Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil — believed to be the world’s first openly gay royal — is doing his part to help India’s marginalized LGBT community.
The Indian prince, 52, has opened his 15-acre palace grounds as a sanctuary for gay people under pressure in a nation where same-sex acts can result in 10-year prison sentences.
As the crown prince of Rajpipla, a socially conservative 1,500 square mile princely state in North West India, Prince Manvendra obeyed his parents and entered into an arranged marriage in 1991.
“I thought that after marriage everything will be all right, that with a wife, I will have children and become ‘normal’ and then I will be at peace. I was struggling and striving to be ‘normal’, ” the prince told Oprah Winfrey in 2007.
“It was a total disaster — the marriage never got consummated,” Prince Manvendra said on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I realized I had done something very wrong. Now two people were suffering instead of one. Far from becoming normal, my life was more miserable.”
The prince divorced in 1992. Seven years later, a breakdown eventually resulted in his subsequent coming out to a local newspaper in 2006. His revelation triggered a powerful backlash.
Even his mother, the Maharani of Rajpipla, who had known of her only son’s true sexuality for more than three years, disowned him in a series of public announcements.
“My effigies were burnt by the people of Rajpipla who’d respected me as a royal, who’d looked up to me, treated me as their icon,” the prince told the BBC earlier this year as he began opening up his home as a safe haven for the LGBT community. “I happen to be the world’s first openly gay prince.”
“My decision to convert my royal establishment into an LGBTQA community center came up from my own life’s experience when I was disowned by family,” the prince continued. “This is precisely what happens to any other LGBT person in India. People still face a lot of pressure from their families when they come out, being forced to marry, or thrown out of their homes. They often have nowhere to go, no means to support themselves.”
“I am not going to have children, so I thought, why not use this space for a good purpose?” the prince told The Independent in January, adding that he will eventually offer rooms, a medical facility, English-language training and education in vocational skills to help people find jobs.
The prince said he came up with the idea of transforming his ancestral home into a support hub to financially and socially empower the community.
Although India’s Supreme Court is due to review section 377 of its penal code as it affects LGBT people, the prince acknowledges that whatever the legal result, entrenched social prejudice in small towns may be harder to change.
“Accept us the way we are,” said the prince, who recently met with Canadian premier Justin Trudeau to advance his cause. “We are human beings like you.”