India's first openly gay prince endured years of torturous conversion therapy. Now, he's fighting to make the practice illegal.
- In 2006, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil came out to a local newspaper, becoming India's first openly gay prince.
- He endured years of conversion therapy — including electroshock treatments — and was publicly disowned by his family.
- Today, he is fighting to make conversion therapy illegal, and works to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the country.
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Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, the 39th direct descendant of India's Gohil Rajput dynasty, knew he was gay at age 12. But he could only live his truth three decades later.
Gohil publicly came out in an interview to a local newspaper in 2006, becoming the first openly gay royal in the country. He was 41 at the time.
Until 2018, homosexuality was illegal in India, punishable under Section 377, a colonial-era draconian law that demanded up to life imprisonment for anyone committing sexual acts "against the order of nature." Naturally, Gohil's public unmasking triggered a nation-wide scandal. The entire town of Rajpipla — a formerly princely state located in the western state of Gujarat where his ancestors were kings — turned on him.
"The day I came out, my effigies were burnt. There were a lot of protests, people took to the streets and shouted slogans saying that I brought shame and humiliation to the royal family and to the culture of India. There were death-threats and demands that I be stripped off of my title," Gohil told Insider over a phone call from the coastal state of Kerala.
His parents, the Maharaja and Maharani of Rajpipla, responded with similar rage. They publicly disowned him as their son and took out advertisements in newspapers announcing that he was cut off as heir due to his involvement in activities "unsuitable to society".
He turned the palace grounds he was once thrown out of into a shelter for the LGBTQ+ community.
Gohil had expected the homophobic uproar. The society he grew up around was strongly conserative, and the country he grew up in didn't legally recognize gay rights. Many around him believed that homosexuality was a mental disorder. At the time, Gohil remembers reporters clamoring to him for a comment on the public rejection. He calmly recounted the answer he gave them, saying, "I don't blame the people who are against me. I blame their ignorance on the subject."
Today, at 55, Gohil's stance remains the same. Much of his advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights continues to primarily revolve around decimating the stigma around homosexuality. It's with that approach that he founded Lakshya Trust, a charitable organization with the aim to improve the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in Gujarat two decades ago.
In 2018, the year that the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in a landmark ruling, Gohil opened up a 15-acre palace grounds to build a shelter for vulnerable members of the community. Ironically, it was the same palace he was thrown out of when he publicly came out years ago.
In that sense, a large part of Gohil's crusade for equal rights and dignity of life for the LGBTQ+ community is rooted in his own painful past, which included being forced into a short-lived arranged marriage with a woman (Gohil eventually married his husband in 2013), enduring years of torturous conversion therapy, and suffering in silence.
After coming out to his family, Gohil was subjected to years of conversion therapy.
Back in 2002, four years before he came out to the world, Gohil came out to his parents, having been attracted to men for years. "They thought it was impossible that I could be gay because my cultural upbringing had been so rich. They had no idea that there's no connection between someone's sexuality and their upbringing," Gohil recounted.
The state of denial was followed by his parents insisting on finding a "cure" for his sexuality. In the next four years, Gohil claims that his parents took him to a host of medical practitioners and spiritual guides, "They approached doctors to operate on my brain to make me straight and subjected me to electroshock treatments." When it didn't work out the way they imagined, Gohil was shipped to religious leaders who were ordered to make him "behave normally." None of it worked. But by the time his parents stopped their efforts, Gohil was left traumatized and depressed, often contemplating suicide. In many ways, he says the newspaper interview unshackled him.
Conversion therapy is still not illegal in India. "I have to keep fighting."
Two decades since, conversion therapy is still not outlawed in India (Tamil Nadu is the only state to legally ban the practice last year). Even though there is no proven success rate, it continues to be widely employed to physically and mentally assault the country's queer population, leading to increased depressionand death by suicide among LGBTQ+ youth in India. In 2020, a 21-year-old bisexual woman committed suicide after her family subjected her to a harrowing two-month ordeal at de-addiction centers in Kerala in a bid to "cure" her bisexuality.
Today, Gohil is at the forefront of the demand for a ban on the unethical practice. In that, he is not just fighting for a ban but is also battling decades of regressive mentality, ignorance, and judgment. "It's important for people like me who have a certain reputation in society to continue the advocacy. We can't just stop because the country repealed Section 377," he said, explaining that a law being passed in India doesn't always mean that people will immediately start accepting or following it.
"Now we have to fight for issues like same-sex marriage, right to inheritance, right to adoption. It's a never-ending cycle. I have to keep fighting."