It's Hard Out There For A Prince
By Tim Murphy
[note: "It's Hard Out There For A Prince" first ran in our September, 2008, issue. We thought it was worth featuring again now that Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is starring in the new reality series Undercover Princes which just debuted on BBC. Along with Prince Remigius of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and Prince Africa Zulu from Zululand, South Africa, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is hoping to find someone who will love him for who he truly is and not just for his wealth or status. The three princes will go undercover, living and working as ordinary people for the first time in their lives and will attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of Brighton's single scene, join Internet dating sites, and even try their luck at speed dating. At the end of the series the princes will reveal their true identities to their chosen ones and whisk them back to their respective kingdoms. For more information about the show check out the BBC's website.]
Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil ('Manav' to his friends), 39th in line to the throne of Rajpipla, a principality in the prosperous west'central Indian state of Gujarat, walks stiffly toward the camera in a tight-fitting kurta of luminous champagne-colored cotton and a pataka, or stole, of embroidered red silk organza. His bearing is stately, the better to balance his enormous green Jaipuri-print turban. He is dressed almost identically to his male maharaja ancestors going back centuries -- all of them fearsome Rajputs, a group within India's warrior caste -- whose portraits are hung around this cavernous front ballroom of a sprawling rococo 1910 palace. The chairs are cushioned in red brocade, the walls painted an eye-popping tangerine, and the slight down-at-heels scruffiness of the otherwise imposing room is highlighted by an unremarkable 19-inch TV, askew on a richly carved teak end table.
The prince sits bolt-upright on a divan, hands primly in his lap. 'My name is Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil,' he tells the camera, 'and I would be interested to come down to England.'
Other than me, this is the prince's media obligation of the day: to make an audition tape for a planned Channel Four reality show, The Traveling Prince, in which princes from around the world will travel to England and, hopefully, meet Prince Charles and Harry and Wills. The on-tape interview begins.
'What are you most fond of in life?' one of the cameramen reads from a card.
'Vildlife -- flora and fauna,' the prince responds in his patient, lilting, slightly adenoidal, V's-where-W's-should-go accent. 'And music is my passion.'
'What movies do you like?'
'I watch only historical films.'
'What are you known for?'
His family, the prince explains, despite having lost their formal power when Britain left India in 1947, still possesses enormous local esteem (not to mention a lot of real estate). 'We are even treated as gods in some areas,' he says. Then he gets down to the news peg: 'I became famous in India because I am the first member of a royal family to come out as a gay.'
'Who do you most admire?'
'I admire the courage of Elton John.'
'Who is your favorite American?'
'Oprah Winfrey. I really admire that woman, having the best talk show in the world.' (He was on it last fall, in a series featuring gay people from around the world.)
'What is your message to British people?'
'Because section 337 of our penal code still exists, there is a lot of stigma and discrimination in our country toward gays,' he says, referring to the Indian law, begun under 19th-century British rule, criminalizing gay sex. It's seldom enforced but often used by police to blackmail closeted gay men. The country's small cadre of out gay activists have long lobbied for its demise.
'Would you marry a man?'
'We can't get married. We can only have some sort of understanding between two partners, which I look for.'
'What do you like doing on a date?'
The prince squirms uncomfortably. 'Can I avoid this question?'
The interview is over. 'For me,' the prince asks, 'should they call this show Traveling Prince or Traveling Princess?'
Two of the prince's manservants unwind his turban. 'There's always too many reporters here,' he sighs to me. 'That's why I can never have sex here.' But, after a little more than 48 hours with him, I know the prince doth protest too much. Since he shocked and rocked India with his coming-out two years ago, he's become a media sensation, and it's already clear to me that he loves the adulation. In his own princely way, he might even be addicted to it -- a veritable Rajput media whore. But the prince, 42, says he wants love, and recently, I'm learning, it looks like he might have found it. The million-rupee question: Can he cool his love affair with the press long enough to nurture one with another man?
In March 2006, after years of silence that included what he calls 'a nervous breakdown' before a Bombay shrink helped him accept his gayness, the prince told his local paper that not only was he gay but that he had no intention of remarrying. (His first, brief marriage in the early '90s ended in divorce when the prince wouldn't consummate the union. His devastated wife left him on grounds of impotence and has remarried. They are not in touch.)
