Manvendra Singh Gohil is a global LGBTQI activist and the first openly gay Prince in the world who runs multiple charities to help sexual minorities in India find their voices.
In the year 2000, he opened the Lakshya Trust, a community-based organization that helps promote safe sex between men by offering counseling, treatment of HIV/AIDS, and libraries for education. The trust provides employment opportunities to young gay men, who are shunned by society for their sexual orientation. Gohil is also the governing member of Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (representing Lakshya Trust) India Network for Sexual Minorities and the founding member of Sexual Health Action Network.
In 2008, he inaugurated the Euro Pride Fest in Stockholm and, in 2009, featured in the BBC series Undercover Princes and has served as the editor of Fun Magazine. Team Storiyaan had the astounding opportunity to talk with the probable Prince of Rajpipla about his works and contribution in making the society an acceptable sphere.
Questions and answers
You must have been very young when the Government of India derecognized the title of princes in 1971. What impact did it have on your family and you, personally?
We never made a fuss as we had enough. My great grandfather left us with a lot of wealth in thr treasury to help form the new government. I think the British felt challenged by the royal families gaining power. At that time, Maharani Gayatri Devi broke the Guinness World Record in securing the highest number of seats in elections. As she had challenged the government, they thought it would be an excellent way to regain power by stripping the privileges people had bestowed upon us. The maintenance of the monuments and forts were affected. Many monuments fell apart as the deposits from the privy pass used to maintain these historic structures were seized. We are erasing India’s history eventually. I am a heritage conservationist, and I work towards preserving old buildings and monuments. But there is very little to do when the government isn’t bothered. They withdrew our title and power privileges. That was never an issue, but the least they could do was provide an allowance. Alternatively, they could have granted us a position in the government to earn sufficient income. That income could have been useful for maintaining these heirlooms. It acts as a breach of contract when you promise something and don’t fulfill it.
Does the 'Royal' title help you in engaging with the work you do for society?
It does. I caught the media’s attention as my dynasty’s reputation came in the picture. If I were a commoner, no one would have bothered to cover my news. Why would Opera Winfrey invite me for a chat? Hence, my title has undeniable leverage, which I used towards a cause that could benefit a large community. There are other gay royals in India, but they choose not to come out of the closet. I could have led a comfortable closeted life enjoying the luxuries of the palace, but I had to make a change instead. What others do doesn’t matter as much.
How would you compare the Indian LGBT in comparison to other countries in the world?
I have traveled extensively to all the countries of the world, barring one or two. I have even gone to places where liberalization of the sexual minority has pioneered. I had been to Stockholm to inaugurate the Europe Pride in 2008 where the political scenario has sexual diversity, which was impressive. But these countries indeed display more homophobic behavior than India. Just the night before Europe Pride, some clashes and protests broke just outside the Pride Park. We had to call the security to escort me.
I am an active participant in Pride marches across India and I can assure you that we are more supportive than others. There was one incident in the capital where the Pride March held was called off due to threats. In my opinion, we’re statistically ahead. Homophobia is a plague with no cure. But India is a safer country when it comes to issues like this as we don’t believe in violence. There is a list of countries who still hold the audacity to be the most homophobic compared to India.
In LA and San Francisco, there were religious groups chanting slogans against us. Where do you find that in India? The grass is not greener on the American frontier. Take the Orlando shooting in America, where the guy pulled the trigger on an entire gay bar. I feel liberalization has nothing to do with homophobia.
The Supreme Court amended Section 377 and decriminalized homosexuality on 6th September 2018. This move was an incredible win for the LGBTQ community in India. What other amendments do you wish to see in the constitution that will prove beneficial to the community?
This law was going against the constitution. Ensuring equal rights is the role of one of the best-drafted structures in the world, I would say. For a long time, these laws denied equality, privacy, dignity, respect, and the right to fight against discrimination.
We have these rights under the amendment of Section 377. Fortunately, now no law goes against the LGBT community. It was a law drafted during the time India was colonized by the British. We are not in a position to make laws based on Indian culture. But is India still colonized by the British that we need rules on Victorian moralities? It is not about LGBT but our righteousness. There is no law in India which talks against LGBT.
On the contrary, Section 377 is against the idea of homosexuality and heterosexuality as sex was limited to the procreation of life. The government doesn’t decide what you do behind the closed walls. The necessity to change the law was not only for the LGBT population but also for the entire country. We fought on behalf of the country because of our fundamental rights. Nobody denied heterosexuals their rights. We had to knock the doors of the government. It was a landmark hearing as the Supreme Court judge said that the country owes an apology to the community for the injustice it had endured.
