Growing up, India's Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla knew there was something different about him. It wasn't something he could share with his parents; in fact, says the prince, royal children aren't usually that close to their biological parents. Servants, not parents, generally raise royal kids, so much so that even he thought his nanny was his mother for many years. When Manvendra was 12 or 13, one of those servants, a orphan boy his same age, helped Manvendra explore his difference, his homosexuality, though it would be more than two decades before he came out publicly. When he did, his father disowned and disinherited him, his countrymen burned effigies of him, and many demanded that he be stripped of his royal title.
What a difference six years make. Today Prince Manvendra, now 47 and one of the three stars of TLC’s new series Undercover Princes, which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central), is an advocate for both gay and HIV causes in his homeland and abroad. In the new four-part series — think Coming to America meets a classier Jersey Shore — three men of royalty go undercover in England as commoners to find true love.
Regarding tonight’s episode, TLC publicists boast that Prince Manvendra contemplates the opposite sex, although we doubt he's “going bi” as they posit in the press release. Prince Manvendra's unconsummated 1991 marriage to Princess Yuvrani Chandrika Kumari from Jhabua ended when the prince revealed his sexuality to her. Either way, we're tuning in. The Advocate chatted with the prince about what it means to be the only known person of royal lineage to have publicly come out as gay.
The Advocate: So tell me, why did you decide to do Undercover Princes?
Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil: I think one of the reasons was that the whole show involved me being undercover, which would give me an opportunity to do all those things a modern commoner is supposed to do. So that is one of the reasons I thought it would be a challenge for me because I would be able to do all those things which I can’t do ... in India.
When people thought you were a house cleaner, how differently were you treated?
It was a very challenging thing for me because I was supposed to do things which I don’t do normally back in India. I mean something like clean the house or, you know, doing up the room or cleaning up the toilets, the washrooms — what they expected on the show. I had to keep telling myself again and again that I am undercover and not supposed to reveal my true identity. So that was a learning experience for me itself.
It sounds like you’re more closely guarded while you were in India than while you were filming the show in Bristol.
Was that liberating or frightening?
No, it was not frightening. It was liberating.
You came out as gay in 2006 but you actually knew much sooner than that right?
When did you first know you were gay?
I was different than others when I was quite young, as a teenager. But I didn’t know that the attraction to the same sex was homosexuality. I mean, I didn’t know the definition of that. You know? As I was growing up, you can say when I was around 12 or 13, I was getting this attraction to the same sex. I probably [thought it was] something temporary in my life or some kind of [rite of passage] when I was I growing up. I didn’t know back then that this kind of attraction means being homosexual or means being gay.
That awareness came as you got older.
That understanding came much later, because being brought up in a royal family you’re not exposed to a lot of terms of this kind. Homosexuality is a taboo in our country. It’s not spoken of much. There is always stigma and discrimination attached with that. Because of that, there is no discussion happening on this topic in our country. I think I would be around the age of 28 when I realized I’m gay. I mean, understanding that this kind of behavior means “being gay.”
You were disowned and disinherited when you came out publicly. Has your family’s attitude changed since that day?
Yeah. I was attached to a cause right from the beginning. I was very much concerned about the lack of awareness in the Indian society about homosexuality and about HIV/AIDS because I’ve been working for HIV/AIDS [causes] since 1995, especially among the gay community, and I was not satisfied by the way people are in their approach to homosexuality or their approach to HIV/AIDS. So I said, “It doesn’t matter if I have to sacrifice something in my life, but I want to stand up and fight against this kind of discrimination in our country. And I must make people realize that we are also human beings, that we should also get respect without being discriminated against.” And that was the main reason I came out of the closet and declared myself.
How much impact can a gay member of royalty actually have in India?
In India, I’m still respected because, especially those royal families where the ruler has done something for the people or for the welfare of the state — and fortunately my ancestors have done a lot for the welfare and social upliftment of the people — so we are being respected by the society, we are treated like gods. People actually worship my sisters, their statues. So there is a lot of respect from the society, so it definitely makes us different because they treat us as their role models. And I’ve also started in working for the people in the a similar manner as my sisters. I started working for ... the social cause for the people, much before I came out, in the fields of education, health, agriculture, giving employment opportunities, tourism. I was quite popular amongst the people of my town, so because of this, when I came out it had a big impact. When you rule, when you are popular and you come out openly and talk about your sexuality, it carries a lot of weight.
It was really shocking though to some people. Some of your countrymen were burning effigies of you.
Calling for your title to be removed.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
What was that like?
People were a bit confused. [I planned] my first interview carefully. I said, “I may be the first member of the royal family to come out as gay, but I’m not the only one.” Which means that there are a lot of royal families, and royals in India who are gay. But they are closeted. You know? I know a lot of royal families in India who are gay or lesbian and they also know ... that I know about them. So when I came out openly and declared myself they were kind of a bit worried that I might out them also. They are the ones who instigated the people against me
That’s disheartening. So they thought by coming out, you might also out them, to further the cause.
Yeah. They wanted to break my popularity, so that’s the reason they instigated the people against me. When all that happened I ... stated, Whatever the people have done, I don’t blame them. I blame their ignorance. And I’m sure when they know about homosexuality and they have an understanding what homosexuality is, the same people will again come back to normal. Because this was just the first reaction, since people don’t know what homosexuality is. They have a lot of misconceptions about homosexuality, so that’s the reason they acted in this manner. It’s very natural. I expected there should be some reaction.
