First published in Rajputana Collective (www.rajputanacollective.com)
Meet Manvendra Sinh Gohil of Gujarat’s erstwhile princely state of Rajpipla, who leads India’s LGBTQ community as one of its fiercest pioneers. The first member of India’s regal community to step out of the closet and declare himself openly gay, Gohil’s journey of self-determination was riveted with personal oppositions and challenges. Despite the drastic consequences that followed his sexual affirmation in India’s homophobic subculture, Gohil relentlessly went on to battle the cause of the greater destiny of the LGBTQ community, not just as a self-realised homosexual but as a humanitarian at large. Back in 2000, Gohil established the Lakshya Trust in order to spread education on preventing HIV and AIDS amongst homosexuals. He is also a strong affiliate of the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), which happens to be the largest global AIDS organisation. His charitable work vis-a-vis spreading awareness on the sexually-transmitted immunodeficiency virus extends to several global as well as regional coalition boards as well. Moreover, Gohil is has recently announced his proposition to open the doors of his ancestral palace in Rajpipla to the LGBTQ community as an inclusive space shelter for marginalised people.
His brave and inspiring journey has been credited not just by his fellow countrymen but by international celebrities as well, such as Oprah Winfrey and the Kardashians to name but a few.
In its fifth edition, Rajputana Collective is honoured to invite Manvendra Sinh Gohil to host an authorial column on his personal story alongside which, he also provides very insightful facets of the debate around section 377 of the Indian Penal Code; cross intra-identification within the queer community; and the heavy price that a homophobic society pays in ways that continue to be largely unexplored.
MY STORY: When Outing The Closet Meant Outing My Home
In the September of 1965, was born as the 39th descendant to the 650 year-old Gohil dynasty of Rajpipla in Mayo College’s Jaisalmer house. Upon my birth, I was granted instant admission to the illustrious school. It seems so ironic now that back then, my mother’s foresight caused her to refuse this offer due to her fear towards an all boys’ educational institute making me directly susceptible to being a homosexual. Consequently, I was raised as a day scholar in Mumbai’s Bombay Scottish School under her strict observation and yet, a fateful day arrived in my life’s forty first year when I came out of the closet and openly declared my sexual orientation. I was gay. I was not afraid anymore. I was not ashamed anymore. And if a homophobic culture tired me with its hypocrisy, I would add to that hypocrisy by concealing my sexual identity. Contrary to popular opinion in India, which states that homosexuality is a disease that mainly plagues the uneducated and socioeconomically disprivileged strata of the society, my proclamation had conveyed the fallacy of this belief. I was an educated, upper caste, upper class citizen of India and I was gay.
What was to follow its declaration was typical to a homophobic subculture. The truth about my sexuality was inconvenient and bitter, and it had deeply violated my familial pride. I needed to be restrained. My parents felt a deep social humiliation with the news of their only son being gay and retorted by declaring to publicly disown and disinherit me entirely. I did and continue to understand this immediate reaction of theirs to have originated out of a deep sense of social pressure. It was an intensely trying period for me, especially since I was ousted out of my home and had a very hard time finding myself shelter and support.
In those dark days of media sensationalism, I found a notable ally the form of a renowned lawyer, Mrs. Meenakshi Lekhi, who now serves the nation as a prominent legislator and party spokesperson. Her conviction and whole hearted support for me manifested in the form of a media statement that changed everything. Re-iterating our constitution, she announced that the disownment or disinheritance of anybody on the basis of their sexuality was an illegal offence could cause in legal action against the offenders, as well as the cancellation of the concerned advocate’s license. Causing an echo on news channels in India as well as abroad, Mrs. Lekhi’s statement led to my parents reaching a compromise with their lawyer and withdrawing their previously issued notices.
