Gay Indian prince disowned by family, town

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RAJPIPLA, India

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.”

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