“Gay rights can’t only be won in the courtrooms—they have to be won in the hearts and minds of the people, too.”
- Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil
Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla in Gujarat shot to international fame a few years ago when he became the first member of an Indian royal family to come out as gay. Fast-forward to 2015, and the prince spends his time jet-setting across the globe to promote equal rights and the work he’s doing with his charitable trusts, Lakshya and Free Gay India. I’ve always been intrigued by him and his work, so I plucked up the nerve to call and ask him for an interview—and he accepted.
I’ve seen the prince on TV and at various Mumbai Pride parade gatherings over the years. Even through his public orations, it’s clear that he’s a shy man, and if it weren’t for his royal upbringing—which involuntarily thrust him into the limelight—he’d be the kind that would prefer a quiet, more isolated life.
It’s a muggy Friday afternoon when Gohil walks into our office. The first thing that strikes me about him is his genuine warmth and friendliness—one expects celebrities to generally be a little aloof, but perhaps I’m stereotyping. Dressed in a teal kurta and white pyjamas with a simple bag slung over his shoulder, the prince shakes my hand earnestly and follows me into the conference room where we can talk without interruption.
We sit down and make small talk for a few minutes before he asks me if I have questions for him. I tell him that I do, but that I’d rather we just chat. I find that this method allows people to open up a little more than they otherwise would. Plus, Gohil has been interviewed many times over the years and I’m adamant that my interview doesn’t resemble some regurgitated information that curious readers can simply Google.
“I belong to a very old dynasty, the Gohil dynasty,” says the prince, sitting across from me and sipping his glass of water. “It was established in 1370 and I’m the 39th direct descendant.”
“I’m also probably the world’s first openly-gay royal,” he adds with a laugh.
“I run a charitable organisation called the Lakshya Trust, based in Gujarat, which works to empower the gay and transgender community and fights for its rights. We also spread awareness about HIV/AIDS. I’m not one-dimensional though, I also practice organic farming—and I love music. I play the harmonium. That’s the brief introduction, anyway.”
Growing up royal
“Growing up in a royal family is never easy,” he begins. “You’re born with a golden spoon in your mouth. Life is very different. You’re used to getting media attention from a very young age, so you’re very attuned to how to behave and what’s expected of you. My first public appearance was when I was ten years old. I was the chief guest at a school function. I had to give a speech. Can you imagine that? What would a 10-year-old say in a speech?”
While being ‘born with a golden spoon’, as he puts it, sounds envy-worthy to people like you and me, the prince has a very different take on it: “Sure, it’s nice at times—the luxury, the comfort. But you have to realise that it’s not always about the pomp. I wanted to do what normal kids did, but I couldn’t because I was the crown prince. I had no friends, and as a result, I used to play with the servants’ children. Royal life is a cocoon—you’re always protected. In fact, the first time I crossed a road by myself, I was 16! The constant pressure and overbearing nature of royal life is hard.”
“I had no family life. Most royal babies are raised by governesses. Growing up, I remember being confused—I didn’t know who my real mother was. Was it the governess who cared for me and spent time with me? Or was it this woman I was told was my birth mother? In public, I can’t even call my real mother ‘mom’, I have to call her ‘Maharani sahiba’, or ‘your highness’, and she has to call me ‘yuvraj’, or ‘crown prince’. When you’re unable to call your own child by its name, or your child is unable to call you ‘mummy’, it creates a sort of barrier—it increases the gap between parent and child. For the longest time, I thought my governess was my mother! I remember being disappointed to later discover that this loving woman had only been hired to look after me.”
“So when you consider all this, along with my feelings of alienation and my search for identity, apart from simply being ‘the crown prince’, and you add the complexities of the sexual uncertainty that began to surface during my teenage years…it only confused me more. I thought it was a phase, and since I had no one to talk to, I thought it was something everyone went through—and that I, like them, would outgrow it too. So I never really had any reservations about marrying. I knew, that as crown prince, it was my responsibility to continue the family line.”
“So, what happened after you got married?” I ask. Hoping that I’m not getting too personal.
