SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – India’s first “out” gay prince, Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, Gujarat, hosted two fundraisers here March 21 and 22 to complete the building of the Hanumanteshwar center in his township, which will serve gays, lesbians, transgender people and their allies.
“If you’re gay in India, you’re really harassed and tortured by your parents to get married. Gay men are forced to marry women,” Gohil told India-West in an extensive WhatsApp interview from Rajpipla, prior to his arrival in the U.S.
“The Hanumanteshwar center – built through funds raised by the Lakshya Trust –allows financial and social independence for LGBTQ people and their allies, and empowers youth. It allows people the freedom to be who you are and enjoy a life of dignity and respect,” said the charming prince, who has appeared three times on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Winfrey has dubbed Gohil her “favorite royal.”
“Most of us are living a double life: lying to our families and to ourselves about who we really are,” said Gohil, who struggled deeply with his own sexuality.
The March 21 fundraiser was held at Beaux, in San Francisco’s Castro district. A second fundraising dinner the following evening featured writer Kunal Mukherjee, who read from his seminal novel, “My Magical Palace,” a story about a gay teenage boy with a crush on Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna.
Mukherjee was introduced by Academy Award winning film-maker Jeffrey Brown, director of “Sold,” a narrative feature film about human trafficking. “Kunal’s book is revelatory,” said Brown. “I hope to see it win an Oscar,” he said, noting that the novel is currently being scripted for film.
“I ached for a place while growing up where I didn’t feel different,” said Mukherjee, before reading a passage from the novel in which the protagonist experiences a sexual awakening.
As a young boy growing up in a palace, Gohil fooled around with a servant boy, but had no understanding that he might be gay. “My upbringing was very sheltered; I had no knowledge of the outside world,” he told India-West, noting that his relationship to his parents was formal.
“I didn’t know that there was a term for what I was feeling,” said the prince poignantly.
Gohil said he chose to get married to a woman, and was shown a number of princesses. He picked his wife Chandrika, he said, because she came from a family of self-made people, without a sense of entitlement.
“I had no sexual attraction to her,” Gohil said of his wife. “I thought I would develop it, but I never did. I am gay.”
The short-lived marriage was never consummated, and the couple divorced. Chandrika told him after the divorce was finalized: “You spoiled my life. Please don’t do that to another woman.”
His parents urged him to get married again. “I was under tremendous pressure to remarry and produce an heir to the throne,” said Gohil.
The pressure led to a nervous breakdown. Gohil became suicidal and was hospitalized for six months. An empathetic psychiatrist told the prince he was gay; his parents learned of his sexuality through the psychiatrist, and urged him to “fix” their son.
“They thought it was a disease which could be cured,” he told India-West.
When the prince finally came out publicly, his parents took out a full-page ad in a newspaper to disown him. Gohil has reconciled with his father in the years since, but his mother still remains hostile and distant, he said. “It is very difficult for her to accept this,” he added.
Gohil’s family has ruled over the kingdom of Rajpipla for more than 650 years. The Hanumanteshwar center is being built on the site of a former palace that was demolished several years earlier. Spread over 15 acres, the center sits on the bank of the Narmada River.
Hanumanteshwar will feature a learning center, offering instruction in English language skills, computer training, a library, and a music center, among other amenities. There will also be a multi-purpose room for yoga and meditation, and a large kitchen for guests to cook and teach cooking skills. People who have been ousted from their homes because of their sexuality can take shelter at the center, said the prince.
A medical center will be attached to the facility for HIV testing and treatment. Gohil is the brand ambassador for the AIDS Health Care Foundation. He has promoted safe sex through the use of condoms, noting that it is wives who suffer the greatest risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from their husbands who have unprotected sex with strangers.
Gohil and his team have gone out to public areas such as parks and public toilets where men meet with other men to have sex. In a possibly mood-killing move, the team uses flashlights to find the men and distribute condoms.
STDs can also be transmitted through oral sex; thus, the team has developed flavored condoms, including mango – in season – and strawberry. Their most popular condom is paan-flavored.
Gohil said he is glad to see that the gutters of Surat are clogged with condoms from the Lakshya Trust. “There is still a shyness about buying condoms. We want to say that condoms are always in fashion.”