exposure and communication with the outside world discouraged him to ask anyone the reason for his feelings.
At 25, he chose to marry an Indian princess, who filed for divorce within a year on grounds of her husband’s impotency, since they could never consummate the marriage. But she left her ex-husband with stern advice, telling him not to ruin another woman's life by marrying her. Gohil took this seriously.
Following his divorce, Gohil desperately began looking for answers regarding his sexuality. “I started breaking protocols and began stepping out to explore the gay world,” he said.
Gohil also started making connections with gay men by exchanging letters through India’s first registered gay magazine, Bombay Dost. He then met its editor-in-chief, Ashok Row Kavi, India’s pioneering gay-rights activist, and he said Kavi completely changed the way he looked at himself.
“Ashok helped me come to terms with my sexuality," Gohil explained. "He is my gay mother."
After meeting Kavi, Gohil trained as a counselor and volunteered at Mumbai's Humsafar Trust, India’s oldest gay-rights organization, which was founded by his mentor. “In a closeted manner, I began to get involved with activism,” Gohil explained.
In 2000, while still not out publicly, Gohil established Lakshya Trust, a charitable organization working for the health of sexual minorities. "I was still living a dual life, showing the world I’m straight,” he recalled.
Gohil succumbed to a nervous breakdown in 2002 due to the stress of keeping up with a fake image. The mounting pressure of remarriage — both from his parents, who wanted to prove their son wasn’t impotent, and the people of Rajpipla, who were looking for the next heir — added to his woes.
Following his nervous breakdown, Gohil said his psychiatrist told his parents of his sexual orientation. Unfortunately, they were unwilling to accept and understand, he said.
“My mother kept pestering me to change my ways and become straight,” he said. His family tried every corrective treatment on him, be it physical, mental, religious, and even shock therapy, he revealed.
Four years later, one of his friends told him that if he cares about advancing the gay-rights movement in India, he would have to put his personal comfort aside and sacrifice himself just like the Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. “The Bhagat Singh story worked on me,” Gohil said.
So Gohil revealed his long-held secret to a reporter at a Gujarati-language newspaper. “It was a liberating experience,” he recalled. “I wanted to tell everyone that even high-society people could be gay; being queer is not a low-caste issue."
“Gay royals across the world came out to me after that, noting that only a royal could understand another,” Gohil said. While remaining in the closet, they pledged to use their influence to work for the community, which wasn’t difficult as they are all married, Gohil added.
In 2007, the year after he came out, Gohil was invited to appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which brought international attention to India’s LGBTQ issues. “Oprah rightfully brought out that it is gay sex and not homosexuality, which is criminalized in India," Gohil said.
Gohil has been a staunch opponent of Section 377, India's colonial-era law that criminalizes same-sex sexual activity. Earlier this month, the country's Supreme Court ordered a review of the law, which was reinstated in 2013 after being struck down in 2009.
Appearing on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" became a turning point in the prince’s life, and he said he regained some of his lost celebrity status after the appearance. “People started seeing value in me and in the cause I promote,” he said. Most of his relatives, who had previously shunned him, began mingling with him again. And a survey conducted a year later by a leading national newspaper found 90 percent of Rajpipla’s population had positive views about their prince. “They were happy that I was attached to a cause and said that my sexuality was a private matter,” Gohil explained.
Gohil’s work with India's LGBTQ community spans several issues, including mental health counseling, legal assistance and HIV prevention. His work involving tribal communities, women and animal rights has also gained him recognition.
Most recently, Gohil announced he is building an LGBTQ resource center on the grounds of his ancestral palace near Rajpipla. He said the center will offer health services, counseling, homeless services, yoga classes and language courses. An online crowdfunding campaign and donations are financing the center, which will be managed by his charity, Lakshya Trust.
For now, Gohil has declined the idea of marriage and having children. “I’m committed deeply to my work and have left it to my parents to find an heir after me,” he said. Therefore, he said he believes he's putting his palace to good use by opening it up for the community.
Recently at Rajpipla, Gohil said a group of children on a school trip from southern India halted to meet him. After his lighthearted chat with them, one teenager walked up to him and said, “I’m a lesbian, and now I know where to find support.” The Prince of Rajpipla said it is moments like this that he lives for.