Over the years and decades that I worked and made a mark for myself as an advocate of India’s LGBTQ community, my efforts were recognised and significantly credited. I am the only Indian and royal to be staged on the Oprah show not once but three times. This fame and recognition taught me an important lesson as far as my journey of self determination was concerned, and that is that even though I was disowned by my family, I was accepted back when my they recognised that I had become something in my life. They saw value and me and all of a sudden, the very relatives of mine who were so humiliated by my identity were now openly standing beside me. To them, now that I am a celebrity, my homosexuality didn’t factor in as a problem.
In other words, I was ousted and discriminated against for speaking a vital truth, my truth, and I was re-admitted for pursuing that truth with full conviction and dignity.
INDIA AND ITS THREE H’S: HOMOSOCIALITY, HOMOSEXUALITY & HOMOPHOBIA
The story of me being disowned and re-admitted was not just limited to my family but pertains to a mindset in general. In large parts of the Indian mindset, homosexuality is an acquired evil and can be done away with by a bizarre conception of medical correction. The blatant refusal to admit, acknowledge or accept alternative sexualities largely stems from a general sense of ignorance in India vis-a-vis a fundamental education of sexuality. Ironic as it is, a modernised India is far more primitive in its understanding of sexuality in contrast to records unearthed from ancient times, which state the contrary. The ancient Sanskrit text called Kama Sutra, which is the oldest surviving Hindu text on erotic love, dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of homosexuality. Various carvings, statues and sculptures in ancient Indian temples, such as those of Khajuraho explicitly display homosexual references. Indian mythology also premises itself on several tales of homosexuality and transsexuality without the tiniest of inhibitions.
What the majority of modern-day Indian citizens bypass in their stigmatisation of homosexuality is that the policing of free sexuality was brought about in the Victorian area, when capitalist patriarchy thrived. In order to conserve the structure of conventional marriages that necessitated procreative inheritance, sex and sexuality were strongly restrained to fit the narrow confines of a heterosexual marriage. The sanctity of procreative sex and a patriarchal family structure was upheld within the same capitalist structure that relied on the reproduction of labour as well as capital.
It comes as no surprise then that the infamous section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) bears a Victorian descent. As opposed to mainstream public opinion that interprets the section to directly pertain to the LGBTQ community, the truth of the matter is that this draconian section is violative of two very fundamental constitutional rights. In order to explain this, let me briefly describe the contents section 377, which states that any sexually penetrative act that is not procreative is illegal by nature. In cruder words then, the act expects a man and a woman to only have sex in order to get pregnant. It also denies the validity of sexually pleasurable acts that might not necessitate the production of babies. Hence, this section violates the freedoms of not just homosexual but the entire population of the country in that a) it breaches a citizen’s right to privacy and dignity and b) it breaches a citizen’s right against discrimination based on their sexuality.
I laud the Supreme Court for decriminalising section 377 and, despite the long road that lies ahead, I do credit the section for serving as an important tool for the LGBTQ to publicise the stigma and discrimination that it has been facing due to it. We as a nation have been immensely hypocritical to be upholding an outdated, 19th century colonial prescription, which has been struck down in the very country that first perpetuated it. This irony brings me to another very important factor in India’s LGBTQ discourse, which is that alternative sexuality is regularly touted by conservatives as ‘western’ and ‘un-Indian’. It would be beneficial for them to consider that it is ‘western’ and ‘un-Indian’ continued upholding of an outdated law, which contradicts our cultural and historical records and directly violates human rights. Despite being independent of colonial forces since 1947, our mentality had continued to be colonised in its upholding of a primitive, outdated and illogical law of western origin. I do believe in our country to be more capable in deciding the validity of its laws as well as their functionality with national progress.
Speaking on humanitarian grounds as well, it is crucial to note that in order for a country to progress, it needs to recognise its core prerogative as the custodian of human rights to its people. Recent studies by the World Bank have stated that the economic development of a nation is directly proportional to the extent to which it recognises the value of its citizens’ human rights. Hence, in order to optimise economic development, societies need to be more gender inclusive and less discriminatory. Even though this idea is known to many, its full implementation and realisation remains to be witnessed. Alternatively, while the LGBTQ subject rides on the political zeitgeist, it is yet to be implemented into personal mindsets.
