India's Only Gay Prince Is Opening His Palace Up as an LGBT Sanctuary

Openly gay Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of the state of Rajpipla in Gujarat, India, is visiting Australia to raise awareness about HIV prevention and to campaign for changes to laws that criminalize homosexuality in many Asia Pacific countries. Throughout his life, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil has broken traditions, stereotypes and taboos. Renee Nowytarger/Newspix/Getty

Throughout his life, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil has broken traditions, stereotypes and taboos. Despite the stigma a divorce carries in India, he ended his marriage with his princess in 1992. A decade later, he became the first member of the Indian royal family to come out as gay and launched an LGBT rights charity shortly afterward. But his latest plan might be his most audacious yet.

After Gohil came out in 2006, his mother took out an ad in a newspaper to declare that the family had disowned him because of his sexuality. Gohil is now opening a four-bedroom palace, which he secured when his parents tried to disinherit him, to LGBT people and their allies, in a country in which sexual activity between people of the same gender is illegal.

Named Hanumanteshwar 1927, after the year Gohil's great-grandfather built the palace, the center will be managed by his charity, the Lakshya Trust. There will be rooms for guests, as well as a medical facility and English-language and vocational classes. The prince is using crowdfunding to build more structures on the site.

Gohil, 52, has devoted the past decade to helping LGBT people. He knows the pain of rejection and is acutely aware of his privilege in comparison to other gay people in India and across the world.

"Around the age of 12 or 13, when I was undergoing sexual maturity, I thought, I'm attracted to the same sex and not opposite," he recalls. "I knew there was something different about me, but I didn't know why I was feeling different than others. There was a conflict in myself that was different, but at the time I didn't realize I was gay."

According to Gohil, "In a royal household, there is hardly any interaction between the parents and children." Feeling unable to confide in his family about his sexuality, he resolved to bury his feelings and marry a woman. "I wanted to believe that I was straight and that I'd lead a 'normal' life and have a successful marriage," he says.

He stresses that, unlike some LGBT people in India, he was not forced to marry, but he chose to wed. The marriage was unconsummated, however, and his wife filed for divorce a year later, after he opened up to her about his sexuality.

Hoping to find a "fix," the prince said his parents "tried to cure me, and they went to the extent of asking doctors to bring me some shock therapy and send me abroad to see if surgery could be performed," Gohil claims. "Unfortunately for them, the doctors were sensitized to these issues and tried to explain that they were wasting their time," he says. "People lack knowledge. Even educated people like my parents, who are both university graduates, weren't educated on homosexuality."

Unable to "fix" their son, his parents cut him off socially and financially, Gohil says. "My family knew I was gay but never thought I'd come out to society. That is more challenging for parents. It is one thing for those in their circle to know, but to tell society that their child is gay is very difficult."

With Gohil's blessing, a journalist outed the prince to the local press, causing a national scandal. Crowds in his home state burned effigies of him and declared he was not worthy of becoming the maharaja of the 650-year-old Gohil dynasty when his father dies.

Transgender activist and actor Kalki Subramaniam (center) along with other LGBT community members take part in central India’s first gay pride parade, which also marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, in Bhopal, India, on May 17, 2017. Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times/Getty

But his heritage also gave him a public profile. He shared his story on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007 and on Keeping Up With the Kardashians 10 years later. And it meant he could threaten to sue his parents when they attempted to strip away his inheritance, enabling him to keep his palace. If his family rejected him while the country watched, "any other gay person could face a similar situation," albeit on a smaller scale, he says.

"In India, we have a family system, and we are mentally conditioned to be with our parents," he explains. "The moment you try to come out as gay, you are told you'll be thrown out and society will boycott you. You become a social outcast. A lot of people are financially dependent on their parents."

Reflecting on the public response to his sexuality, Gohil believes he sent positive shock waves throughout India that changed the country for the better. For instance, India's Supreme Court issued a historic ruling last year confirming the privacy rights of LGBT people, after it re-criminalized homosexuality in 2013 by reinstating a colonial-era law.

The prince predicts that as people feel emboldened to come out, centers like his will be more in demand. "Before, [LGBT] people succumbed to their parents' pressure and married members of the opposite sex. As time goes by, the community is realizing that's no good," he says. "I want to give people social and financial empowerment, so eventually people who want to come out won't be affected…. It won't make a difference if they are disinherited."

As he fights for LGBT rights in his country, Gohil laments the lack of understanding in India about its history of homosexual and gender-nonbinary people. In Indian scripture, hijra, kinner or third-gender people were regarded as demigods and played an important advisory role in royal palaces in centuries past, while the Koran acknowledges that God created ambiguities in gender. Current attitudes toward homosexuality and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people are a hangover from British imperial rule.

"If you read our history and culture, homosexuality has been in the Kama Sutra, and we have temples that openly depict homoerotic statues and sculptures," Gohil says.

That is why Gohil demands that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which dates back to 1860 and outlaws sexual activities that do not result in procreation, be scrapped immediately. He says it is harmful to both heterosexuals and homosexuals, as it prevents people from accessing treatment for HIV, AIDS and other sexual health conditions because they fear they will face punishment under what he describes as a "draconian" law. In early January, the Supreme Court ordered a review of Section 377.

"It has no logic," Gohil says. "We have had independence for 70 years, and the U.K. has done away with it, and we are continuing with it. When I give lectures at universities, I ask people whether they masturbate, and they say yes. So I reply, 'Well, then this whole classroom is full of criminals.'"

Highly aware of his profile and the novelty of being a gay prince, Gohil plans to take his fight for LGBT rights worldwide. "Gay rights are human rights," he points out. "We won't win this fight if I corner myself to a national level. This has to be global." His motivation, he says, comes from the Sanskrit saying Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, or "The whole world is one family."