"Once upon a time, there was a gay prince who tried to do something for the community"and so starts Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil's story, in his own words.
It's been five years since Gohil announced he is gay, and five years since his parents disowned him and his neighbors burned effigies of him in the streets. His parents are coming to accept his sexuality, he is a symbol of LGBTQ rights in India and his organization has grown to serve tens of thousands. For the first the time in his life, Gohil's focus has shifted to unmet challenges: how to reconcile the traditional duties of a future king of Rajpipla State while acting as a figurehead for India's gay-rights movement, and how to find a companion that values him more than his money and fame.
Gohil was born destined to carry on the traditions of his country. (India's royalty was de-recognized in 1970 but still hold influence and cultural importance.) He is expected fulfill generations of customs, advise Indian legislators and raise an heir to take his place when he can no longer rule. Gohil is also the only openly gay royal in India, and the founder of Lakshya Trust, an organization that does LGBTQ advocacy and outreach work as well as HIV/AIDS prevention.
When Gohil takes the throne, he will bear both the burden of advancing India's views about sexual minorities as well as maintaining the hierarchies and traditions he has inherited. That's not easy, Gohil told Windy City Times on a visit to Chicago to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
"It's has been very challenging for me to keep a balance between a gay lifestyle and a royal lifestyle," he said.
The only son of Maharana Shri Raghubir Singhji Rajendrasinghji Sahib, Gohil grew up in a pink palace, catered to by an army of servants and maids. His relationship with his parents was distant and formal. When he was 14, they sponsored an orphan and brought him to the palace to look after Gohil. The two boys grew close quickly.
"We started exploring our sexuality with each other," Gohil said. "And that's the first time I realized I was attracted towards the same sex."
Gohil didn't know there was a word for his feelings, but he knew he should keep them to himself. "There was a sense of guilt also that I am doing the wrong thing," he said. "I always thought that this is something which I am just experiencing for the time and that as I grow older, things will work out."
At 25, Gohil got married. Unable to consummate the marriage, he was divorced seven months later. Gohil started to doubt himself. He knew his marriage had been a mistake and he had a growing suspicion that he gay.
In 2000, a closeted Gohil founded Lakshya Trust, an organization for gay men and transgender people. Still, few knew he was gay, and pressure to remarry was mounting. In 2002, Gohil suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. It was then he finally came out to his parents.
"They told me that as long as it stays within the royal family, it's not a problem," Gohil said. Gohil waited four years before coming out in the press. When he did, his parents publicly disowned him. But Gohil refused to be quiet or apologize. He knew that Indian law didn't allow parents to disown their children on the basis of sexual orientation. He refused to leave the palace. But Gohil also refrained from bringing his parents to court or outright rejecting their decision. He waited out the storm.
It was Oprah Winfrey, Gohil said, who turned things around for him. In 2007, the prince made his first appearance on her show. "There are lot of Oprah fans in India and especially the royal family," he said. "That changed a lot of people's mindsets because they said that if Oprah has called me all the way to Chicago, she is not a fool to do that."
Today, Gohil said he is enjoying more freedom than ever before. Indian anti-sodomy laws were overturned in 2009. Pride events have been taking place all over the country. Lakshya Trust is building a nursing home for LGBTQ elders, the latest of its many projects.
On Jan. 19, Gohil sat down again with Oprah Winfrey and updated her on his life. Winfrey had her own news to share. She would come see Gohil in India next yearher first trip to the country. Gohil also hopes that Winfrey will help him inaugurate the Lakshya nursing home. He believes her visit, in support of gay people, could have a significant impact on the ways homosexuality is viewed in India.
"It gives me great satisfaction," Gohil said. "As a gay activist I have been very happy and very satisfied that I have been able to achieve something at least for the society."
Gohil is, in some ways, an unlikely hero to for the marginalized. He laughs as he rattles off his shortcomings. He was 16 before he first crossed the street by himself. At 45, he still hesitates in front of traffic. He fears that if he were left alone for too long, he would die of starvation because as a royal, he never learned to cook. He is terrified that his own prince will never come, that he'll grow old and die without a soulmate.
The last is particularly pressing for Gohil. "There is what I will say a fear or insecurity that I don't have a companion in life," he said. "And I've been quite a failure in getting a soulmate for myself."
His past relationships have failed, he said, because the guys were only interested in his money or fame. In 2009, Gohil tried to find true love on reality TV, when he dressed as a commoner and dated on the British show Undercover Princes. Even in plain clothes, he didn't meet the right guy.
For now, Gohil remains focused on his advocacy work. He is training young people to follow in his footsteps as an LGBTQ activist."This is an endless struggle," he said. "It cannot end with someone like me."
Gohil will also need to find someone to follow in his footsteps as a prince. The prince needs an heir, and he will have to adopt a son in order to get one. This will be one of his many duties as king, and he said he is ready for the job. "I am born as a prince, and I will always remain a prince, even if I am gay. That does not change my status," he said. "Whatever I'm doing, I'm doing it with honesty and truthfulness."