“Nothing. We never consummated the marriage. And we divorced after 15 months. My parents never forced me into marriage, but since I had no exposure to anything, I really didn’t know that I was gay. I had nothing to define these feelings I was experiencing. Like I said earlier, I thought it was something everyone goes through before eventually settling down and having children.”
“The divorce was mutual, but it was still hard on both of us. My home in Rajpipla, the palace, was swarmed with the media, who were scavenging for every detail they could as to why my marriage fell apart. So I decided to stay on in Mumbai—I needed some space. This is also when I took up yoga.”
Big city life
“It was also around this time that I realised I was definitely different from other people. So I began going to the library and reading books on sex and sexuality. This was the first time I encountered the word ‘homosexuality’. But I was unsure whether I identified with it. Sadly, all these books called it a deviance, a perversion. Then one day I picked up a magazine where I read about a man named Ashok Row Kavi, who was the founding editor of Bombay Dost, India’s first magazine catering to gay men. I was thrilled. I knew I had to get my hands on a copy as soon as possible. I began a long and unsuccessful search spanning multiple bookstores—none seemed to stock copies of the magazine.
I gave up my search for Bombay Dost, only to encounter it at one of the street side stalls near C.S.T one day. It was being sold alongside various pornographic material. I was so nervous when I bought it that I put it in a plastic bag and stuffed it into my shirt. I hurried home and read it in the bathroom. Inside the magazine, I found a pen-pal section. It was through this that I met a man named Niranjan, who chance had it, was its editor at the time. I befriended him and he invited me to his home for a party. I’ve never been a social person, but the reason I accepted was because Kavi was going to be there as well. At the party, I was introduced to Kavi and discovered that he was my neighbour—he lived in the building next to my family home in Santacruz! It’s so funny how life works sometimes: you spend ages looking for someone only to discover that six degrees of separation is actually very real!”
“We have a slum in front of our house in Santacruz, and my mother, along with the other residents in the lane, had been fighting to have it removed for the longest time. One day, she told me, ‘There’s this man named Ashok, who is an activist and is doing a lot to help get rid of the slum. You should meet him and help him.’ I was ecstatic—I had a chance to meet Kavi every day and talk to him about personal matters under the pretext of getting rid of the slums! In a way, Kavi became my ‘gay mom’, and taught me many things. There’s actually this book called Thank You Mummy given to schoolkids in Gujarat, which contains personal tributes by personalities to their mothers. Amitabh Bachhan, Shabana Azmi and even Mahatma Gandhi feature in this book. There’s a chapter on me as well, and in it, I talk about how I have three mothers in my life: my birth mother, my governess, and now, my ‘gay mom’, and that it was my birth mom who in a way introduced me to my gay mom. ”
“Kavi helped me come to terms with myself, and increased my exposure to the LGBT community. He had founded Humsafar Trust, the first NGO in India that deals with HIV/AIDS and the community. He also trained me as a counsellor. Elaborating on what I said earlier, about how things have a funny way of working out, Humsafar was located right next door to my yoga class. So while everyone at home thought I was doing yoga, I was actually spending more time at the trust next door.”
The Lakshya Trust
“By now, I had found my voice—I was empowered. So when Kavi told me that Maharashtra has Humsafar and my home state of Gujarat has nothing, I should think of setting up something similar there. This was how Lakshya Trust came about. I founded it in 2000 and the government helped support us. It’s the largest organisation in India (after Humsafar) and is also operational in four cities in Gujarat—Surat, Baroda, Rajkot and my hometown of Rajpipla. We started out with HIV awareness and prevention.
Today, we also cover transgender issues, mental health, issues and difficulties faced by aged gay men—we’re making a retirement home for the LGBT community. It’s the first of its kind in the country. We’re also in partnership with the U.S.’ Aid’s Healthcare Foundation, the oldest AIDS organisation in America, which deals with HIV/AIDS amongst gay and straight people. They made me ambassador for India. I feel that we can’t exclude ourselves from the population and I strongly believe in mainstreaming.
