When Oprah first got in touch with Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil in 2007 to grace her couch, he dismissed her email, unsure of who she was. Who doesn’t know Oprah? Gohil admits he’s not much of a pop culture enthusiast and wasn’t technologically savvy back then. It was only upon receiving a call on his landline—from the woman the Internet hopes will be America’s next president—that he agreed to appear on her show; a groundbreaking moment and milestone for him, he confesses. Today, she’s a great connection to have.
When we meet for this interview, I see Gohil stepping out of an Uber and into the Starbucks I’m waiting at in suburban Mumbai. He’s wearing an airy kurta and pyjama, collapsible Nike sneakers and a backpack slung across one shoulder. No big deal. It’s an especially muggy March afternoon and he could easily pass off as one of the many freelancers or regular folk populating the coffee shop. What stands out is the rich vermilion applied with perfect precision on his forehead and the eye-catching magenta topi akin to something Childish Gambino would don on stage. Unlike us commoners present here, Gohil is a prince from the Kingdom of Rajpipla in Gujarat, not far from where India’s current prime minister Narendra Modi was born.
Gohil tells me that the vermilion mark—the tilak—is a tradition passed down from his ancestors who would sacrifice an animal before the Hindu goddess Devi and apply its blood on their forehead as a symbol of good luck before going to war. Luckily, prior to the interview, no animals were harmed, but the tilak still embodies its original meaning—as a third eye—in a battle Gohil’s been fighting for the past 12 years: as India’s first and only openly gay prince and poster man for LGBTQ rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
Being a prince in modern-day India is a cool job title to have, but the value is often compromised in the public eye ever since in 1948 the law did away with monarchical rule in favour of democracy. That explains why Gohil can use public transport and nonchalantly wander into a crowded space without getting mobbed. “Now when you think of royalty, it’s nothing like the olden days. But even though we don’t have the privileges and titles, we still have ceremonial powers,” Gohil reminds me. That and they retained their enormous palace grounds worthy of a mention every time Buzzfeed does a listicle of places to visit before you die. “In our geographical areas, we still have to follow certain cultural traditions and religious rituals which can only be performed by the royal family. Even when the prime minister came and he wanted to visit a temple in Rajpipla, he had to take permission from us in order to enter it. It’s a tradition that’s been carried down for 600 years,” he says. “That’s what separates us from commoners.”
Soon after news of his homosexuality broke in the vernacular Indian newspaper Dainik Bhaskar in 2006, fundamentalists across the country burnt effigies of him and placed a bounty on his head. His family succumbed to the social pressures and eventually disowned him. “In royal families, there are no values,” Gohil adds. “You don’t have the kind of love and affection normal families have. They are supposed to produce children who are then taken care of by governesses.”
Coming out tends to be a tempestuous, life-changing experience for most members of the LGBTQ community. But for Gohil, it was a calamity of epic proportions. Soon after news of his homosexuality broke in the vernacular Indian newspaper Dainik Bhaskar in 2006, fundamentalists across the country burnt effigies of him and placed a bounty on his head. His family succumbed to the social pressures and eventually disowned him. “In royal families, there are no values,” Gohil adds. “You don’t have the kind of love and affection normal families have. They are supposed to produce children who are then taken care of by governesses. Communication is very formal. It was a boon to be born in a royal family because there was very little familial attachment.”
At the same time, he wasn’t languishing like a high-and-mighty royal fighting for his rightful inheritance in acquiring all the palatial land. Before his big coming-out he had already been a massive HIV advocate, since 1995. “There were a lot of organisations working towards HIV awareness in Gujarat. It was known to the government and very few people.”
He took his cause further by launching the Lakshya Trust in 2000, to better the lives of sexual minorities from a social, physical, spiritual and cultural perspective—an initiative that he is still wholly involved in. “I was financially and socially independent. That’s what I still tell my friends they need to do if they’re looking to come out. I’d already started living on my own and was making money through agriculture.”
Gohil reiterated the same story to Kris Jenner when he was invited to her home last year. When she asked what the biggest sacrifice was for Gohil in revealing his sexuality to the world, he said his life. “You can [always earn back your] money but you can’t get your life back. I could have been killed.”
Even with the threat of death, an ever-present dark cloud that follows him, it was obvious that a genuine crusader is needed to combat an archaic prejudice. And equally apparent that the person who was most convinced of that opinion was Gohil himself. From the outset, he was not prepared to be underestimated or overlooked—ready “to tie the noose around my neck for the cause”, he says. “There have been so many cases in royal families where people are gay or a lesbian and it was only discussed within the family but never publicly. For any social change to happen, you need to be vocal, [to be] able to talk about the subject.”