Do you think the LGBTQ community is getting proper representation in Indian and International pop-culture? Which web series or film stands out in this respect?
As a child, I watched films that made us the subject of ridicule or mockery. As a result, I had that kind of perception in public. Recently, the big screen showcased some prominent issues through renowned actors. When people watch their role models or icons talking about some point, it makes a difference. In the show ‘Evening Shadow’ produced by Sridhar Rangayan, he talks about the life of a gay boy who comes out to his parents and the struggles he has to face coming out. It has a stellar cast and Shubha Mudgal has rendered her voice for the sound track of the film. Whenever I get the opportunity to interact with the people in the industry, I tell them about the LGBTQIA scene.
You started Lakshya Trust, a non-profit organization that helps prevent HIV/AIDS among gay men. If you reckon this being a gratifying experience, what is one memory that you will cherish forever?
I would like to share a memory that is very important to me. 2006 was the year when I came out publicly as a gay person. In the same year, on the first of December, which is World AIDS Day, Lakshya trust was nominated for the award by the UNA and I was invited to Delhi by the Director-General of NACO. It is the highest body of control with regard to HIV in India. Adhira presented me with this award on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for outstanding contribution in HIV AIDS prevention among the homosexual population in India.
It was a massive achievement for me in 2006 when the Delhi High Court judgment had not heard the statement on decriminalizing homosexuality. Before the Delhi High Court had been in favor, we got an award for working for the homeless population. That is one of the most significant achievements I can think of.
Having the government’s support, including some of the funding agencies’ biggest names, was a feat. Melinda Gates Foundation is a big name in today’s picture. I am very fortunate to have had such a dedicated team working for me. They have an energy that makes me proud to receive more awards and become the first organization in Gujarat to get such an honor.
You said in an interview that you understood why being gay isn't healthy, and people felt it was a disease. Do you believe that schools should teach the concept of representation and inclusivity for a better future?
Our schools barely touch the topic of LGBT. As a result, there is no question of teaching about LGBT issues and all. The students must be informed about all things sexual at the right age. We talk about many other trivial things, so why not include the sexual spectrum. We can start by talking about the sexual minority as we co-exist. The students need to know about the rights for which we fought.
Nowadays, a lot of students are actively interested, and they research about these issues. I get calls from institutions and students as they want to do research, prepare questionnaires, volunteer, and even intern for our organization. I get invited to colleges and universities frequently. I have also developed a certifying course that teaches about the LGBT community. We cover all the aspects of our modules. The students are the future, and we have the largest youth population too.
Can you explain to our readers the terms' Pansexual' and 'Asexual'?
The sexual terms have evolved, and there are various terms now. There is a word in India called ‘Koti.’ Many don’t even know the word gay exists. They will say I am not gay but Koti. Like the word queer also came into existence for people who don’t want to use the word gay or lesbian.
Homosexuals are attracted to the same sex. In the same manner, heterosexuality explains the attraction to the opposite sex.
There are other terms, such as bisexual and pansexual. Bisexuals are attracted to both sexes. Asexual is when you are not attracted to anyone sexually. Similarly, we have pansexual. Pansexuality covers the entire spectrum of people.
There is a term called Cisgender, which means people who identify with their sexes. If you feel uncomfortable with the body in which you are born, the word ‘transgender’ defines you. Sexuality is very open and vague, and yet many people do not know about it. I come across a new term every day. Very recently, I came to know about trans-lesbianism, where you transform yourself into a woman and are still very much attracted to women.
You appeared as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show thrice. How did you react when her team approached you for the first time?
It was an excellent opportunity. I knew that my issue needed an international address, and her voice had an enormous impact.
Parents aren't generally accepting of their children coming out of the closet due to the fear of other's perceptions of their family. What is the advice you would want to give them?
Indian parents should specifically regulate the attachment they have with their offspring. They choose not to let them on their own and dominate them till their last breath.
Since awareness of LGBTQ+ is growing, things are changing now. At some point, parents should follow a certain degree of detachment. Otherwise, the child loses touch to the ground reality. Many-a-times, children lose opportunities because of their parents. The Bhagawad Geeta mentions that detachment should be practiced somewhere down the line. Modern-day children are more aware and practical and have many more skills which people didn’t have back then.