Yeah, a lot has changed. In fact, one thing I’ve always believed in is [my countrymen]. And whatever what I do, whether it is for fighting for my gay rights or fighting for HIV/AIDS or for any matter, I always try to include rather than exclude. I’ve always included society at large in whatever activities I do, and I’ve been appreciated by the society for the work I do. Because they know whatever I am doing for the society at large is to help everyone. I’m not doing anything to harm anyone by whatever I do. People have realized that my fight for HIV or my fight for giving the legal rights to gays in India is something which is based on equality, is based on truthfulness.
Let me give you an example. You might have heard about our national leader Mahatma Gandhi, who is considered the father of our nation and who helped us get India independent. I am a great follower of Gandhi and I follow his philosophy of life, and one of his philosophies is that truth always prevails. No matter what, whatever you do, if you are true and honest to yourself, then you will always win. And I have gotten hold of that principle of my life and on that I am fighting for my rights. I’m sure people realize that when you are honest — I mean, I got comments from people coming in from my own town where people have said that they aren’t concerned whether I’m gay or straight, but the fact that I told the truth to the world is what matters the most to them.
That’s nice reassurance.
Yeah. People support honesty. They know I’m not doing anything wrong by being gay.
When you came out, homosexuality was still criminalized in India.
Yeah, homosexuality was a crime in India, the homosexual act was a crime in India, but in 2009 we managed to decriminalize it. Our high court decided this in our favor; we were fighting the government of India to decriminalize the homosexual act and it was a very historic judgment and it was the best-argued case in the history if India and we won the case.
Like a lot of gay men in India, you actually married a woman when you were younger. How often do you think that happens to gay men in India, that they try to live a straight life and get married?
We have said that 85% of men, homosexual men, get married to women. So they are living a double-standard life — most of the gay men in India are pressured to get married because they live with the family; they have joint family business, so they are attached with the family. They are actually mostly blackmailed by the parents to get married. So they can’t say no to marriage. [Only men who are] financially independent or they are confident enough to say no — and that is also very difficult — can refuse marriage. Most of them get thrown out of the families or they are disowned or not given their share of the property if they say no to the marriage. Because in India marriage is something that is considered to be an institution, and it is it is compulsory for everyone.
That has a lot of risks with it as well.
Due to this reason a lot of our men are getting married and become very vulnerable to getting infected [with HIV], because the women don’t know that the men are gay. They continue to have the gay lifestyle and some of them have unsafe sex with their partner and then they are not able to use condoms with their wives and they infect the wives also. It’s a very tricky situation in India.
One of the reasons you wanted to do Undercover Princes was to find someone who loves you for who you are, not just for your money, your title. Did that happen to you?
I did find somebody on the show but it, I mean, I’ll say this show was more of a challenge than anything else. I had my own share of fun by doing this show. But whether I found love or I did not find love, that is for the people to see when this episode is being aired on the television. I I do not; I would not like to comment on that. But I did realize one thing being undercover, how easy or how difficult it is to find love then being a prince.
Because you found that it was much harder as a prince?
Yeah, it is much harder to find love as a prince because everyone knows your status. Everyone knows the ... the economic situation of the person. So it’s difficult to find a genuine love in that case.
Have you ever been in love?
No, I’ve never been in love.
What was the main thing you learned from doing this show?
Yeah, there are two aspects of the show. One is to create awareness of homosexuality, since ... there are still a lot of people who have misconceptions about homosexuality, not just in India but even in other parts of the world. I wanted people to be aware of us, and that is the only way I, we, can get our rights. So awareness is our way to get our gay rights around the world. And also, since I am fighting for the HIV/AIDS so I could bring out that part also. My organization is still fighting for HIV prevention in India, which was highlighted in the show. I wanted to bring about awareness about homosexuality and also awareness about HIV.
And on a more personal level ...
And personally, of course, this show was fun for me to be challenged by at the same time experience the life of a commoner. It was something which I always wanted to do, which I could not do it in India. So the show was a combination of all of these things I would say.
You will become the 29th Maharaja of Rajpipla when your father dies. Has that changed at all since your coming out? Did you get stripped of any title?
Well, I mean, my parents, they gave public notices that they were going to disinherit all that and me. But my father has actually apologized on the media, that he was instigated by [others] to do this action and he would not have liked to do this at all because he has mentioned in his interview that I have always been a gifted individual, I’ve been independent, and I — he mentioned about my work with social work, which I am doing for the society. So the notices were actually illegal and invalid, so there was no question on stripping my title or disbarring me from inheriting my ancestor’s wealth.
That’s wonderful they came around now. What message would you have for other LGBT youth out there?
The first thing is that I would like to tell the youth that one should accept one’s sexuality, whether you are gays, bisexuals, straight, whatever. Acceptance is the first and foremost thing, and be proud of it, rather than feeling guilty about one’s sexuality. That is something that one can do. Then one will have self-esteem and confidence and we will be able to fight back [against our opponents]. That is one of the things, and another thing I would like to tell the youth is to be aware of your rights, to be aware of one’s rights. That can helps us to make us a strong human being. And fight for our rights.