Which is why I no longer call myself a gay rights activist. I now go by the term human rights activist. And my organisation welcomes gay and straight alike. We do HIV tests and administer counselling irrespective of sexuality. I will concede, though, that I try to employ as many gay men as possible, because they are often stigmatised. Out of the two hundred people I employ, the majority are gay men.”
Gohil goes on to tell me that there’s also a lot of dialog currently going on with government, the media, and religious leaders. He asks me whether I’ve heard of the Walk of Hope. I tell him that I have—it’s a 7,500 km walk from Kanyakumari to Srinagar that’s helmed by a man named Sri M. The walk passed through Baroda, where Gohil and 30 volunteers from the transgender and gay community walked eight kilometres alongside M and his marchers. Gohil stresses that this is all part of his ‘mainstreaming’— to be able to walk beside M and his marchers and be accepted.
I’m intrigued at how this man, the direct descendant of a 650-year-old dynasty loves being in the thick of things. I ask him whether it wouldn’t be simpler for him to sit back and take on a more managerial role while sending people out to do the actual work. His answer is pretty poetic: “That’s not how I’d like to do things. Even my great grandfather would don disguises and mingle with the common people in Rajpipla to see how things really were—to find out how people were faring and what they thought of the royal family. You can’t be so far removed from something and then claim to understand it. You can’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get down in the muck if you have to. That’s the only way you get results.”
“I even use public transport occasionally in Rajpipla. The people don’t like it. They think it’s beneath me to do such a thing. I simply have to make them understand that unless I do it, I won’t know what it’s like. If I don’t know what it’s like how can I have an opinion on it? And if I don’t have an opinion on it, how can I help? My work is on the grassroots level. If I’m not at the grassroots myself, what good does it do? I will never be like one of those ministers who will satisfy themselves with a helicopter tour and claim to know the landscape.”
“I believe in personal connections. I’ve been to the homes of people suffering from AIDS, and I’ve seen them in the last stages. I’ve sat there with them and held their hand. Even being a prince doesn’t entitle you to sit behind your high walls and watch from afar. It’s not an excuse.”
Gohil’s drive and commitment is incredible. The man sitting across from me has changed so much in the half hour we’ve spent talking. He may seem shy in the social sense, but he’s firm and strong-willed when it comes to things he cares about—especially his work. He tells me how he also visits the homes of aging gay men in Baroda, those who have no one to take care of them, and he, along with his outreach programs, takes care of them by way of healthcare, food and even company—he’s even read bedtime stories to some of them.
“It’s important to give back. And it opens your eyes to a lot of things. Interacting with old, practically abandoned gay men was one of the inspirations behind my old age home. No one should have to die alone. Besides for that, we’re talking about men who were young in the ‘30s and the ‘40s. To get a sense of how gay life was back then is absolutely fascinating—to hear how they met other gay men, how they socialised and how they chased love.”
He tells me how he assisted NDTV with a documentary filmed in Baroda called Married in Public, Gay in Private, which interviewed gay men who are married to women—and are open about their sexuality. Surprisingly, it isn’t tinged with feelings of betrayal and lingering hatred. Quite the opposite—the wives feel safe because they know that their husbands aren’t having affairs with women (affairs that they can leave them for) and foolishly getting other women pregnant.
As far as the wives are concerned, their husbands have provided them with children (even if they aren’t sexually attracted to them), a home and a life. They feel that as long as their husbands don’t leave them, they are fine. Some of them have even embraced their husband’s lover as part of the family under the convenient ‘uncle’ tag. Their children will never know about the actual relationship between their father and his boyfriend, but that doesn’t matter at all.
There are even incidences where the boyfriends come home and help—almost like an extended part of the family, and others where wives act as arbitrators between the men when they quarrel. Gohil recounts an incident where one of the wives showed him a picture of her husband’s boyfriend and said, “He’s so good. He’s such a lovely man. He comes home and helps me with the cooking. My husband is a good-for-nothing. He just sits around all day. But this one, he is a darling. Sometimes he even does the dishes if I ask him to.”
