Social activist Manvendra Singh Gohil speaks about his journey as the voice of LGBTQIA+ community and his work on HIV/AIDS awareness.
Manvendra Singh Gohil (right) is a strong advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights as well as HIV/AIDS education and prevention. (Photograph by Rakesh Malhotra)
Manvendra Singh Gohil is a social activist working for inclusivity among the LGBTQIA+ community in India, for gay and trans rights, and HIV/AIDS awareness. Recognized as India’s first openly gay prince, he runs a unique community center for the queer and trans communities from his 15-acre palace grounds.
Gohil is a brand ambassador of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and has represented India at various global events like pride marches. He also heads a community-run charitable organization Lakshya Trust.
He spoke to SPAN during a visit to American Center New Delhi for an event to mark World AIDS Day in 2022. Excerpts from an interview:
Do you see a change in terms of inclusivity from the time you came out to now, for the LGBTQIA+ community?
We have been fighting for our rights—which are our human rights—for almost two decades. Finally in 2018, the Supreme Court gave this historic judgment that decriminalized Section 377, which was a law passed during British India.
But I have always maintained that our rights are not just won in courtrooms but in the hearts and minds of people.
One of the things that I have been doing is trying to get more allies and more support from people who are not from the LGBTQIA+ community. And I think that’s the best way to mainstream our issues in society.
How has the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2018, affected the LGBTQIA+ space?
The legal foundation is strong now since there is a Supreme Court judgment. But socially, we need to be in good standing as well, because in India many things that are legally permitted may not be socially accepted. Therefore, we have to do a lot of advocacy, whether they are political parties and persons, government officers, media, medical practitioners, mental health practitioners or parents. And I find a lot of positive changes happening because the students of our country are getting interested in our issues. And if they are able to become our allies and advocates, then I think we have a very bright future.
What are your experiences with LGBTQIA+ advocacy in India?
I have traveled quite a bit around the world and come to the conclusion that, comparatively, India is a much safer country for the LGBTQIA+ community. There have been brutal shootings targeting LGBTQIA+ in some countries. Things like that you never get to hear in India.
I have been to many pride marches all over the world and I think India has been the safest. I have visited at least 15 to 20 prides all over the country. There have been no protests by anyone to stop the march. The police are cooperative. We have got very good involvement from other stakeholders too.
Why did you decide to work on AIDS prevention? Could you tell us about your NGO?
I have been working on HIV and AIDS issues since 1995. In those days, there were a lot of deaths, especially among my near and dear ones who identified as gay or transgender. I was trained by Humsafar Trust, the first organization in India to start working for the MSM (Men who have sex with men) and transgender population with regards to HIV. Humsafar later helped me start Lakshya Trust in Gujarat. So it’s very close to my heart—MSM and transgender people are considered a high-risk behavior population, even now. So it’s very important for us to create awareness about HIV and AIDS, among them. I have also become the brand ambassador of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). Through AHF, I got the opportunity to meet many political party representatives and government officials. I am able to advocate more effectively , not just for the MSM and transgender but for the general population, especially when it comes to HIV and AIDS.
You opened your 15-acre palace grounds to become the first-of-its-kind LGBTQIA+ community center in India. Please tell us more about it.
When I came out publicly, I was disowned by my parents, I was disinherited from my ancestral property, I received death threats. So, I thought if this could happen to someone with a privileged background, it could happen to anyone. That prompted me to open up my ancestral property, which was a gift from my father, to the wider community. My father was initially very homophobic, but with education and awareness, I managed to transition him to an ally. My aim is to achieve financial and social empowerment of the community, give them a life of dignity and respect so that they could be empowered and earn a living on their own.
What would you say are three significant milestones for LGBTQIA+ rights? What do you think is the one thing India can learn from the United States in terms of LGBTQIA+ rights?
The first and foremost thing in India is transgender rights. It started with a NALSA case judgment in 2014 by the Supreme Court, and ended in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Also, the setting up of transgender shelter homes—an initiative of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment—is not something you see in many countries in the world. Lakshya Trust started a shelter home for transgender persons, called Garima Greh, which was inaugurated by then-Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thaawarchand Gehlot himself.
One thing the United States addressed is —same sex marriage equality. I hope to see that right here very soon. Attached with that are other issues like adoption and inheritance laws. Taiwan has legalized same sex marriage. So I’m hoping India is able to do that as well.
According to you, what are top priorities for the LGBTQIA+ community in India?
In India, whether we talk about trans rights or Section 377, the implementation is not fast. For example, there was a provision in the [Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights)] Act which said that each and every state in India should have a transgender welfare board. Unfortunately, not many states have a transgender welfare board.
More than anything else, I think we need representation from the community in various policymaking [bodies]. The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) has community representatives. Similarly, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has transgender community representation. So that is something which will give us more justice.
What future do you see for yourself and for your organization?
I see a good future. Students of today are very curious—they want to know about our issues. For example, during the pandemic, I was interviewed by students as young as 14 and 15—of course with the help and support of their parents—which goes to show that there is a lot of inquisitiveness and curiosity among students to know more about us. I’ve also done 19 TED talks on LGBT issues. Until now, higher education institutes were inviting me. Now schools have started inviting me, which is a very good sign. I see a bright future because students are our future. When they become parents, they will be more aware citizens of this country and will accept their children, whether they come out as gay, trans, bisexual or lesbian.