One of the many truly inspiring stories that we heard during the course of our two weeks in Gujarat was the story of Manvendra Singh Gohil, the former crown prince of Rajpipla and the first Indian royal to come out of the closet. We met Manvendra at the house of the founder of Lakshya Trust, the first and only LGBT rights organization in Gujarat. We had not originally arranged to meet him, so it was a magnificent surprise that he was there, as he is quite a celebrity, and was willing to share his powerful story with us.
Manvendra is a member of the royal family of the former Princely State of Rajpipla, in southern Gujarat. After independence, the princely states of India were subsumed into the modern political divisions of the country granting their royal families only symbolic status. After 1971, the royal families of these states had to use the qualifier “former” in front of their royal titles as the Indian princely order was abolished. However, these families still, even to this day, hold a great deal of importance and are widely recognized and revered throughout India. This made Manvendra’s decision even more difficult. After an obviously unsuccessful marriage, he decided to use his voice and his position as a former prince to support the cause of gay rights in India. It was an extremely risky decision for which he initially paid a heavy price. When his coming-out statement was printed in the national newspapers, he was officially disowned by his family and effigies of him were burnt in the streets of Rajpipla. He had the courage and bravery to ride out the criticism, though, and things got much better for him. His family has accepted him again and one of his uncles is even writing his biography. He has become the face of LGBT rights in India, has appeared on the Oprah show, and has participated in many international pride festivals and LGBT rights conferences.
It was inspiring to talk with Manvendra and to see an organization that is making some of the first moves for LGBT rights in India, a country that while being the world’s largest democracy is very far behind the curve with regards to the LGBT community. In relation to the larger research of our trip, though, it was obvious that the Lakshya Trust was put into a very difficult position. When asked about the 2002 violence, the director side-stepped around the issue. It was very obvious that they were very concerned as an organization and tried to build a sense of a gay community to unite the Hindu and Muslim communities that were so brutally divided in 2002. However, Lakshya was put into a very delicate position that reflects the position that may LGBT organizations face around the world. The fight for their rights is so difficult, particularly with the legal status of homosexuality in India at the time, that they have to be extremely careful with every move that they make. Additionally, they had a certain degree of support from the government for their work on HIV/AIDS so they could not risk that at all by making any sort of stand on or speaking out against the 2002 violence. Unfortunately, LGBT rights organizations in many countries often can’t afford to take a strong stand on other political issues in a country, even when those issues may have a very detrimental long-term effect on their community.