In 2006, India – which was then subject to anti-gay colonial legislation from the Victorian – a 40-year-old prince of Gujarat, Manvendra Singh Gohil, made headlines when he came out as gay.
Manvendra recalls, “Though India had by then for a long time been a republic, as I hailed from a royal family I was groomed to live like a king. Having limited communication with parents and addressing family members by their designation in the kingdom and not according to relationship status was part of such grooming.
The palace had different sections for male and female members of the family to hang out. And it was taboo for women and men to hang out together. In fact, this worked just fine for me! At the age of 13, I had my first male lover. He worked at the palace. We were in a relationship for a few years before we separated. Queerness and sexual experimentations are very common within royal families. Nobody bothered about my closeness with my male lover. But making queer lifestyle a norm was not a part of royal tradition. And I knew I had a tough path to take.”
Two decades ago, queer life was tougher than today in India. Royal tradition dictated that a gay man would never be accepted as being a “normal”…and definitely not a prince! And with his upbringing, Manvendra was destined never to be able to come out.
The prince continues, “My wedding with a princess from another royal family was decided by the elders. And like my first lover who had separated from me and married a woman to live a “normal” life, I thought that I too would become a “normal” man after marriage. However, that was not to be. I was not drawn towards women romantically and never consummated my marriage with my former wife. And finally, after 15 years of an unsuccessful marriage, we got divorced.”
Manvendra then came across a queer organisation where he began volunteering and understanding the broader spectrum of the queer community. The dual life that Manvinder had led till then around his family had resulted in a nervous breakdown. He was hospitalised with the help of a queer friend.
A psychiatrist helped Manvendra understand that he is gay and had nothing to be ashamed of it. The psychiatrist then explained Manvendra’s sexual orientation to his parents. But things did not go well even after that.
Manvendra explains, “I was 36 when I came out to my parents through the psychiatrist’s help. But my family wasn’t pleased that I was gay and removed me from many of the businesses established under the royal family trust in which I was a trustee, and put me through various religious correction therapies.
“When these therapies did not work, they even wanted me to undergo a shock treatment at a mental hospital. They, however, did not succeed in this because thankfully by then – 2002 – the psychiatric association had ruled that homosexuality is not a disease. As a last resort, my parents began threatening me saying they would disclose my sexual orientation to [other] members of my family, which they thought would shame me further. Such constant threats finally drove me to the edge!
“In 2006, a journalist who knew about me through a queer friend approached me for a live television interview, and that’s when I thought I might as well take this opportunity to go public about my sexual orientation” he added with a chuckle.
Manvendra’s candid disclosure obviously made headlines. And the backlash was substantial. Social media was just emerging and the embarrassed royal family disowned Manvendra and legally denied him any inheritance from the royal property. But a lawyer pointed out to the prince the illegality of denying him his inheritance based on his sexual orientation. This meant Manvendra could fight his parents’ lawyers in court. If Manvendra were to win the case, that would mean the lawyers who had helped his parents file the suit losing their licence for having filed an illegal suit against him! Eventually, Manvendra’s parents withdrew the case, and with time reconciled to the fact that their son was gay and accepted him for who he truly is.
The prince continued, “After I and my family reconciled, I was gifted 15 acres of royal land as a part of my inheritance, where I built the first queer shelter in India – Lakshya Trust. The best part was that my father, the king, himself laid the first brick. I was on the Oprah show, “Gays Around the World”, and after that I featured in many more media interviews where I openly spoke about my true identity.”