“It Took Me 30 Years To Realise I Am Gay,” Says India’s First Openly Gay Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil

From building a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community to advocating for equal marriage rights, Manvendra Singh Gohil is determined to make India more inclusive.

Published On Jun 01, 2023 | Updated On Feb 20, 2024

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Growing up, the prince of Gujarat’s Rajpipla, Manvendra Singh Gohil wasn’t aware of his sexuality. It took him three decades, a broken marriage and Ashok Row Kavi — India’s first and oldest gay rights activist’s counselling — to come to terms with his sexual orientation. Eventually in 2006, when he came out as gay, it enraged his family to the extent that his mother disowned him publicly through an advertisement. He was boycotted from social gatherings and his effigies were burnt in the city. A year later, he was introduced as the world’s first openly gay prince on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show Gay Around the World’ and that changed everything.

For Pride Month 2023, in an exclusive interaction with Zee Zest, Singh Gohil recalls, “My interviews with Oprah have always been coincidental with the court cases. It started in 2007 followed by 2009 when the Delhi High Court decriminalised us. Then in 2011 and again in 2013 when we lost the case. Now again it's happening after we got our freedom in 2018.”

Manvendra Singh Gohil is one of the most influential gay rights activists globally. He launched ‘The Free Gay’ campaign on August 15, 2014, in the city of Michigan, USA. He recounts, “I had gathered a lot of people who were not from the community but supported me. I had with me people from Hollywood, the UN and parents of children who have come out. With the aim to mobilise the community internationally, the campaign was based on a Sanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam which means ‘The World Is One Family’. So, I decided to collect people from all walks of life and different geographical regions to come under one umbrella to help us fight for freedom for the Indian LGBTQIA+ community. Because when the country was celebrating independence in India, we were still struggling to get our freedom that was denied to us even after 1947. Four years later, we finally got freedom in 2018.”

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Despite years marked by grief and resentment, Manvendra doesn’t blame his family. He believes their decisions are influenced by society. “I don’t blame the families, they are worried about their children, and especially when they reach a certain age, they are concerned about who will take care of their children. My mom disowned me due to societal pressure. Later, my father expressed in an interview that he took this step under the pressure of the conservative society. And he praised me in his interview, saying I am a gifted individual and I have never troubled him. He also used the term parda nasheen. They don’t take a step from their free will. They are always influenced by society.”

However, things are different now. He adds, “I have been given 15 acres of royal establishment in Hanumanteshwar near Baroda where I am building India’s first LGBTQIA+ community campus ‘The Lakshya Trust’ and the foundation stone was laid by my father. It’s a very old property from the 1920s built by my great grandfather, where I am creating a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community. A space where they don’t have to worry about getting judged by anyone. We will provide accommodation, training and workshops to build their skills to get employment and improve their livelihood.”

Disappointed by the Supreme Court for reserving its judgement on same-sex marriages, he stresses the growing rate of suicide in the LGBTQIA+ community. Citing a recent instance, he says, “A lesbian woman committed suicide in Nagpur because her parents were forcing her to marry a boy. That’s why this marriage right needs to be given to us to be able to tell our parents to not force us to marry the opposite gender. They are not even sexually attracted to them. A lot of lavender marriages are happening in India which is not the solution. It’s not natural and their families are the villains. Parents emotionally blackmail their children. Almost 80 per cent of gay men are married to women. They are not bisexual, they are gay, but they are forced.”

However, the royal's marriage was not a forced one. “My marriage was my own choice because I didn’t know about my identity then. I thought I was like anyone else. But after I got married and had a woman in my life with full privacy, I realised I am not sexually attracted to her. We did not consummate our marriage and after 15 months we got divorced. My ex-wife told me ‘You tried to spoil my life, don’t do it with anyone else’. That instigated me to explore myself and then I got in touch with Ashok Row Kavi, India’s first gay rights activist, who counselled me and that’s how I came to terms with my sexuality. It took me 30 years and a broken marriage to realise I am gay. Our society is so restricted that you don’t get a chance to know about your sexuality. I was not even allowed to talk to my ex-wife before our wedding. If I had, maybe things would have been different.”

He finally found his forever in Duke DeAndre Richardson. The duo tied the knot in the US in July 2013, followed by a social wedding in India the next year. He shares, “Life has changed so much after Duke came into my life. I finally have someone I can share things with. I am more confident now. I am not fighting alone, there’s someone else who’s fighting with me. My relationship with him is spiritual because, for us, it’s a coming together of two souls and the soul is genderless. Souls don’t have a geographical boundary or culture.”

Manvendra is hopeful of the SC hearing to turn out in the favour of the community. He adds, “We might not get full rights but we will definitely get some rights.” By that he means, joint bank accounts, owning joint properties, doing business together, being nominees in the bank, adoption rights and inheritance. He explains, “I am hoping the SC will amend the Special Marriage Act based on the Indian constitution’s right, which has been guaranteed to citizens, and make it unisex, where you change the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, male or female, to ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’ so that way, they would allow the rights to be given to same-sex couples by virtue of marriage which have been denied.”

Needless to mention, he’s been instrumental in fighting for equal rights for his community and had urged the government to legalise same-sex marriage. He says, “The government only understands the language of economy. So I tell them about the pink economy. If you legalise same-sex marriage, India is going to get rich by foreign exchange, with filthy rich international LGBTQIA+ travellers coming. LGBTQIA+ people don’t feel safe in India.” Citing hypocrisy as one of the major reasons for the never-ending battle, he says, “If you accept the truth, life becomes so easy. People are not willing to accept the truth, that’s what is giving rise to hypocrisy, bigotry and hatred in society. We are all fighting with ourselves.”

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Did you know that in 1982, before HIV was acknowledged as an epidemic, the immunodeficiency disease was known as GRID — Gay Related Immune Disorder? Referring to that, Manvendra recalls how right after Covid there was monkeypox and gay people were held responsible for it. “In the USA, there was an article that claimed the government is saying the LGBTQIA+ community is spreading monkeypox. We are always blamed for everything that goes wrong. In fact, we are also labelled as paedophiles, while there are more paedophiles found in the heterosexual community.”

Sharing his fair share of disappointments with most people linking impotency with homosexuality, he says, “People think we are impotent. There are so many who have conceived children with women.” Confusing transgender with gay is another misconception that baffles him. “They always confuse gay people with transgender persons, whereas transgender is absolutely a different category under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella.”

From being on the board of a non-profit organisation, Eyes Open International which focuses on fighting human trafficking, to working globally with the Aids Healthcare organisation as the Indian ambassador, and being involved with environmental issues, Manvendra has a lot on his plate. However, despite being loaded with responsibilities not particularly LGBTQIA+, but on a global front, is he considering adopting a child in the future, we ask? “Adopting a child is a big responsibility. Not that we hate kids, but I have so many children in the LGBTQIA+ community. Some call me mom, some call me dad and some call Andre dad. We are a huge family already. We have so many responsibilities and commitments that we don’t want to get bogged down by this parental responsibility. We are running short of time.”

Is education and social media awareness enough? While social media plays a major role in spreading awareness and bringing people together with so much exchange of ideas happening, Manvendra believes perceptions are changing but it will take another full generation to change things. “The old generation was very rigid, the new generation is curious and aware, and wants to change. Once they grow, then definitely there will be a change of mindset. You need to talk to students and keep the conversation going. We need to come to a stage where we get people literate about this issue. Make it a part of our education system,” he concludes.


Photo: Manvendra Singh Gohil

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