Currently Gohil's behind setting up a game-changing LGBTQ centre, Hanumanteshwar Amar 1927, that’ll be open to everyone including allies. “Other centres are very exclusive; I believe in inclusion,” Gohil explains. “Allies helped mainstream our issues.” Located inside one of Gohil’s palace grounds, which his great grandfather had established in 1920, the centre resides 15km from Rajpipla on the banks of the Narmada River, a retreat for foreign dignitaries who would come visit.
Gohil regained access to his ancestral property after renowned lawyer and Indian member of parliament Meenakshi Lekhi came on national television to say that it’s illegal to disown a rightful heir due to his sexual preference. Consequently, Gohil’s father Maharana Shri Raghubir Singhji Rajendrasinghji Sahib gave an interview in the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, The Times of India, admitting that disowning Gohil came from public coercion and the maharana of Rajpipla regrets the decision.“My father is supportive of what I do but it’s still very formal,” Gohil says. “We don’t talk much with each other unless it has to do with the business.”
As Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality sits with the Supreme Court for reconsideration this year after an unfavourable verdict in 2013, Gohil’s taking advantage of the Act of Privacy that was passed last year. Simply stated: the government can’t pry into your life behind closed doors.
Hanumanteshwar Amar 1927 is set to become a holistic hub for the LGBTQ community. English and technology education will be a prime focus. There’ll be a state-of-the-art medical centre for sexual health complemented by spiritual healing in the form of music, meditation and yoga. It almost sounds like an attractive holiday destination. Gohil stresses that the key demographic are sexual minorities from small-town India. “I want to empower them and give them a platform. To stand on their own feet and earn their own living.” But it’s not only limited to the locals; the centre has already hosted international visitors in some of the planned 20 to 25 rooms that are available for lodging.
“[A] transgender woman of Indian origin from New Jersey approached me; she didn’t feel secure staying in the US because of the Trump government and had faced a lot of abuse. Her mother came with her but her father was against her sex reassignment surgery. When he also wanted to come to the centre, I said he was welcome but didn’t want any conflict, especially if he’s homophobic. Once he saw that she’s living with a prince in a royal establishment, he became more accepting of her.”
"To enter a royal property is not permitted for commoners and here his daughter was living with us and enjoying the facilities.” Gohil reports that the father and daughter now share an amicable relationship.
It’s one of the many instances where Gohil has dipped his ironclad toes in the international LGBTQ spectrum. On Justin Trudeau’s recent India visit, Gohil spoke to him about supporting the Indo-Canadian sexual minorities and the liberal prime minister instantly put him in touch with the necessary authorities. “I get a lot of crisis calls from across the globe where people have been subjected to blackmailing, abuse, marriage pressures and I do a lot of counselling. That takes up most of my time.”
Whatever’s left is dedicated to his position as the Indian ambassador for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation—the world’s oldest and largest organisation for HIV testing and treatment. “I’m doing a lot of TED talks [and] the more I do them, the more I can help change [society’s mindset].” In addition to that, he does paid public appearances and all the proceeds go back in to developing the centre.
He draws up an analogy to the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, an Indian nationalist considered to be one of the most influential revolutionaries of the independence movement. His method of working, according to Gohil, is akin to Mahatma Gandhi’s modus operandi, that is to use honesty, transparency and non-violence to gain freedom. Only in Gohil’s case, it’s freedom from hypocrisy.
India is a melting pot of so many spectacular, ironic and bizarre bits. Kind of like oscillating from Wes Anderson’s colourful sense of disaffected whimsy to a Christopher Nolan sci-fi behemoth—both consumed with equal delight and curiosity by a diverse audience. On one hand there exists a laundry list of traditions and norms; on the other, a modern new age society bustling with a younger and open generation to whom the value system is antiquated and tired. We view and participate in dialogues of provocation and consume salacious narratives with glee; so long as it’s never coming out of your own backyard. Because, what will society think? “India invented the Kamasutra… so why do we still feel shy to talk about sex and sexuality? Our culture was traditionally very sexually open,” Gohil says with a hint of frustration in his voice. “More than that, India is a country where homosocial behaviour is in fact accepted. Two guys can easily rent a room in a basic hotel but two unmarried people from the opposite sex struggle to get one.” It still remains one of the many unanswered questions of the perplexing Indian value system.
In the royal family, no one else has come out or spoken about sex so openly and it’s resulted in a lot of hatred and angst towards Gohil, especially from the conservative brain trust that makes up a large part of the country. He doesn’t seem to mind. He continues to play the double role of a royal and activist in the public sphere, leveraging his power as the descendant of a dynasty to influence and fight for LGBTQ rights on a national and global platform. When you see someone from a royal family, you’re presented with an image of an outmoded idea. What Gohil represents is the real and modern representation of what it means to be a royal today—a sovereign of the marginalised, a man of the people. All hail the prince.
This article was originally published in the May issue of Esquire Singapore.