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    A Prince Who Is a ‘Queen’: A Conversation with Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis

    When Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, heir to the 650-year-old throne of the Rajpipla Maharaja, came out as gay 11 years ago, it was front-page news all across India. When Oprah invited him to share his story on American television and later crowned him “her favorite royal,” his story became known around the world. As Prince Manvendra likes to say playfully, the world learned that the “Prince was a Queen!”

    When we heard Prince Manvendra’s coming out story, it struck us as remarkably familiar to our own story of awakening to our sexuality, experiencing confusion, overcoming emotional distress, coming out, and trying to use our experience to make things better for others. Even though Prince Manvendra grew up in an ancient royal palace in the Indian State of Gujurat and we grew up literally on the other side of the world in suburban homes in the Midwest of America, it felt as if we were neighbors when we met him to sit down and talk about LGBTQ life in India and the U.S. on his recent trip to San Francisco. Here are some highlights from our wide-ranging conversation.


    John & Stuart: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and the readers of the San Francisco Bay Times.  To start, could you give us a little background about homosexuality in India, a vast and diverse country with centuries-old history and traditions? 

    Prince Manvendra:  Thank you very much for this opportunity. India is a country of great diversity and rich cultural heritage.  It has 26 states having their own cultures, languages, and culinary traditions. Each state is like a different country. India is the world’s largest democracy.

    India is also a country of paradox. Homosexuality has been part and parcel of our country’s history, starting with the Kama Sutra, the world’s oldest encyclopedia, written 2,500 years ago. The Kama Sutra talks very openly about homosexuality, lesbianism, and transgenderism—even the various positions for the best sexual pleasure. We have several temples in India that are openly depicting homoerotic forms of statues and sculptures. We have centuries-old paintings, which depict homosexuality.

    However, today there is a lot of stigma and discrimination attached to homosexuality—a lot of taboo. Sex education has been lacking in our country. Parents feel shy to talk about sex with their children. Homosexuality has been underground.

    There is a hypocrisy prevailing in our country that says that homosexuality was a Western influence. I would rather say that it was not a Western influence—it was an export. We exported homosexuality to other countries. It began in India.

    John & Stuart: The nineteenth century British colonial law, Penal Code section 377 that bans most same-sex sexual activity, is still on the books in India and is now being challenged at the Indian Supreme Court. What would your message be to the Court and the public about the law?

    Prince Manvendra: This is a dispute of hypocrisy versus humanity. Section 377 says that any kind of sexual act that is against the order of nature and which is penetrative, but does not result in procreation, is illegal. That means even though the law targets homosexual acts, it also targets heterosexual acts. It targets even a married heterosexual couple engaging in a sexual act that doesn’t result in procreation. And there is an interpretation of this law that says even masturbation is illegal.

    Even though the legal case was filed by an organization supporting the LGBT community, it’s not just about the LGBT community. It’s about the rights of all the citizens of India. We are fighting for human rights. The Indian Constitution has guaranteed its citizens certain fundamental rights, and one of the rights is equality and another is privacy. Section 377 violates these rights.

    The Court and the public must also remember that Section 377 was imposed by Queen Victoria for her own vested interests when she was ruling India. She wanted to break the power of Indians, including the influence of Hijras, a very old transgender community in India, and of female sex workers. Queen Victoria also employed the strategy of “divide and rule” to divide Hindus and Muslims in order to safeguard British interests.

    John & Stuart: We understand that the ruling BJP Party has not taken a position either way on the Section 377 lawsuit. What is your view on the BJP Party and LGBTQ rights?

    Prince Manvendra: The world looks on the BJP as a conservative party. But even though they are conservative, they have strong Hindu values, and from that point of view, they are taking some very progressive steps for LGBT rights.

    For example, the Health Ministry brought out an app for adolescents to provide sex education and information on health and hygiene. And the app says that it’s OK if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender—which is a very positive step. When this app was announced in the media, there was no opposition to it, from anyone, not even religious leaders.

    The transgender rights bill was also passed by the government. Initially in the Supreme Court it was a law and now it has passed in the Parliament. India has progressed as to transgender rights, and America has not been able to give rights to the transgender people as much as India has been able to do.

    The government has also been funding organizations like ours, the Lakshya Trust, which work exclusively for [those who are] homosexual and transgender.

    And very recently (March 21, 2017), our Parliament passed the HIV/AIDS amendment bill, which is a very important bill we have been fighting for and lobbying the government for the last four years.

    John & Stuart:  Tell us more about the new HIV/AIDS bill and your work combating the epidemic.

    Prince Manvendra: India has the third highest number people living with HIV in the world. The most important thing this bill is going to do is “test and treat.” It’s very important because in the previous government and in the earlier time, anyone who was tested positive was not treated immediately. They had to wait until their CD4 counts dropped below a certain level.  The government has also recently agreed to rapid testing.

    Another important thing the bill will do is to give various legal rights to HIV-positive people, which will reduce discrimination. In India, there is a lack of awareness and education about HIV/AIDS that leads to misinformation, stigma and discrimination. The Health Minister recently told me in a meeting that he thought you could become HIV positive by eating food from the plate of a positive person.

    In India, we don’t have as much privacy for sex as in America. I’ve been working on HIV for almost 15 years, and we’ve been trying to distribute condoms in all those areas we call the “hot spots” where a lot of sexual activity happens. We’ve hung condoms on trees branches in parks. My message is that wherever you have sex, whenever you have sex, use condoms. Be safe. Condoms are protection not just from HIV, but also STIs.  It’s in our hands to be safe, and I think condoms are important tools for that.

    John & Stuart: How do you envision LGBTQ life evolving in India? Do you think it will be similar or distinct from the way it is evolving in America? 