Can you please talk about the importance of safe sex, especially in the LGBTQ+ community?
I have been working on sexual health issues for a long time as homosexuals are very vulnerable. Most of us are into multiple partner sex, and, secondly, a lot of us don’t practice the use of condoms. Many use it during anal sex
and not during oral sex.
I am a brand ambassador of an American organization called the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We are the first organization to start a free condom store in India. We want people to use condoms so they can protect themselves. Indians aren’t regular with medicines and drugs as we stop doing it after the disease gets over; people don’t take HIV medicines regularly too. Indians are particular about hygiene, especially oral health. We aren’t serious about taking drugs, so we have realized condom is the only way to protect these people.
You once said in an interview, that homosexuality is visible to the naked eye, people just hate to admit it and instead live in hypocrisy. Could you elaborate on that statement?
I’ve often made the statement because there is so much homophobia in our country. There is hypocrisy, but people forget that our culture was very rich in homosexuality and other LGBTQ+.
India was a very sexual country; you will see that people didn’t wear proper clothes back then. If you examine ancient paintings, you’ll notice men and women didn’t cover themselves adequately. They weren’t shy to expose. Because of the interference of other religions, we started covering our bodies. We have the world’s oldest sex encyclopedia called Kamasutra. It is more famous outside of India than India as it speaks about LGBTQ+ present in it. There is another misconception that other countries influence India for homosexuality, to which I will say that it is the vice versa. Vatsyayana wrote Kamasutra hundreds of years before Christianity was born. We have evidence in temples as well. If you go to Khajuraho today, you can see a section of homo-erotic statues. Since it was banned, our transgender friends had to force their way into those places to get photographs. There are so many temples in India, not just Khajuraho, so where is the western influence? I don’t understand.
You went to the São Paulo gay pride parade, one of the biggest parties as one of the main speakers, and you might have also met people of different nationalities. What did you learn about their culture?
Meeting different people makes you learn more in life. I was invited to Iowa to speak on Bullying of LGBTQ+. They asked me whether I wanted to meet the governor of Iowa as he was homophobic. I was okay with meeting him because I see everyone as a human being. His secretary asked me to talk for ten minutes only since the governor knew I’m gay and not feel offended. I spoke to him for more than twenty minutes. After I took notice of the time and proceeded to leave, he said, “No, your highness you cannot, go without a photograph.” We clicked a picture with the Indian flag in the background. When I left the room, the secretary asked me if I was a magician. I said I was simply a human rights activist and spoke the truth. Later, she disclosed that the governor never talked to anyone like so.
When I talk to people, I listen to them. I learn from them. I’ll quote Randy Berry- “Look, I know you’re fighting, but what you need to do is to talk the language of the government, to make them believe why favoring you is a good option.” All governments want a strong economy. Hence, I started talking about how LGBTQ+ can strengthen the economy and all those things, and that helped a lot because they realized my point.
On the popular show 'Keeping up with the Kardashians,' you connected with Kendall Jenner. How do you describe your friendship with her?
I did the show for two reasons, one being its popularity amongst the youth. The other purpose was that their father, Bruce Jenner, transitioned into Catelyn Jenner and became known as a She. They wanted me on the show because of Chris Jenner as my story is quite similar to her’s. Since I was married to a woman once and had to move on, I could connect to her state. She told me about Bruce and how he wasn’t comfortable with his body. I spoke about my life too. By the end of the session, she felt pleased with herself, and I was happy to make a difference. In 2018, the judgment of the Supreme Court came out, which caused a more significant difference. I believe the youth will accept us now. The mindset of some of my homophobic cousins also changed after I went to that show.
It seems that you have a great sense of instilling humor. You introduce yourself as the 'Prince, who is a Queen.' What is the story behind this?
The word ‘queen’ is used widely in western culture. We have drag queens. An incident followed in Iowa, where one of the students came up and asked if I’m the first openly gay Prince. As a joke, I answered- “I don’t know whether I’ll be a king or a queen, you know.” That came out spontaneously through my answers, as my humor is very natural. I never prepare for my speeches or shows. Bringing up fun lightens up the subject. I even explained it to one of the producers of ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ that I am good at extempore when she asked me to prepare for the questions.
A favorite corner of your Palace – My bathroom
One word for fake Allies– Hypocrites
Favorite Gujarati Dish– Shreekhand
One word for your Cats– Meow! (Smirks)
Ideal travel destination– Rajpipla