Coming out to one’s parents is hard enough at the best of times. For Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, who was born into one of India’s royal dynasties, it was nearly life-destroying.
Speaking exclusively to Tatler from Rajvant Palace, his family’s grand residence in Gujarat, western India, the 55-year-old prince recalls how having a breakdown in the early 2000s set him on a path that led to his being crowned one of the country’s leading LGBTQ+ rights activists and hailed by many as the only openly gay prince in the world.
By 2002, Prince Manvendra was certain he was gay, having been attracted to men for years. But he had no idea how his deeply traditional parents, the Maharana and Maharani of Rajpipla, would take the news. His honesty was not rewarded. ‘My mother and father demanded I have surgery or shock therapy to be cured,’ he says.
The prince was hauled off to a series of doctors and spiritual guides, all of whom told his parents in no uncertain terms that their son’s homosexuality was neither a disorder nor a mental illness that could be expunged. ‘You can spend all the money you want on this,’ one doctor warned them, ‘but nothing will change.’
Undeterred, however, the Maharana and Maharani of Rajpipla tried to keep their son’s homosexuality under wraps – it was then illegal in India – but in 2006, the prince came out to a newspaper. The story became headline news nationally and then globally. While he was rushed on to The Oprah Winfrey Show to bask in western admiration, locals in his home town, Rajpipla, took to the streets, burning his effigy and targeting him with death threats.
The reaction of his mother was not empathetic, to say the least. She took out an advert in a newspaper to announce that she was disowning the prince, threatening to sue anyone who dared to refer to him as her son.
For all that Prince Manvendra has been through, he comes across as remarkably calm when we speak. The family palace in the old capital of their erstwhile kingdom is achingly romantic: the outside walls are painted pastel pink; inside, the marble-floored and lime-painted rooms are hung with tiger skins and portraits of Prince Manvendra’s maharaja ancestors. The building is a beautiful mix of gothic archways, Greek columns and Roman rotundas, with box hedges, buttresses and balconies where guests can sip chai at dusk. But cannons on the driveway hint at the more muscular role the prince’s forebears once played in the region, where rule was once divided between the British and the maharajas.
When we speak on the phone, it’s the afternoon for me and night-time for Prince Manvendra, and he warns me he can’t stay up too late as he’s teaching a yoga class early next morning. He is charismatic, warm and more keen to talk about me than to tell his extraordinary life story.
‘How old are you?’ he asks, inquisitive. ‘I’m 36,’ I reply. ‘Boyfriend? Girlfriend?’ he probes. ‘Currently neither,’ I squirm. ‘When the pandemic is over, you must come and stay here,’ he says firmly. ‘We’ll find you a nice man.’
India ‘de-recognised’ its monarchy in 1971. Prince Manvendra was six when his father, then a maharaja, became a commoner. Yet, to this day, honorary titles are used for princely descendants, many of whom carry out royal duties as if nothing had ever changed. Although Prince Manvendra’s family had to tighten their belts, they hardly starved; they kept their royal palace – built in 1915 – and turned it into a tourist attraction, which allowed them to live well.
The Gohil Rajput dynasty from which Prince Manvendra descends can be traced right back to the sixth century, when Muhideosur Gohadit became chief of an area near modern Idar, in Gujarat, in 556. Over the centuries, the prince’s Gohil ancestors faced invasions from sultans and emperors, and sometimes used guerilla tactics to defend their land. The princely state of Rajpipla was second only to nearby Baroda in terms of size and importance, and even saw off onslaughts from Baroda’s Gaekwar rulers. By the time of the 33rd Gohil ruler, Maharana Verisalji II, in the 19th century, the dynasty was even standing up to the British. And although India is a democracy today, royal dynasties – the firmly conservative Gohils in particular – are still revered.
Prince Manvendra was raised with his sister in the lap of luxury. Before India abandoned its monarchical system, the family was notorious for its lavishness: at one stage they had about 100 servants in the palace kitchen. Prince Manvendra’s great-grandfather, the last ruling maharaja of Rajpipla, from 1915 until 1951, owned Rolls-Royces and built roads, train lines and an electricity and water supply for the region. He kept racehorses, too – one of which, Windsor Lad, won the Epsom Derby in 1934. Afterwards, King George V and Queen Mary invited the maharaja to their box to celebrate.
After Indian independence in 1947, the maharaja handed over his princely state to the new province of Bombay, along with millions of rupees that were deposited in the new state treasury. He died in Old Windsor in England in 1951, and was cremated in India amid vast crowds.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the prince’s cloistered upbringing in the 1970s and 1980s and the chilly way many aristocratic European children were raised. ‘Most families at the time I was growing up had a governess to take care of the children,’ he explains. The young prince had no friends (he was too grand to mix with other children) and rarely saw his mother. He grew so attached to his governess that he became confused about who his real mother was. Realising at the age of 10 that the woman who had nurtured him was only an employee was ‘a struggle’, he says.