    Prince Manvendra: India is a country with a lot of what I call “homosocial” behavior. You will see people of the same sex being very intimate with each other in public. They will hold hands, walk with an arm on one’s shoulder, and hug each other freely in the parks and the railway stations, and all that is considered to be normal. If people of the opposite sex do the same thing, it’s considered abnormal.

    And it’s very normal to have two people of the same sex cohabitating together. And the two guys or the two girls, they might be gay or they might be straight. Living together is absolutely treated as normal. There are many gay couples and lesbian couples in India who are living together and nobody’s bothered about them.

    In some ways, it is much safer to be gay in India. I have travelled to a lot of places in the world. I’ve been to the most liberal countries, where marriage equality is there and there’s a lot of freedom for the LGBT community, but at the same time I’ve seen a lot of hate crimes, a lot of homophobia—much more than I’ve seen in India. So when you have freedom, you do not necessarily do away with homophobia.

    Even though in India we do not have as much freedom as we would like, there is a lot of balance. We have a balanced freedom. Another good thing that has happened in India is that we are receiving a lot of support from the non-LGBT community. Even though there can be a feeling that you will be shunned if you come out, at the same time, there is support.

    We have a Hindu Goddess named Bahuchara Mata, who is of lesbian origin and is worshipped by transgender people. And she is also a mainstream Goddess. Even the Prime Minister of India worships her. I’ve visited the Prime Minister’s office, and I’ve seen a photograph of Bahuchara Mata there.

    India has a long and rich history very different from America with respect to Hijras, who some treat as saints; other transgender people; and to Kothi, a very, very old and particularly South Asian form of homosexuality.

    John & Stuart: What’s your broader message to Indian people or to the world to make life better for LGBTQ people?

    Prince Manvendra: Accept human beings as they are. We are born with whatever we are born with. It’s natural. It’s normal.  And give love, and get love. It’s as simple as that.

    John & Stuart: What is your message of hope to LGBTQ people living in India?

    Prince Manvendra: Accept yourself. Most of the time, people don’t want to accept the truth if the truth seems bitter. I say accept your sexuality, whatever you are born with if you can. And be proud of who you are, rather than have a feeling of guilt and shame that you’ve done something wrong. Because whatever you’re born with is as normal and natural as your being straight. If you accept yourself, you will be able to face any challenge that comes to you because everything is based on the two strong pillars of truthfulness and honesty.

    John & Stuart: Do you feel happy or even lucky that you were born gay?

    Prince Manvendra: I’m very happy that I was born gay because I can do so much for others. If I had been married and had a heterosexual family, my whole life would have gone looking after my wife and my children and all that. I can do things the way I want to do them and thereby I can help myself help others. And also, gay people are very creative. Imagine the world without gay people. It would be so dull and dry. Our religion believes in rebirth, and I always say to the higher reality that if I’m taking the next birth, I want to be born again as gay.

    John & Stuart: Can you talk about coming out in India?

    Prince Manvendra: In India, we have a joint family system where people are very attached to their parents and dependent on their parents and families for finances. In order to come out, you must be ready to be detached from your parents and financially independent.

    I was recently talking to an Indian living in America, and he doesn’t want to go back to India because he says, “The moment I return, my mother is going to get me married to a girl … I’m very safe in America.” But that is escapism. I told him, “Look, you have to come to terms with your sexuality. I know your mother is going to try to force you into a marriage, but you have to make her understand that ultimately you need your freedom as well.” Many people are coming out now and not succumbing to the marriage pressures coming to them from their parents.

    John & Stuart: Your parents disowned you when you came out. What is your relationship with your parents like now?

    Prince Manvendra: It is a work in progress. My mother is still not coming to terms with it. My father has been supporting me.  He laid the cornerstone for the construction of the new LGBTA Center we are building in Gujurat.

    John & Stuart: Tell us about the new Center.

    Prince Manvendra: The LGBTA Center—A is for Allies—is being built in the 15-acre royal estate of Hanumanteshwar. The Center will have a learning center where we will teach computer skills, language, and many other things. We will have a library and a music center with music therapy. We will have counseling, a community kitchen, multipurpose rooms, yoga and meditation, training programs, and a medical center. We have plans to make a shelter home for the community. Our Center is going to help empower the community. Education will promote personal empowerment, which will give rise to economic empowerment.

    We have purposely included Allies because I believe in inclusiveness, and not exclusiveness. The more you mainstream LGBT issues in society, the more acceptance and support and understanding you can get from the society towards us. And the Center is not restricted just to Indians. LGBTA people from any part of the world are welcome to come and use the facilities. We have a transgender person from New York at the moment with us, and she is making use of the facilities.

    John & Stuart: Why should a person living in San Francisco or elsewhere in America care about an LGBTA Center in Gujurat, India?

    Prince Manvendra:  There is an ancient and very important Sanskrit saying, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” which means, “The whole world is one family.” I believe that if the whole world comes together, connects issues to each other, and addresses them jointly, we can make this whole world a better to place to live. That’s why it is important for people in San Francisco, or any part of the world, to connect with India and vice versa. At the end of the day, we struggle for common issues and common goals. If we can unite together, come together, and fight for our issues together, it carries a lot more meaning than doing it all by yourself.

    Building India’s First LGBT Center

    Prince Manvendra and the Lakshya Trust are in the process of building and completing the first full-service LGBTA Center in India, the Hanumanteshwar Center in Gujurat.

    You can learn more about the activities and resources offered by the Lakshya Trust here: http://lakshya-trust.org/
    Learn more about the Freedom to Be Who You Are initiative here: http://www.thefreedomtobewhoyouare.com/
    You can contribute to the Lakshya Trust here: https://lakshyatrust.ketto.org/contribute/contribute.php?fmd_id=24169

     

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.