We were incredibly honored to host the first openly gay royal in the world, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India. As an activist, organic farmer, public health educator and humanitarian, Prince Manvendra has gained legalization for homosexuality in India, founded multiple organizations to support the gay and lesbian community of India and educate about HIV prevention, and travelled far and wide with a message of self-empowerment, mutual aid, and political and social enlightenment.
During his stay at Ace Hotel New York, he found a moment to tell us more about his experiences, his activism and his take on the gay and lesbian culture in the US.
How are you finding your stay in New York?
Oh, wonderful. The Ace Hotel is really looking after me very well, it’s rather pampering me, I would say. And my stay has been really wonderful until now, very enjoyable and meeting up with a lot of people. And I must say, New York is very warm and friendly.
Oh, good, I’m so glad to hear it.
Even though the weather is not warm, the people are warm. So I’m having a very comfortable time here.
I’m curious if you feel that being part of the royal family has made it easier or more difficult for you to come out as gay and do the work that you do?
Initially it was very difficult because I happened to be the only openly gay royal in the whole world and the first person to come out and talk. And I think I still enjoy the monopoly, nobody has yet come out and talked that openly. And it was very challenging for me because I was disowned by my family, publicly disowned and publicly disinherited, my effigies were burned in the fire and people kind of protested against my coming out and there was a lot of outcry. And then gradually it faded down because I told the media that I don’t blame the society, I blame their ignorance.
And it is bound to happen that whenever something new happens, or this kind of thing happens, in society people are bound to react. And it is my duty to make them aware of what is the facts of life and I always say if one has to solve a problem, one has to go to the root of that problem. And in order to do that, one has to realize or one has to accept the facts of life or one has to accept the reality, come to terms to the reality. Then you can solve that problem. So now I started doing that, media has helped me a lot. Indian media really has brought out very positive stories on homosexuality, which they were not doing in the past. And I’ve managed to sensitize the media, the print media as well as the television media and especially the vernacular media and through their help I managed to sensitize a lot of people, made them aware of what is the truth. A lot of misconceptions about homosexuality we managed to kind of remove from their minds and that’s how the process began. And now it’s fine, people have started accepting gradually. And more than that, I think my attachment to a call or a larger call helped me a lot for the people to accept me. And the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of social work, not just for the gay community but for others as well in the fields of employment, education, agriculture, health.
So that branding of mine, I would call it, helped me to gain… regain the respect from the people, from my town, from my family. And again, Oprah’s interview made a difference because when people realized that I was the third Indian to be invited by her and the only one to be invited twice, they realized that if Oprah is calling me all the way to Chicago and I mean there are a lot of Oprah fans in India and all of them know that Oprah is not gay. So if there’s a person who’s not in the community and yet she is so openly supporting this whole entire call, I mean there is something, there’s some substance to my fight. So that’s how people… I could change people’s attitudes and mindsets and it’s gradually happening. I mean I am kind of realizing that very soon we will be kind of, you know, achieving our freedom very soon.
And tell me about a typical day at home for you, working and doing everything you do.
See, basically, being from the royal family I have to maintain duties, or rather kind of balance the duties, my royal duties as well as duties being a gay activist and working for a charity AIDS, as well as my occupation. I do agriculture, I’m an organic farmer.
And I’m also a student of music. So it’s a combination of a lot of things happening all throughout the day. And there is no fixed routine which I follow, except for the meals and sleep and whatever, the biological needs one has to fulfill. Apart from those things, there is no fixed routine, my needs depends on what is expected from me from society or from the people or for the people for whom I’m working for. So like when I’m in the palace I do a lot of social work as well for the people, I do a lot of media interviews, which are basically to kind of highlight or kind of create awareness about the work I’m doing for charity AIDS.
I started this foundation called Lakshya, which is focusing on HIV prevention amongst the gay community. And apart from that, I’m fighting for our rights, for our empowerment. So those are the things which I normally kind of bring out in the media, and then there are a couple of other things like within my own town, like there are a lot of things to be done. Because since I belong to a 650-year-old family — I’m the 39th direct descendent of this family, our dynasty — and so we are actually the custodians of the rich, traditional cultural heritage of our town. So there are instances where I need to meet up with a lot of officials, government officers, bureaucrats, for the wellbeing of the town. Because though we are not ruling our towns anymore, we are treated as a role model and a lot is expected from us from the people. Our own palace, for example, is more than a 100-year-old building, so it’s just now partly a hotel and it’s even a museum. So we have to keep everything in place, everything in order, maintain our rich heritage. So there are things like restoration of our paintings, of our furniture, the textiles, of animal skins, armory, crockery, cutlery, polishing, you know, jewelry, for instance. So there’s so much work involved, it’s a kind of an endless job, you can say, on the royal front. And on the activism front of course, as I told you, I have this organization so there’s a whole team of people working for me.