Homosociality and Homophobia
Cultures like ours make very interesting cases when it comes to the contradictory topic of homosociality. Homosociality is a sociological term used to describe same-sex relationships that are not sexual or romantic in nature. In India, it is not uncommon to witness homosociality on a daily basis, not just via same-sex friendships, but also companionships, residential groupings, etc. On the other hand, heterosociality, which stands for opposite-sex relationships that are not sexual or romantic in nature, are stigmatised upon. For example, while it is perfectly acceptable for two unmarried girls or two unmarried boys to share a residential flat, it is very difficult for an unmarried boy and an unmarried girl to enter into a similar liaison without facing prejudice and moral policing.
The sociocultural favourability of homosociality versus heterosociality makes it relatively convenient for a greater number of homosexuals to stay closeted. They continue to pursue their relationships behind closed doors and under the garb of homosociality.
Many of them hesitate to come out due to the common conception that their families will attempt to restore order by emotionally blackmailing or downright forcing them into a heterosexual marriage against their wishes. Unfortunately, parents live with the conception that it is their duty to ensure the marriage of their children according to the norm, even if this goes against their child’s sexuality. Queer children often agree to live a life of subdued sexualities in order to save bringing disgrace to their families and themselves. They are also afraid of financial ostracisation by their families. I have also witnessed that a lot of homosexuals identify as bisexuals for the simple reason of bringing themselves closer to the normalcy of being ‘half heterosexual’ and not fully homosexual. Unfortunately, they discover that they are entirely homosexual after pursuing a heterosexual relationship, most often, in the form of a sanctified marriage.
Tides of Change
A change in the Indian mindset vis-a-vis their inherent homophobia is being brought about through the politicisation of the issue, active organisations and the media. Bollywood too, as a mainstream film industry has advanced in its representation of homosexuality. I remember, back in 1996, when Deepa Mehta released Fire, conservative right wing protestants had actually set several film theatres on Fire as an act to refuse discussing the topic. A decade later, directors like Karan Johar gave brief glimpses into camped homosexuality, albeit in a more comical sense. Speaking of today, we have more subtly-crafted films such as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, which is being lead by a powerful star cast. It is more evident now that the urban Indian citizen is willing to talk about the issue of homosexuality rather than brushing it under the carpet. It is important to be able to discuss a topic, even if that brings about some unpleasantness and dissent. Its silencing and obfuscation has been postponed but it cannot be ignored any further.
India also holds the advantage of being home to the largest youth population of the world. Owing to current factors of technological networking, globalisation and digitalisation, I find that our youth is more curious, more willing to talk about matters than have been hushed thus far. They are willing to discuss uncomfortable discontents of their society and are willing to bring about a change. I find it imperative to tap this energy and systematise it towards the greater good of gender justice.
The Road Ahead
One of my fundamental aims is to help make the LGBTQ more financially independent by harnessing its inborn talent. When my parents tried to financially pressurise me as an intended act of mitigation, I realised how important it was to be financially and socially empowered in order to be able to pursue one’s sexual identity. Hence, I wish to create an inclusive space at my ancestral palace in Rajpipla wherein all people from the LGBTQ community that need shelter can be accommodated in order to live a life that is free of guilt, shame and fear, and one in which they can harness their capabilities in order to make a financially and socially integral life for themselves. At the end of the day, self- determination and the right to live a fearless and dignified life is a prerogative of every citizen in this world.
Lastly, none of these goals will be possible to achieve without the help of the various allies of the LGBTQ community, who have helped increase our global support base by attracting more allies in a domino effect. Hence, the space that I create is duly welcoming to all our allies who have walked alongside us in our journey towards greater gender justice and sexual freedom.