The Lakshya Trust, in fact, has a special wing that deals with the wives of gay men. Gohil says, “We’re the first to start this. We realised that these poor women, through no fault of their own, discovered that they were married to gay men. And considering the social stigma, they had no one to talk to about it. So we decided to fill the void. We counsel them and also teach them about the importance of safe sex. The lack of knowledge around condoms is appalling. To most of them, condoms are used for family planning, to prevent unwanted pregnancies. But they don’t realise that condoms also act as a safeguard against STIs and STDs. We teach them about that. It’s important. Because if a husband is having an affair—whether with a man or a woman—and he’s having unprotected sex, he’s exposing himself to infection. And then he comes home and passes it on to his wife. There needs to be more sex awareness and education in India. It’s not enough to have a few NGOs carrying the entire responsibility. The government has to step up and be more proactive.”
I ask Gohil whether it was his sheltered upbringing that pushes him to do so much for so many people—and whether he would have done things differently had he had a normal childhood.
“I don’t think I would have done things differently,” he muses. “But my sheltered upbringing definitely had a great role to play—at least in a very personal sense. If I had more exposure when I was young, to the world and to people around my age, I think I would have realised I was gay much sooner. Most people experiment in their youth, but I never had the chance. In fact, after I was born, I was immediately granted admission to Mayo College, which has always been the school of choice for India’s royalty, but my parents didn’t want me to go boarding school. They had heard what happens in boarding school and thought I might become gay so they elected to have me schooled under their nose. As fate would have it, I didn’t go to boarding school, but I am very much gay,” he laughs. “It just goes to show that it’s really not something you choose or can control.”
Consequently, Gohil also believes that his royal lineage, for all its trappings, also helped him greatly. “It took me a while to realise it, but I eventually did. After all, if I had been just another gay man amongst India’s millions, I probably wouldn’t be able to make the difference I’m making today. It’s because of my background and royal blood that I can draw attention to myself and the causes I am passionate about. Till date, I’ve never approached the media for any story—they’ve always come to me.”
“Just like you have,” he adds with a smirk.
The Rajpipla people’s loyalty runs deep
I ask him how things are in Rajpipla now, whether they have calmed down. When he came out of the closet, the townspeople didn’t take the news too well: his pictures and effigies were burnt, and calls for his exile beat against the shut palace gates. “Things are much better now. They have accepted me and understand that it’s a personal matter. I am still their yuvraj. When there is something wrong, it is me they come to for a solution. In fact, years after I came out, The Times of India sent reporters to Rajpipla to see whether the public’s perception of me had changed. Eighty percent of the population said they didn’t care about my sexuality, that it was my business and shouldn’t influence what people think of me. They told the reporters, that instead of talking about my personal life, people should talk about my professional one and the ways I have helped people.” The kingdom of Rajpipla may not officially exist any more, but the people seem to have more faith in their erstwhile king than the politicians of today. Some even go so far as to say that the government should bring back the monarchy, as citizens were happier and more prosperous—Gohil’s great grandfather refused to levy income tax on his subjects and even offered free education to girls. Imagine that.
I ask if he feared for his life after his subjects burned his photos and effigies. With a wry smile, he says: “I’m glad that they did that. I’ve come to understand that, in India, nothing works as well as controversy. It’s like a match to gunpowder. For any social change to take place, there has to be a spark to ignite it. And people have to realise that there’s no benefit in exclusivity. We have to mainstream. If we want to win over the Supreme Court, we have to show solidarity and we have to mainstream. We cannot do it without straight allies by our side. And we need straight allies across the board—Bollywood, the media, healthcare, the government, law and order, banking…virtually every sector.”
On Section 377
When I ask him if he has an update on the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377, he says, “Look, I have a very different opinion and I’ll sum it up by using a quote I often use in my statements: Gay rights can’t only be won in the courtrooms—they have to be won in the hearts and minds of the people, too. The key is public perception. What society thinks about us is more important. I’ll give you an example: dowry, sati and untouchability are all crimes. Can you honestly tell me that India is free of all three? I know for a fact that it isn’t. You still hear stories of dowry deaths; sati is still practised in parts of Rajasthan. My mother is the princess of Jaisalmer, so I know about these things. Untouchability, too, is still very present and you hear stories of villages where ‘certain’ people are not allowed to draw water from the village well. So where is the law in all this? You tell me. It is society that has to change. These social evils have been around for centuries, and were only reformed thanks to people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who fought and successfully had sati abolished in 1829. So what value is the Supreme Court judgement? Sure, it will help in the fight against HIV/AIDS and perhaps with general education. It may help a little with public perception. But will it ensure equal rights? No, I don’t think so. But Section 377 definitely needs to go.”
