When we first researched the idea for Out & Around: Stories of a Not-So-Straight Journey, we googled "gay around the world" and came up with a video clip of Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil speaking on Oprah in 2007 about gay life in India. We found Prince Manvendra's story so compelling that we built our entire project around trying to meet Supergays like him to inspire others. So we were thrilled when we had a chance to meet him while he vacationed in Udaipur, India.
Prince Manvendra is the 39th direct descendant in a 650-year-old dynasty. He grew up in a palace with 200 servants and the pressure of an arranged marriage. After a divorce and a hospitalization due to a nervous breakdown, he chose to speak publicly about his sexual orientation with the hope of changing how his fellow citizens in India viewed homosexuality. His honesty with the public led his parents to publicly disown him and accuse him of bringing great shame to the royal family.
Yet Prince Manvendra has thrived since coming out and reappeared on Oprah in 2011 to tell how his life has moved forward. He founded the Lakshya Trust, which supports sexual minorities in India, and he was a keynote speaker this winter for a symposium on gay tourism in India. In his state of Rajpipla, there is now a restaurant with out, HIV-positive employees, a Transgender Welfare Board, and plans for a retirement home for LGBT individuals (which Oprah promised to inaugurate next year).
Despite his stature in society, Prince Manvendra took the time to welcome us to his country. He noted the importance of "gay family" in his own life, and he invited Jenni and me to stay at his palace next time we travel to India. With such a royal invitation, we will be sure to return sometime soon!
Here is a little Q&A with the prince about his work, dating, adoption, television appearances, and royal life.
What is the day-to-day life like for a prince?
The day-to-day life is a bit different than that of a commoner. We have a lot of responsibility over our shoulder to look after the interests of the people and the town. Though India is a democratic country now, there are a lot of people who depend on us for the welfare and development of the town.
When I am not working in my LGBT and HIV projects, I like to organically farm, breed earthworms, and teach yoga. I also pass a lot of time learning music. I'm learning the harmonium, a classical Indian instrument, and I give stage performances.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I'm proud that I'm born in the royal family. I enjoy a lot of privileges and respect. I love doing my job, because today's politicians are not following their roles. Most of them are corrupt. The people in our town look up to us in times of crisis. I try to carry out the duties of my forefathers in the past.
What's it like looking back on your coming-out experience?
My main purpose coming out openly was that a) I wanted to break the myth that prevails in Indian society that homosexuality is a Western influence; b) that homosexuality only exists in the lower economic status; and c) to improve education about HIV to reduce the stigma. I didn't expect this matter to reach to Oprah; I expected it just to carry to national news. I created a big controversy in India, because nobody from the royal family had come out and spoken so openly about one's private life.
Who inspired you most to come out?
There were a lot of people who inspired me. The most important person is [fellow Supergay] Ashok Row Kavi, my godfather in the gay family. He brought me away from the feeling of guilt and exposed me to the gay world. Being from the royal family, I didn't have a chance to meet other gay men. I started working in Humsafar Trust and was trained as a counselor. Ashok introduced me to a lot of people working in HIV.
How has your life changed since coming out on Oprah?
Oprah's interview was the second turning point in my life. Her interview brought into limelight a lot of issues on homosexuality and HIV in India that [were] not known to the Western world. For example, one of the things that came out is that 85 percent of our gay men are married to women, most of them forcibly. Also, the world learned that homosexual acts were a crime in India [as of the 2007 interview]. This came out to the whole world, and people gave me a lot of affirmation. I then received invitations from world leaders in Sweden, Brazil, Australia, and France and began to travel more.
Last year you were on a BBC reality TV show called Undercover Princes, in which you lived a covert life as an ordinary person in England, holding down a job as a housekeeper and dating. What did you learn about yourself from that experience?
It was a challenge for me. It gave me an opportunity to have a commoner's life, which I would not be able to do in India. I also wanted to try to find true love, which I had failed to find in India.