On the rare occasions his parents did interact with him when he was a boy, it was often to find fault. Prince Manvendra was left-handed, and the religious rituals the family performed were mostly designed for right-handers. So they sent him off to the doctor, as they would years later when he told them he was gay. ‘The doctor said to my parents that there was nothing wrong with being left-handed and that trying to change me would cause serious mental issues,’ the prince recalls.
Undaunted, his parents decided to become masters of his fate once more, by setting Prince Manvendra up with a young princess he barely knew, from another state. They married in 1991, but the relationship fell apart after a year. Disgraced, but on good terms with his ex-wife, the prince returned to Mumbai, a divorced virgin in a parlous mental state.
‘I had suicidal thoughts, of course,’ he says softly when asked how he coped. ‘I have always believed in honesty. Being closeted and having to lie… I felt I could not live a double-standard life. So I thought I should end mine. There was no point living a life I didn’t want to live.’
India’s record on LGBTQ+ rights leaves much to be desired. When Prince Manvendra was married, homosexuality was a criminal offence. Now it’s finally legal, after a landmark 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of India. But when the prince was growing up, extremely close and tactile relationships between men were the norm.
‘In India, homo-social behaviour is very accepted,’ he says. ‘Go to any palace and they’ll have strict sections where men and women cannot mingle.’ He was looked after by male servants, who took care of him with an almost romantic solicitude, and the mixed signals were tough to make sense of while he was trying to wrap his head around his sexuality. ‘On the one hand, they tell you being gay is wrong. But on the other, you have men hanging out with each other, hugging each other. Same with women. Yet, if you see a man and a woman socialising, they’re looked at as if they come from another planet.’
Prince Manvendra is remarkably sanguine about the prejudice he has had to endure from his mother. ‘If I’d been attached to my parents, coming out would have been very difficult and full of struggle,’ he muses. ‘But I wasn’t – so this was an advantage. It was through no fault of mine that I was disowned. I was being discriminated against, yes, but I didn’t suffer like others who are close to their families.’
Have mother and son made peace? ‘My relationship hasn’t changed much with her since [I came out]. She’s just realised she cannot make me straight and that she tried her best,’ Prince Manvendra cheerfully explains. Meanwhile, the woman he thought was his real mother when he was growing up – his governess – died years before he revealed his sexuality. He often wonders what she would have made of him being gay.
Not everyone in the royal family has condemned Prince Manvendra for being so open. His paternal grandmother, the rani (the dowager maharani), lived into her 90s and told him on her deathbed that she was happy for him. ‘It’s interesting that the older generation are more accepting,’ the prince says, reeling off a list of the open-minded elders in his life, including his 97-year-old secretary and a former teacher who, at 91, asked to march in a Pride parade with him.
‘When I came out in 2006, not a single person in my town was in my favour,’ he says. ‘But the senior citizens’ association sent me a letter to congratulate me for taking this step. Not because I was gay – they said it was because I spoke the truth.’
Gradually, he has seen attitudes in India start to change around him. ‘People are proud that I have achieved something for a common cause, not just for myself.’ Yet there is still plenty of bigotry, and he has spent much of lockdown preparing a property in the palace grounds to be a refuge for at-risk LGBTQ+ Indians. He is particularly admired by India’s young people, who see him as a progressive figure.
Love came for the prince eventually. In 2013, he got married for the second time – more felicitously, to a man: DeAndre Richardson, an American he met on social media. It was a slow burn, Prince Manvendra says with a grin. ‘We weren’t instantly romantically involved. I had my fun after coming out. I went to Brighton and slept with men,’ he says, chuckling. ‘But DeAndre and I fell in love.’
The couple live together, blissfully happy. While the prince and his husband can now live freely in India, Prince Manvendra says he won’t rest on his laurels. ‘There is still a lot of work to be done. Many don’t agree with the Supreme Court’s decision,’ he says, referring to the 2018 legalisation of homosexuality. ‘It is now our duty to explain why it was important to change this law. Homophobia and hypocrisy must be decimated.’
Prince Manvendra isn’t alone in his equal-rights crusade and he has allies all over the world. One is fellow Indian Amar Singh, a member of the erstwhile Kapurthala royal family. Singh and Prince Manvendra share lineage – both are from princely states. Singh is not gay, but he has received threats merely for working on LGBTQ+ Indian issues. Undeterred, Singh marked the two-year anniversary of India’s legalisation of homosexuality with an online exhibition in September from his London gallery. Both Singh and Prince Manvendra are now investing their energies into the eradication of conversion therapy – still legal in both the UK and India. ‘People ask why I am so involved in this,’ Singh says. ‘Change only occurs when allies unite. How can I not be involved?’
Content as Prince Manvendra seems, many fear that warming attitudes towards gay people in India could soon turn frosty again, particularly under the nationalist rule of the country’s prime minister Narendra Modi. Does the prince worry about homosexuality being made illegal once more? He shakes his head. ‘For the first time in the history of India, the prime minister has launched a national council for those who are transgender. This happened in August. Not many countries have that kind of council. America doesn’t have it. India has progressed more than America with trans rights.’
While much of this is down to him, Prince Manvendra won’t hear a word of praise – instead, he reminds me of my open invitation to the palace. I can tell this isn’t an empty gesture.
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue
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