I have a staff of almost 150 men, most of them are gay, and we are trying to spread awareness about HIV prevention amongst the community — get them treated or get them tested. We’re running clinics for sexually transmitted infections, we distribute condoms, we do a lot of counseling in the gay community. And now I am busy and the reason for which I’ve come down to the USA is that there are certain issues on which we have started working and for which we need the contribution from people from all walks of life from all over the world.
One is we have started working on the mental health issues of gay men and another area is taking care and building support, care and support for HIV positive people or persons suffering from AIDS. So I’m in the process of developing a hospice, or what’s called a care home for persons suffering from AIDS who are in the last stages of life, those who are terminally ill. And so that they lead a peaceful and happy and healthy life towards the end of their life. Because the fact is they are stigmatized and discriminated and thrown out of the houses of families and they just die on the streets. So I thought of making this kind of center or care home. And I’m also working on a retirement home for senior gay and lesbian community because this kind of facility’s not available in India, so my retirement home will be the first one of its kind where those who are old and they need support and they need medical help, they need mental health counseling, they could come and spend their old age or the rest of their lives in my home and we could give them proper security and support and with all means, whatever we could provide. So I have actually come to New York for that purpose. I’m very happy and glad to know that so far whomever I’ve met from all walks of life, whether they are fashion designers or they’re hoteliers or they’re stylists or anyone whom I’ve met here, they all kind of have supported me in my cause. And they’re willing to help me out in my charities in whatever manner they can, whether it’s financial or it’s technical or it’s resources or it’s experience sharing or knowledge.
I’ve been really fortunate that Americans are helping me and of course it was all started by Oprah Winfrey because I’m the only Indian to be invited by Oprah twice for her interview in Chicago. And that has made a lot of difference to me, not just in India but worldwide itself. I mean the amount of publicity which was generated, because I guess there are a lot of Oprah fans all over the world and especially in India also. And next year most probably Oprah is visiting India as part of her new series which she’s doing and she’s already announced that, on the camera, that she would be coming to stay with me in the palace. And I have also requested her to inaugurate my retirement home, which I plan to complete before she arrives. So…
Yeah, so those are the little things which I try to do or, you know, manage to do it with whatever capacity I have.
How different is to to be in the gay community in New York than in India?
First of all, I think in New York, New Yorkers are kind of… or rather Americans, I would say, are quite fascinated by royalty, number one. Because I’ve experienced this fact from the time I’ve been coming for the Oprah show, the amount of royal treatment or VIP treatment I received from the Americans is tremendous. I don’t think I received this kind of treatment even in India. So yeah, so that’s something which it is quite fascinating for me and exciting for me and of course the gay life here is much freer. I was yesterday in the Stonewall, I was very much keen to visit the Stonewall, just to get the vibes or get the feeling of what struggle America has gone through to get the freedom which they have managed.
And we are actually way behind, way behind that and our Stonewall moment has just begun. And we have recently managed to kind of legalize homosexuality in India, which was a crime earlier. Earlier, the homosexual act was penalized by our country, so just two years back we managed to do that. So I was much wanting to see and experience, and I did have a very nostalgic and memorable experience yesterday being at the Stonewall Inn and seeing the photographs and talking to people and that sort of thing. And I’ve been meeting a lot of people from the gay community. And my idea of coming here and meeting people is to know and to feel happy, and I mean share with them the freedom which we are enjoying in this country.
You know? And kind of, I feel happy when I see other people happy, so yeah, I have joy in seeing… I mean and I can relate America to freedom because we are yet struggling to get ourselves free from the stigmatized and discriminated society with regards to the gay community. So I feel like I feel free, I feel happy to be in this kind of environment and so far they have organized a benefit dinner for me and there’s another one happening tomorrow. And a lot of other people are joining in, they have new ideas, and I plan to visit America on a regular basis just to get some information and contributions. And I’ve appointed a representative, my U.S. representative, Spencer Lord, who is with me in the hotel right now, and he’s going to take care of all my visits to America. Whether it’s New York or it’s San Francisco or it’s Chicago, wherever I go he will be planning it out for me. And yeah, at the same time I would wish that Americans also come down and I could expose them to our lifestyle, our royal lifestyle, what work we are doing in our foundation. So I think if the two countries like ours, America and India, join hands, we could achieve a lot for both of us. Like it will be a cultural exchange, it will be an exchange of ideas, information. We could learn something from America and America could learn something from us. So I think it’s high time we joined hands together for the betterment of the whole world.
Agreed. Thank you so much for the amazing work that you’re doing and we’re really, really honored to host you.
Yeah, it’s so nice, yeah, I appreciate that. And I always say that whatever… I believe in destiny and perhaps I have been designed to do this sort of work and I just hope for the best.
Photos by Chase Jarvis
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