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Prince is out but not down

In India, where being gay is a crime, a royal son was shunned when he told his secret. Now he fights to change the law and public mind-set.

January 02, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

Vadodara, India — AS a maharajah's son, Manvendra Singh Gohil grew up in a bubble of prestige and privilege, surrounded by hangers-on who treated him so reverentially that he was 15 before he crossed a street by himself.

So the public snubs and rejection of the last nine months have been a new experience. Yet the mild-mannered Gohil couldn't be more content.

At last, he says, he is living an honest life -- albeit one that has touched off a scandal in the royal house of Rajpipla, one of India's former princely states. Last March, he revealed a lifelong secret to a local newspaper, which promptly splashed it on the front page.

"The headline was: 'The Prince of Rajpipla Declares That He's a Homosexual,' " Gohil said with a rueful chuckle. "The newspaper sold like hotcakes."

In the uproar that followed, disgusted residents in Gohil's hometown flung his photograph onto a bonfire.

His parents publicly disowned their only son, printing notices in the press that he was cut off as heir because of his involvement in "activities unacceptable to society." Gohil's mother has threatened contempt proceedings against anyone who refers to him as her son.

For scandal-mongers, the tale of India's gay prince is an irresistibly juicy affair full of details worthy of a tabloid tell-all: his teenage affair with a servant boy, a sexless marriage to a minor princess, a nervous breakdown.

For Gohil, his very public unmasking has brought him a bully pulpit from which to speak out against a law that makes him not just a pariah of noble birth but also a common criminal.

Here in the world's largest democracy, home to 1.1 billion people, sex between two people of the same gender remains a punishable offense. Decades after India threw off the yoke of British rule, the country still clings to a Victorian-era statute established by its colonial masters nearly 150 years ago, which demands up to life in prison for anyone committing "carnal intercourse against the order of nature."

In practice, few prosecutions are brought to court. But reports abound of police using the law to harass and blackmail gay men and lesbians.

Human rights advocates, lawyers groups and the government's AIDS coordinator are lobbying for repeal or revision of the law. In September, dozens of Indian luminaries, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and author Vikram Seth, added their voices to the campaign. Activists are guardedly hopeful about the chances of a legal challenge now pending before the Delhi High Court. A hearing is scheduled for this month.

But even should they succeed, changing attitudes will prove a far harder task.

Despite India's high-tech wizardry and its rising affluence, this remains a highly conservative and conformist society where most young people undergo arranged marriages, the pressure to produce children is enormous and no gay role models or TV shows like "Will & Grace" exist to offer a hint of an alternative.

Those who feel different learn to keep it to themselves -- and to feel guilt-stricken about it.

"It's not uncommon among the young people we work with to ask, 'Is there a medicine that can make me stop feeling this way?' " said Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation, an AIDS organization that has taken a leading role in the fight to decriminalize homosexuality. "The law compounds all of this. It creates an environment for people to feel like this."

The criminalization of homosexuality makes it difficult to set up social venues where gays can meet. Even in the nation's capital, New Delhi, a thriving metropolis of 15 million people, there are only two bars that host furtive, word-of-mouth gay nights just once a week, usually under the protective guise of a "private party" for some fictitious person. Those nights are packed.

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GOHIL, 41, would seem an unlikely spokesman for bucking the system, one from which he has benefited handsomely.

Although India's royal families were stripped of formal political power after the nation's independence in 1947, many retain enormous wealth and influence in their former fiefdoms, as smiling ribbon-cutters and patrons of the arts, education and charitable work.

Gohil's parents, the maharajah and maharani of Rajpipla, a predominantly agricultural town of about 70,000 people in the western state of Gujarat, are the community's biggest landowners and have several palaces to their name, including a majestic, salmon-pink creation, complete with columns and balconies, that was Gohil's home when he was a toddler. (It's now a hotel owned by the family.)

He lived a cocooned existence there and at the family residence in Mumbai, spending his childhood absorbing the finer points of royal protocol and etiquette, attending the finest schools and being waited on hand and foot.

"It was so luxurious that even a glass of water I didn't have to go and get for myself," he said.

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