[In the royal family] love doesn't come even within the family. There is a lot of formality existing between the children and the parents. We don't even call each other by names because we are so formal. We maintain a distance. When the natural love is not formed even between a parent and child, you can imagine how hard it is to find love in other areas, as well.
The TV show hasn't been aired in India as of yet. The relatives of mine who have seen the show wished that I had not shared some of the royal secrets, but others have said it is important that it is shared so that people don't think it is always so rosy.
So what's it like to date now in India?
There are a lot of gay dating sites in India. I use a site. The problem is that people don't believe it is actually me. Whenever they see my profile and photographs, they argue with me to take my profile down. They think I am a fake and ask me not to spoil the image of the prince they respect so much. I have a difficult time convincing them. They ask what I am doing on a website. And I say, "You forget. A prince is also a human being with the same emotions and desires. But if you don't believe me, then God bless you." But I am open to love.
Your mother publicly rejected you when you came out in 2006. What is your relationship like now?
It's the same. But one thing is for sure: she's realized that she can't make me straight. She's lost all hope about curing me. She also doesn't create any obstacles for me in my activism and HIV work. There are still a lot of misconceptions about how HIV is spread in my town. She had these ideas that I would get infected because I worked with HIV-positive people, but now she has learned the basics.
A journalist asked me once how I felt when my mother disowned me. I told him that I felt that she never owned me. She never gave me the love and affection that a mother should give a child. So I have no regrets.
You've publicly announced that you plan to adopt a child in the near future.
Adoption has been common in most royal families in India. The male is very important to carry on the family lineage. I made this announcement to answer the questions of the people in my town, who are looking forward to the next in line. I have not yet reached the stage where I have taken action, since my father still has the authority to make decisions. Once I take charge, then I will take over the decision about the adoption. It will be a full-grown boy from the extended family itself.
Tell us about the HIV organization that you started in 2000.
When I founded Lakshya Trust, we were helped by Humsafer Trust, India's first organization that started working on HIV and homosexuality. The idea was to create a platform where the gay population in my state could come together to talk about issues (marriage pressure, police harassment, social issues, legal issues, and HIV). Lots of our friends were dying, and we needed to spread awareness. We were lucky that the government in our state came to our side and funded us.
Now an HIV-positive network in my state has started a restaurant and employed HIV-positive people there to show that you can't get infected by someone cooking for you. That's mainstreaming. If you can get the support of society, you have won.
What keeps you most engaged in your work?
I've created my own gay family. This gay family keeps me going on because of the amount of love I've received. They've always supported me during my bad times, emotional turmoil, and happy times. This motivates me to work more for the community and welfare of our people. You need to build a support system.
There is a favorite quote of mine: "Gay rights cannot be won in the courtrooms but in the hearts and the minds of the people." I think it is no longer a national issue but a global issue. We have to all unite.
What are some of the positive changes that you have seen since the decision of the Delhi High Court to decriminalize homosexuality in 2009?
There was recently a symposium on gay tourism in India last month. There are also now multiple new gay publications. The judgment has brought about a lot of liberalization in the country. Bollywood is portraying homosexuality in more serious roles rather than ridiculing us or treating us as clowns as in the past. The Delhi judgment has mainstreamed homosexuality into society. There is still a long way to go, but we just have to continually fight for it.
What's next for you?
In my own town I've started a retirement home for the LGBT community. It will be the first of its kind in Asia. That home will house a lot of seniors from the community. In India, we are used to living with the joint family. After coming out, a lot of us are thrown out of the family and don't have a place to go. Old age can be the most difficult time in a person's life, and the time when you need the maximum support. We want people to live the rest of their lives in peace.
We're actually getting inquiries from people from all over the world. It's open to anyone regardless of race, caste, religion, nationality. All you have to be is LGBT.
This piece originally appeared on OutandAround.com.
Photo 1 courtesy of Out & Around, and photos 2-5 courtesy of Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil.
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