In the year 2007, Oprah Winfrey introduced us all to the world’s first openly gay royal – Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, Gujarat. Since then, Gohil has been on the show twice. A prominent gay-rights activist, he is well-known for starting the Lakshya Trust, an NGO that works towards creating awareness about HIV/AIDS, especially among men who have sex with men.
Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with Gohil to discuss his work and his journey as one of the most famous LGBTQ people in the world.
As a prince, Gohil was expected to continue his family’s royal lineage. He recounts how difficult things were for him, when he first came out to his family in 2002. “They had disowned me and I was disinherited from the ancestral property. I was also blacklisted from getting invitations for public events.”
But the treatment meted out to him by his family and society didn’t discourage him. In 2006, he dared to talk openly about his sexual orientation, after which effigies of him were burnt in Rajpipla.
Despite the setbacks, Gohil chose to keep moving forward. “My journey as an activist is based on honesty, and the saying that ‘Truth always prevails’. I have always gained inspiration from Gandhiji,” he says.
In the year 2009, the prince was invited to the Sao Paulo Pride parade, where he spoke about safe sex and protection from HIV/AIDS. His work in promoting sexual health has also shown how it’s not just homosexual people who are at risk. Most gay men try to avoid social stigma against homosexuality by marrying women, something that Gohil had also done.
“This makes the wife an easy target of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. She is unaware of her husband having multiple male partners, and sex without protection leads to her susceptibility,” explains Gohil.
This is just one of the outcomes of living in a homophobic society, and he weighs in on the importance of having more open attitudes.
Last year, the prince marched with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, leading the Pride march in Los Angeles. While there, he noticed a major cultural difference between American and Indian society. “In USA, children leave their parents as young as 18 and live a financially and socially independent life, whereas in India we believe in living with our parents,” he elaborates.
Comparing levels of awareness in India with USA, Gohil recognises education as the key differentiator. “Most Indians are illiterate, and even if they are educated they are not aware of the facts. This leads to lot of misunderstandings about homosexuality.”
However, he perceives a change in the Indian society since 2006, when his sexual orientation became public knowledge.
Gohil started his awareness campaign with sheer courage, and he believes that people are more accepting of him. “I am getting better respect than when I was in the closet. Most of the royal family members are proud that I am the only royal who has been interviewed by Oprah, not just once but thrice.”
The prince is of the opinion that LGBTQ celebrities coming out in the open and talking about their sexual orientation is the right way forward. He explains, “The media will widely report them as they did in my case and they can use their status and reputation to influence the society’s mindset for better acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ issues.”
In India, prominent names and faces in the media would greatly help portray same sex relationships in a better light.
It is indeed ironic that, in India, giving hostile looks to strangers or staring at women is not frowned upon, but attraction between people of the same sex is stereotyped and stigmatised. Manvendra Gohil further points out the irony, “We live in a homosocial society where it is common for two males or females to hold hands and hug each other in public without fear of judgement. Same-sex roommates can easily rent a room but for renting a place with the opposite sex it is a challenge.”
A common notion about LGBTQ people is that they have some “problem” or are “abnormal’. Research demonstrates that this isn’t true. And it is high time that society stops ostracising people on the basis of their sexuality or gender.
On February 20, 2017, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare took a significant step towards this by launching an app called Saathiya (literally, “companion”). It provides information to adolescents on questions related to their changing bodies, including, among many things, attraction to the same sex. A decade after his Oprah debut, the society in Gohil’s home country is closer accepting queer Indians.
But for major change to happen, it’s Indian families that have to change. And the prince had this advice to give: “People close to the individual should love their friends and children the way they are. If one is gay, one is born gay in the same manner that one is born straight.”