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10 years after coming out, India's only openly gay royal Prince Manvendra reflects

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:36 IST

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is the heir apparent to the Gohil royal family of Rajpipla, Gujarat. He is also the only royal in India to have come out as gay.

Ten years since coming out in 2006, Prince Manvendra is now a prominent voice for LGBT rights internationally. The Indian ambassador to nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation, his days are now spent travelling around the country to spread awareness about HIV.

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At one such event, Catch approached the royal. Preoccupied, he told us we could find him as long as we looked for a green topi. And with that, he smiled, tipped his green topi, and gave us his contact.

His happy disposition though, he confesses, wouldn't have been a reality had he chosen to stay caged in the life he was expected to lead. "Had I lived as a heterosexual, I would have led an unhappy double life," Manvendra shares.

Here are some edited excerpts from the interview:

'How could anyone be royal and talk about homosexuality? As royals, we keep our recipes also private!'

DS: It took you some time to be accepted. Where, do you think, does the shock value lie for most - that you're an Indian prince who came out as gay or that you came out and managed to become an influencer?

MG: See, I think it's a lot of things. This subject has never been discussed in our society that openly. When I came out this was the first time vernacular media had spoken about the issue. Even if they did talk about it, it was usually all negative, [with words like] 'abnormal, unnatural' and all that.

The fact that the news broke in a vernacular paper in a positive manner, that itself was a very shocking thing. Secondly, as you and I know, homosexuality can exist anywhere. It can be in poor families, rich families, royal families...

The other thing, of course, was [the outrage over] how anyone could be royal and talk about homosexuality. As royals, we keep our recipes also private! (laughs) So then, how on earth could anyone talk about homosexuality?

So yes, it came as a very big shock. Especially to the 500 odd (royal) families, their allies, friends, associates that are here in India. After all, [homosexuality] was existing in the society but hypocrisy wasn't allowing them to talk about it.

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil attends LA PRIDE Music Festival and Parade 2016 on June 12, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/WireImage)

DS: An Indian prince epitomises masculinity and is instantly associated with patriarchy. Has your publicly being out for a decade helped change that notion in these royal circles you inhabit?

MG: In the royal circles, initially, there was definitely a revolt. Because truth is something nobody wants to accept. Even the fact that [there have been] gay and lesbian members in my own family, it is only discussed within the family and doesn't come out of, as we called it, the closet.

There was resistance because people got scared thinking, 'Oh, this guy has openly come out and he's so shameless, who knows he might out one of us'. They were waiting and watching, nobody was coming out and saying anything.

Gradually, my interviews in the media came out positive. Star News did my breaking story and that was extremely positive. And then the news spread to foreign countries, [resulting in] Oprah inviting me. That was the game changer.

Now my cousins are feeling proud. 'Oh we have a relative who has reached Oprah!' (laughs)

DS: That was quick!

MG: Yeah! And not once, but three times. So now when I go to weddings and all, they talk about it. That sense of pride in what I have achieved shows.

DS: Speaking of your family, I have a personal question.

A large part of the Indian LGBT reality is unhappy marriages. You survived one for 15 months yourself. Is that what pushed you to come out, despite the spotlight?

MG: Yeah, in India 80% of marriages that happen for the LGBT community are forced. In my case there was no such pressure, I thought I could maybe lead a heterosexual life like others. There was an ignorance on my part about my sexuality... My wife's last words to me before she left me were, 'Don't spoil anyone else's life.'

That kind of was the motivation for me to explore my sexuality. [I realised] there was nothing wrong with her, or me. Just that she was attracted to men, and so was I.

DS: Are you in touch with your ex-wife?

MG: No, I didn't try to [reach out]. After all, it's her personal life. She got married soon after our divorce, and since all our royal families are connected, I've heard that she's settled down in life. She has grown children and is living the normal heterosexual life.

Even though the initial part of her life was bad... because of me, now she's living a good life. So I feel happy about that.

DS: While your case is fairly unique, do you think it's important to come out for everyone?

MG: It depends on the individual and it is an extremely personal choice. And I always tell my friends who come to me for advice about coming out, 'First make yourself financially independent. And you have to try and be detached from your family.'

Because if one remains attached to the family, their emotions, and be dependent on them, then it would be very difficult to come out openly. Especially in India where we are all used to living in the joint family system.

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DS: True. However, you yourself have said that your family, your people who rejected you, disinherited you, chose to eventually accept you. It must not have been very easy?

MG: Yeah, see, as far my family is concerned, they already knew I was gay. But they didn't expect that I would come out and talk about it openly in the media.

Whenever I talk about coming out, I always say there are two types. One is you coming out to your near and dear ones, and [the other is] your near and dear ones coming out to the society.

The second aspect is much tougher than the first. Even though your parents might accept you, the society doesn't. Especially when one comes from a family of reputation, culture, heritage... It became very difficult for my family to make the society understand that they knew I was gay.

My father, after the disinheriting and disowning, on his own [accord] gave an interview, for which the headline read, 'I Acted in Anger'. He mentions that it's the conservative purdahnashin society that instigated him to disown me.

DS: With Lakshya Trust and your association with other welfare programmes, do you think your responsibilities conflict with your name and position? Is there a royal burden?

MG: It has been a challenge. I'm trying to balance myself between both these lifestyles.

Both [royal and personal life] are important to me. Wherever I think priority needs to be given, I tend to do that.

I'll give you a small example. We celebrate the birth anniversary of my great-grandfather, who was a popular ruler in India, every year in Rajpipla. About 2-3 years back, this coincided with the Mumbai Pride. So I had to choose and I decided to forego the Mumbai Pride.

I gave them support, interviews, I wasn't physically present but mentally there. But I decided to stay and perform my duties at Rajpipla as heir apparent.

'HIV awareness in India is the same as homosexuality.'

DS: So, do you feel lucky?

MG: Ah well, my aim is to change the whole country...

If I can change the mindset of even a fraction of people though, it is hard work done.

DS: Speaking of hard work, as brand ambassador of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHS) what do you think has been your largest contribution towards HIV awareness?

MG: HIV awareness in India is the same as homosexuality.

DS: Completely misinformed?

MG: Yes. Our education system has to be blamed entirely for that. Now I'm trying to convince universities, talking to the Ministry of Education to work with educational institutions. They have been inviting me to talk on these subjects, because though it is not there in our education curriculum as yet, but the students of our country are the future.

Be it doctors, lawyers, media, judges, politicians... it's very important that, first, we increase the literacy rate in our country. And also, give them education with practical knowledge, not just theoretical.

'Even countries like Nigeria and South Africa don't follow the 20 year old method we do.'

HIV, unfortunately, has not been introduced and that's the reason there's so much of stigma and discrimination, with testing, treatment, those who HIV positive, etc. My role as an ambassador for AHF is to try and improve the testing facilities in the country.

AHF is working for 38 countries in the whole world out of which I'm the Indian ambassador. India is the only country out of these 38 which is still following a 20 year old method, [where] after two days you get to know if the person is [HIV] positive or negative.

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DS: And we're still against self-testing?

MG: Yeah, exactly! AHF has a rapid testing method where, within 15-20 minutes, you get to know the results. Now who is going to wait for two days and come back [for results]?

We are trying to convince the government to adhere to this latest technology, especially if India wants to move ahead. Even countries like Nigeria and South Africa don't follow the 20 year old method we do.

And given that India is the third highest in infection...

DS: And these are just the reported numbers.

MG: Yeah, we may not get gold medal in Olympics but I'm sure we'll get gold in HIV.

First published: 21 December 2016, 2:49 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.