Over the years, India’s first and only openly gay prince, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, has played a big part in improving the lives of LGBTQ people in his country. He came out publicly in 2006 to great controversy and had since set up the Lakshya Trust, a community-based organization that supports and empowers LGBTQ people in his home state of Gujarat. He has also campaigned to repeal section 377 of the penal code, which was overturned this past September. Section 377 was a colonial-era law that criminalized gay sex with a punishment of 10 years to life in prison. It’s a game changer for the LGBTQ people in the country, but according to Gohil, “India definitely will not become less homophobic” as a result of this ruling. “A lot of work needs to be done,” he tells NewNowNext. “A lot of advocacy needs to be done.”
So, what's next in India’s fight for LGBTQ rights and recognition, according to the crowned prince?
“My first and foremost [objective] is to get acceptance from society—the social rights,” Gohil says. The Prince isn’t interested in marriage equality, not yet, but wants to first fight against things like stigma, discrimination, and violence aimed at the LGBTQ community.
“Societal acceptance is going to be a long and a very tough fight, because in the courtroom, we were just handling these five judges.” (Gohil is referencing the judges who make up their supreme court.) “Now, we are facing a whole society of millions and billions of homophobic people.”
This acceptance can be obtained through education. Gohil feels that, as an activist, he wants to take every opportunity to educate the people of India. He particularly wants to target young people, since the country has the largest youth population in the world, approximately 600 million people. He has already pushed two universities in India to include information on their syllabus relating to the LGBTQ movement in the country, along with health issues that affect the community. He’d like to work with other colleges and universities in the future.
Gohil has also recently been appointed as a gay representative and resource person under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to educate other governing bodies about section 377. He hopes to work with the Department of Higher Education to include LGBTQ issues in the textbooks, as well as information relating to section 377.
How realistic are his ambitions? Delivering sexuality education to college-level students may be more attainable since it wouldn’t require parental feedback. Educated younger people, however, may be more difficult for a country where homosexuality has been decriminalized for less than three months. However, Gohil presents a solid argument in favor of sex-ed that wouldn’t carry weight in many other places.
“India is a country where we have the oldest sex encyclopedia of the world. Why do we forget that? We have the Kama Sutra, you know… So why should we Indians be shy to talk about sex education when it was talked about in scriptures and statues and paintings, even 500 years before Jesus Christ was born.”
“And not only that: The Kama Sutra has an entire chapter on homosexuality. It talks about various positions a man and a man can enjoy; the various positions a woman and a woman can enjoy to get the best sexual satisfaction. It talks about [transgender people]. So why should the country be shy of sex education?”
Gohil believes that developing allies—anybody from students to religious figures—who aren’t a part of the community but are open about their support, could be a way to educate others about LGBTQ-related issues.
Acceptance can come through societal integration, as well. Aside from education, Gohil stresses the importance of the community becoming “mainstreamed,” as he puts it. This would include anything that normalizes LGBTQ people, their issues, and creates visibility. One way he sees this happening is when allies educate others. Another way is when governments or organizations employ LGBTQ people.
“I met the municipal commissioner of the city of Vadodara, which is nearby our city, and I told him, I said, ‘Whenever you have vacancies, why don’t you employ [our transgender population], our gay population?’ He said, ‘Yeah, definitely. I’m open minded about it, and I would like to employ your [community].’”
In 50 years, Gohil would like to see LGBTQ people holding positions of power in areas of politics, science, and education. As examples, he points to people like Apple’s Tim Cook and Fred Hochberg, who was a member of the Obama Administration.
“We are not asking for any special rights. We are not asking for reservations or privileges,” says Gohil. “We want to be treated like any other human being or any other Indian citizen… We want to be a part of this society, this community and treated equally, and without being subject to stigma and discrimination.”
Although the situation for LGBTQ people in India still has a long way to go, the recent ruling has had a positive influence in countries where homosexuality is still criminalized. The constitutional division of the High Court in Kenya, for example, is considering the relevance of the ruling in India in a case to decriminalize gay sex. India and Kenya also have constitutions that support equality.
“I think that if you do have laws, and there are a number of them in Africa and Asia that do seem to have that kind of language, and have the same kind of colonial heritage, that’s a really strong argument that petitioners could bring forward in the future, saying that this has been struck down in India,” says Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher in the LGBT Rights program at Human Rights Watch.
“Global and regional LGBTQ movements are real and are powerful,” Ghoshal adds.
Even the United States is proof that no movements happen overnight. Nor does societal acceptance when it comes to the LGBTQ community. Though it may have taken 157 years for India’s Section 377 to be overturned, September saw an historic step in the right direction.
“It was a moment of independence,” says Gohil.