“Take the history of any country where homosexuality has been a crime. They have gone the same way. The journey is the same. And we are yet to have our Stonewall. So if you were to compare, in a way, I suppose you could say we are currently where the U.S. was in the 50s. We are still far behind on a global average. I went to The Stonewall Inn when I was in New York and I went up to the first floor. There’s a lesbian couple that has taken the pains to put photographs on the walls that tell the story of the riots in the hope that it will educate and inform the younger generation. To help them realise that the freedom they are currently enjoying was fought for very hard. With blood, with sweat, with tears; with many deaths and brutal hate crimes; with drugs, suicide and violence claiming many young fighters. The present generation is so preoccupied with their freedom and hedonism, that they don’t realise how different things were back then.”
“What would you say to Narendra Modi if you only had ten minutes to talk to him?” I ask.
“Well, I’ve met Mr. Modi before. He had come to Rajpipla when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. I even tied a turban on him. He’s a visionary who’s always been fixated by reform and modernisation. If I had to meet him now, I would tell him that he is so concerned with getting India on par with other nations that he’s surging ahead with regards to the economy but he is letting other stuff fall by the wayside. He’s spent so much time travelling, surely he’s observed plenty of the good that other countries do for their citizens. He should work at implementing the same policies here too. It’s not enough for India to be an economic powerhouse if its citizens are deprived and unhappy.”
“I’ve realised that we’re probably not going to be able to make much progress unless we get a lot of international pressure. Lots of lawmakers and politicians around the world vaguely know what India’s LGBT population is up against, but they don’t really know the details. Which is why I’ve also started an international foundation called Ekta, meaning unity, based in America, which focuses on getting a lot of international attention on India. And I plan to do that by involving a lot of powerful, high profile celebrities. Homosexuality, after all is not a national issue, it’s present across the world. And if they can deal with it in a particular way, why can’t we? My other movement, Free Gay India was also started keeping the same point in mind: India is free, but gay India isn’t. Which is why I don’t even celebrate Independence Day. I will celebrate it when, and only when, gay India is finally free.” True to his word, Gohil has managed to rope in many international power players for Free Gay India, including Anderson Cooper, Cyndi Lauper, Alan Cummings, Lance Bass and Belinda Carlisle.
Image source: Free Gay India
Oprah Winfrey really can change your life
Finally, I ask him about what is probably his watershed moment: his appearance on Oprah. He’s quick to correct me that he’s actually been on her show thrice. “I’ll be honest,” he says, “I don’t watch TV and I don’t read the newspapers. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even know who Oprah was. So when I got an email from her team, asking if I’d like to be interviewed on TV, I thought it was some sort of prank and deleted it. A few days later, I got a phone call at 2 am and the caller asked if she could speak to the ‘secretary of his highness.’ I replied saying, ‘Well, it’s 2 am so I’m afraid he’s asleep, but this is the prince, you can leave a message with me and I’ll make sure he gets it.’ The caller was so flummoxed she apologised a half-dozen times and promised to call me back at a decent hour. Eventually, I went to Chicago and Oprah interviewed me. That’s really when I became famous overnight. I remember, she got one of her assistants to show me around Chicago and people kept coming up to me to ask for photographs and autographs. Even the TSA agent at the airport recognised me on my way out of Chicago and said, ‘Oh, your highness, you don’t need to take off your shoes, don’t worry!’ So I suppose being a prince has its perks.”
So what’s next for the prince? Gohil plans to continue his fight against inequality and prejudice through his three foundations, Lakshya, Ekta and Free Gay India. He also hopes that he can celebrate Independence Day sometime soon.