After coming out to his 650-year-old family dynasty,
Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India was disowned and burned
in effigy, but now he marches proudly and works to save others in
a country that has newly criminalized homosexuality
Photos by Godofredo & Rodelio Astudillo
"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald in his short story The Rich Boy. And if they are royalty, like Manvendra Singh Gohil, Crown Prince of Rajpipla, India, that difference is heightened, underscored and exaggerated. Manvendra was born and raised to assume the custodianship of the crown, with all the discipline, expectations and circumspection his catered life allowed. He was always surrounded by servants, so protected that he didn’t even cross the street alone until he was 16. “Quite a nightmare,” he says, especially on Indian roads.
But on May 3, Manvendra, now 48, strode across the stage at The Globe Theatre in Universal City to accept the Humanitarian Award from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles during the organization’s 2014 Voice Awards. For almost a minute, the mostly gay audience gave the regally attired Manvendra a standing ovation—not necessarily because they knew him or what he had done to merit the honor, but because the prince was one of them, one member of the grand tribe of LGBT souls.
Riches, class, status, even two appearances on Oprah and international notoriety—all faded away as gays from across the globe recognized themselves in each other. Though Manvendra was, in fact, different from the tuxedoed crowd, having bucked a 650-year-old dynasty to come out, an understanding of shared inner agony quietly reverberated behind the applause. And here, on this stage, Prince Manvendra presented a portrait of fighting for self-empowerment while armed with empathy and humor.
“I am still enjoying the monopoly position as the world’s only openly gay royal. I hope I find a competitor soon,” Manvendra said to much laughter. Other royals, he added, have “confided in me. But they are still feeling shy about coming out of the closet. So I remain the only one as of now. Sometimes it makes me wonder whether I’m really the prince or a queen.”
Manvendra spoke without notes or a teleprompter, making his humor in the face of a dire situation all the more compelling. In 2009, a Delhi High Court struck down Section 377, a colonial British law criminalizing sodomy. “In our view, Indian constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are,” the court ruled on July 2, 2009.
But on Dec. 11, 2013, the Indian Supreme Court set aside the 2009 ruling and reinstituted the 153-year-old British law that allows arrests for “unnatural offenses” and 10 years imprisonment for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman or animal.” With that, India became the 77th country to criminalize LGBT people.
The prince was among the protesters that demonstrated against the court’s ruling. But at The Globe Theatre he turned anger into an insightful quip. “Ours is a secular country, so we have the Hindus, Muslims, Christians—and they all fight like cats and dogs. But I think this was the first time they all came together on a platform to be anti-gay. I think they should thank us for that,” Manvendra said. “Anyway, that hasn’t discouraged me from fighting. I’m a warrior. I will fight.”
Manvendra has been fighting his whole life to be free. “I always used to wonder, ‘Why am I being imprisoned?’” he says of his sheltered life in Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil ― Mission Film, a video produced by his Ekta Transglobal Foundation. He was born on Sept. 23, 1965, the day the Indo-Pakistani War ended. His surroundings have been described as lavish, stifling. “Being born into the royal family,” he has said, “is like being born into a cocoon.” He knew he was gay at age 10, though he had no word for his feelings. He struggled internally throughout his years at the Bombay Scottish School, and at the Amrutben Jivanlal College of Commerce and Economics in Bombay, he studied agriculture and law—the latter because royals are always getting sued, he told Frontiers the day of the Voice Awards.