The reaction to his coming-out was seismic. His parents, who first thought he had been slandered, were horrified when they learned he'd green-lighted the story. His kinfolk in Rajpipla burned photos of him in protest. Soon after, his mother took out an ad in the local paper disowning and disinheriting him. Technically, though, she couldn't -- he is the only male heir to the dynasty -- and he stood his ground.
By that fall, the situation had improved: He celebrated his 41st birthday with a cultural festival at the palace attended by his father -- who'd reconciled with him -- and declared that he planned to adopt an heir from within his Rajput clan.
Meanwhile, the world press beat a path to his palace door, which brought heightened attention to Lakshya Trust, the nonprofit he had quietly started years ago to provide HIV prevention, counseling, and other services for the gays and hijras (transgender MTFs) of Gujarat.
Then came the ultimate accolade -- Oprah's invitation. Though he's been waited on since birth, the prince still marvels at the royal treatment the show gave him in Chicago. 'In spite of reaching so much in life, she is so humble,' he said about Oprah. 'She showed a lot of respect to me, coming from royalty. I had this feeling that we could actually see the struggle in each other's eyes -- I could feel what she's undergone in life.' On the show, he told her, 'Had I not been a gay, I would have proposed to you.' She replied, 'Nothing like living in a palace.'
A few days before I leave for India, the prince e-mailed me about travel details. It was 4 p.m. my time, the middle of the night his. We emailed back and forth:
ME: Isn't it your bedtime? ;)
PRINCE: yes it is but am unable to sleep. thinking about you...
ME: I hate to think I am keeping you awake. ;)
PRINCE: r u gay?
ME: YES! i guess i just assumed you knew. yes, been with the same guy for nearly 6 years. you seeing anyone?
PRINCE: will tell u when we meet
Vivek Anand, an excitable former ad man, sits in his tiny office in East Santacruz, a Mumbai neighborhood where he runs the local office of the Humsafar Trust, the pioneering Mumbai HIV prevention and support group for gay men and hijras founded by the godfather of Indian gay activism, Ashok Row Kavi, in 1994. 'Manav comes here all the time,' he says of the prince. 'He's just one of the queens who hang around here.' Anand knew Manav for many years as the founder of Lakshya Trust before he realized that he was the selfsame anonymous 'gay prince' that financed Humsafar's hotline -- Manav had never mentioned his princely status. 'In my mind, he's not a prince, he's a friend,' says Anand. 'I shout at him, I abuse him.'
According to Anand, the prince's disclosure was a massive shot in the arm to the gay men of India, most of whom are under enormous pressure from their families to marry (women). Many do, and have unprotected gay sex on the side. That's among the factors that have contributed to high levels of HIV in India -- about 2.5 million people, or 0.3 % of the population, rates far below countries in sub'Saharan Africa, but grave nevertheless.
Will the prince find love? I ask Anand. 'He has,' he says. 'With a very good friend of mine. He's a royal also. Why don't you suggest they start a royal gay men's group that gives money to Humsafar?'
Anand then accompanies me across town to Bandra, a leafy middle-class neighborhood. The prince is in town for lessons on his harmonium, an accordion-like instrument he has been studying religiously since he was 5. At a trendy soup-and-salad place, Anand introduces the prince and me, and then heads home, too tired to join us.
The prince, who is polite and reserved, has large, gentle brown eyes, a very prominent nose and moustache, and a diamond in each ear. (A friend of mine, meeting him later, says he looks like Snoop Dogg.) He attracts stares, but it's hard to know if it's because people recognize him as the gay prince or for the eccentric traditional Indian dress he wears wherever he goes. Tonight he wears a simple white kurta (long overshirt), the slipper-like leather shoes called mojri, and the tight-fitting pajama-type pants called churidar, which are artfully twisted around the legs. He lengthily explains how to twist them. 'Churi means bangles, and if you are wearing bangles on your leg, one above the other, how would they look? You see these pleats? You pull this down, and then take small pleats of it, and then twist.' It's all very Edie Beale.