The World's First Gay Prince on India's Colonial Hangover
BY Sunnivie Brydum
May 07 2014 7:00 AM ET
Mahatma Gandhi, a pivotal figure in India's successful fight for independence from British rule, used nonviolent methods effectively to push his society toward greater civil equality and freedom, knowing he had truth on his side. Although Gandhi's life ended more than a half-century ago, a crown prince in India is hoping to carry on that iconic mission, expanding Gandhi's vision to create a truly free and equal India — one that respects, recognizes, and protects LGBT citizens.
Until December of last year, India's LGBT population had enjoyed a four-year renaissance, says Manvendra Singh Gohil, Crown Prince of Rajpipla. That brief period of freedom began in 2009, when a Delhi High Court struck down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized same-sex sex acts.
"We enjoyed our freedom for four years, and now we are back to square one," says the prince, who made history when he became the first openly gay royal by coming out in 2006. "So I have seen both sides of it."
The other side to which Gohil refers was brought into sharp focus in December, when the Indian Supreme Court reversed that 2009 decision, reinstating the colonial-era law that prescribes 10-year prison terms for anyone engaging in "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman, or animal."
India's LGBT citizens were outraged and took to the streets demanding that the court reconsider its decision — which it recently announced it will do in the coming year. Gohil, 48, was among those protesting the decision.
"I was definitely involved in the protests," Gohil tells The Advocate. While acknowledging that the December ruling was a blow that shocked and upset LGBT Indians, the prince sees the silver lining that's emerged from the decision.
"We got more support from the heterosexual world when we lost than we got when we won the case," Gohil explains. "And that's very important for us, because that gives us an encouragement, and we realize that, yes, people are in our favor. … Because it's easy to support people who are winning. It's not easy to support people who lose."
As the world's only openly gay royal, Gohil is no stranger to being associated with the marginalized — a unique position for a prince who is due to inherit the throne of the former Kingdom of Rajpipla, now located in the Indian state of Gujarat. That awareness of repression, even from his privileged background, is another point where Gohil, a soft-spoken but passionate man, draws inspiration from Gandhi.
In 2006, when Gohil publicly announced that he is gay, section 377 was still in force, and his coming-out launched a media firestorm and conflict within the royal family that is, to this day, not fully reconciled. Gohil has since appeared twice on Oprah and was featured in TLC's 2012 miniseries Undercover Princes, on which he and two other royals pretended to be commoners in England in the hopes of finding true love.
"I think I wasn't liked by a lot of royal families in India, especially, because a lot of times, the royal secrets are not disclosed," explains Gohil. "And this was a secret — that you can be gay, even in the royal family. Which came out. And which made people wonder, or kind of [reconsider] the misconception which people have that if you are gay, you can only belong to a certain strata of society; the upper-class society cannot be gay. So it actually broke a myth."
Since he was out as gay before section 377 was repealed — and after it was reinstated — the prince says he is unafraid of the 10 years of jail time to which he could be sentenced to serve if he were in a relationship with another man. (At the moment, the prince notes that he is "single and ready to mingle, as you say.")
"According to me, I am not doing anything wrong by being openly gay," Gohil says. "So I don't have any fear in me, because I am working for the community and working for HIV and AIDS, and the government is supporting me for my foundation."
Indeed, the prince's Lakshya Trust, the 14-year-old nonprofit which he chairs that provides education, resources, and medical care to HIV-positive men and transgender women in India, receives the entirety of its funding from the Indian government. And that relationship isn't likely to sour anytime soon, as Gohil notes that the government granted his trust an increase of funds for the next fiscal year, which will allow the organization to access new facilities and programs that have thus far been unattainable.
But the irony of the government supporting an organization that specifically works with a population recently recriminalized is not lost on the prince.
"On the one hand, the government is penalizing us, and on the other hand, the same government is signing a contract with us," he explains. "So will it lead to abatement of crime? It's a question-mark."
Section 377 does not include a prohibition on the so-called promotion of homosexuality, as do antigay laws enacted in countries such as Uganda and Russia. However, that hasn't stopped Indian officials from targeting the prince's charitable trust — even beating and arresting staff members who were attempting to distribute condoms and information about HIV.
"Distribution of condoms is for encouraging safe-sex behavior," Gohil says emphatically. "It's not a crime! It's a favor we are doing to the society. And if the police can go to the extent of beating up our staff, sexually exploiting them, blackmailing them, even arresting them, taking to jail … then we all can understand that it is a complete misuse of the law."