- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007


At 41, he is still not sure how to make a cup of tea. There is always someone else to do it for him. When he was learning to drive, he braked the car so hard that his servant sitting in the back seat was thrown forward and broke two teeth. No one bothered to get the dentistry done. Almost all is forgiven if you are royalty.

But when Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, a small principality in the west Indian state of Gujarat, announced that he was homosexual, the reaction was quite different.

His mother disowned and tried to disinherit him, warning of legal proceedings against anyone who referred to him as her son and heir. The townspeople of Rajpipla, population 70,000, who commonly pray at the feet of statues of their kings, burned photos of their once-beloved prince.

Seating his lanky, 6-foot frame in an armchair in one of the large, now sparsely furnished halls of the pink-and-white painted Victorian palace replete with life-size portraits of former rajas on the walls, among them his great-grandfather, Maharaja Vijay Singhji, who kept a stables at Windsor and whose horse “Windsor Lad” won the 1934 Epsom Derby, Manvendra looks around uneasily.

“I don’t really like coming here any more, partly because I know that even the servants’ loyalty here is not to me, but to my mother and my father,” he says.

It’s now routine to warn the palace of his arrival from Bombay where he lives. This gives time for tea-making and for family members to flee if they wish. He hasn’t spoken to his mother, Maharani Rukmani Devi Gohil, in four years and they use separate staircases if they happen to be there at the same time.

Before their estrangement, the maharani tried to rid Manvendra of his “problem.” She dragged him to see Hindu holy men, and when that did not work, demanded that he re-marry (his first marriage, at 25, arranged by the family, was annulled a year later), or that he become celibate.

Manvendra enraged her by doing neither and instead got more entrenched as founding member of Lakshya (Target) Trust, an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program in Gujarat that receives funding from the government, which was established in a low-key ceremony at Rajvant Palace in 2000.

The United Nations estimates that India has the worst record of HIV in the world with 5.7 million people infected.

Rahul Singh, coordinator of the NAZ Foundation, an AIDS awareness program in Delhi, says that such nongovernmental organizations are successfully doing the first part of the job required.

“Across the country millions are now aware of AIDS, but now we have to see if that is translated into action,” he says. In a typical collision of modernity and tradition in India, the government allocated about $238 million to fighting HIV/AIDS in the 2007-2008 budget, yet will not openly deal with the reality of homosexuality, which is outlawed.

Through the trust, Manvendra hopes to raise awareness of both, but says that ironically it’s the homosexual men who make that difficult.

“Indian gay men are not interested in coming out, and most of them could not care less about gay rights,” says Manvendra.

“They are only keen on parties and lots of sex, then most of them go home to their wives or their mothers or both and are waited on hand and foot. They don’t want to lose their status in society.”

Even homosexual men who remain single are protected by the traditional family structure in which they find their roles as uncles, patriarchs and mentors, even if there is no outward acknowledgement by the family of their homosexuality.

This might partly explain why it is taking so long to amend Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a throwback to Victorian Britain, which demands life imprisonment for “anyone committing carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”

Since the article criminalizes child sex offenders as well, the demand by homosexual rights advocates is that it exclude only the section referring to consensual sexual activities between adults in private. And as the law only refers to penetrative sex, lesbians are officially off the hook. The law is rarely enforced to the fullest today, but it still results in subterfuge on the part of young homosexual couples and blackmail by the authorities.

New Delhi, with a population of 15 million people, has only two homosexual bars, which can’t openly function as such, but parties at these venues on weekends are packed with homosexual men.

Police can break up these parties or demand bribes.

India’s first homosexual community-based organization in India was established in 1991 in Bombay by the country’s first prominent homosexual activist, Ashok Row Kavi, who was tired of the lack of basic human rights for homosexuals.

“There may never be a homosexual rights movement like there is in the West, but we just want protection against being thrown into jail or ill-treated just for the sake of it,” he says.

But in the same breath, Mr. Kavi explains that homosexuals have had a place in ancient Hindu texts for thousands of years, and “hijras,” or transvestites, have had a role in Indian society for about the same period. It’s the British who made homosexuality illegal.

Mr. Kavi, 60, “came out” in the protected halls of the Ramakrishna Mission, a progressive Hindu sect, in the 1970s.

“It was the monks who told me to go out and fight for my rights,” he says.

Mr. Kavi, who runs the Humsafar (Companion) Trust and works with UNAIDS, says that it may take another 10 years for anti-sodomy laws to be repealed, and the lack of a homosexual identity makes treatment hard.

“Through various studies we have concluded that there are around 40-45 million men who have occasional sex with other men in India, but do you think the government wants to acknowledge this?”

It was Mr. Kavi, Manvendra’s next-door neighbor in Bombay, who helped the prince realize at the age of 30 that he was homosexual.

Manavendra claims to be the first royal ever to come out of the closet and says he gets words of support from homosexual royals from as far away as Europe, who claim they envy his courage.

Manavendra has become a pin-up boy for some young homosexual men in India who find the combination of good looks and aristocratic lineage intoxicating.

Reviled one minute and revered the next, Manvendra keeps his sanity by occasionally retreating to his love of Indian classical music and his organic hobby farm, where he breeds Californian superworms.

His phone beeps every five minutes with text messages from young men professing their undying love. It’s not clear if they want just his love or also his money. Mostly, he shrugs off the attention.

Sometimes, though, it can become a cause for concern, as when the son of a jeweler sold a few rings and ran away from home to be with the prince.

“He had built a shrine to me at which he prayed and said he wanted to be with me always. In the end we had to call his parents to take him home as they were mad with worry,” Manvendra says.

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