by LYNDON BARNETT

When Crown Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of the Indian state of Rajpipla arrives in Sydney this week, it will be his first visit to Australia. However, rather than coming to relax or take in the famous landmarks, his trip is purely professional.

“I don’t know much about the country. My visit is very work-orientated. My focus is on drawing attention to the needs of sexual minorities and decriminalising homosexuality in countries that have draconian laws. I’m meeting with lots of LGBT groups and gay Indian groups,” the prince said.

“In my free time I would like to see the country and visit the beautiful spots.”

Prince Manvendra was famously outed to his parents by his doctors in 2002, while recovering in hospital from a nervous breakdown.
When the knowledge became public several years later, the fallout in his conservative home state was significant. Effigies resembling the prince were burned and his family disowned and disinherited him. They have subsequently reconciled.

In an effort to create change, the prince, dubbed ‘India’s Gay Prince’ by many media outlets, established the Lakshya Trust in 2000.
“As a child I had a sort of confusion in my mind about my sexuality. There was nobody to share my feelings. There was no support system,” he said.

“My idea of starting this organisation was to create a safe place where different people can come from around the country. There may not be anybody to solve your problems. But in having a safe place there will always be someone you can to talk to and who will listen to your problems.”

Recognising the significant HIV/AIDS phenomenon in India, the Trust has thrown its energies into HIV prevention, efforts which were recognised by the United Nations in 2006. As such, the prince’s visit to Sydney and Melbourne is being coordinated by ACON, with assistance from the Burnet Institute. The public formalities include an open community forum and a fundraising dinner.

As co-founder of Trikone Australia, an Indian support and activist organisation, Alan Maurice will attend a special event for gay South Asians living abroad.

“Being a prince he has more influence within the decision-making bodies that govern India, including laws, funding, awareness, etc which the GLBT community need. There will definitely be a ripple effect to his coming out and from the contribution he is making to the GLBT community,” Maurice said.

“India needs ‘ambassadors’ to promote that homosexuality is normal. In Indian society a prince coming out will have an influence across many within the caste/class system.

“It takes a lot of courage to do this and he must be admired and respected for this. Princes and royalty in India are still revered and respected. He is the de facto face of the gay movement in India.”

While in Australia, the prince also hopes to draw attention to the Indian legal situation. On statute, India retains the British colonial law, known as Section 377, which criminalises homosexual acts. In July this year, the Delhi High Court, in a landmark decision, found the law unconstitutional.

The prince believes this ruling has wider implications than simply decriminalising homosexuality. It also has implications for changing society’s views on homosexuality.

“Not many people knew about this law before. But when it was read down, there was much media all over the country. It definitely helped make gay issues more mainstream — more visible to the population. It was the talk of the town,” Prince Manvendra told Sydney Star Observer.

“The legal challenge also started a debate among intellectual people including medical doctors who debated whether homosexuality is really a disease or an illness. The more arguments and discussions happen, the more people will come to learn the misunderstandings they carry about us. It is a long battle to fight — this is the beginning, because society’s mindset needs to be changed.”
The prince’s strategy to create change is to engage those who directly affect society’s views.

“We target those in society who have the power to influence society including the political leaders, the police department, medical staff and spiritual leaders who protest against changing the law. We hold desensitisation workshops and make them aware of the issues. I also talk with students to tell them about homosexuality,” Prince Manvendra said.

“Of course the media are helping also. The media — including television, print, internet — have started saying very positive things about homosexuality.”

While the Indian press continue to cover the debate on homosexuality, international media outlets have been particularly interested in Prince Manvendra’s story. Everyone from Oprah to a BBC reality television series has featured the prince. He’s also had requests from documentary makers and film producers to profile his life.

“This story of mine has travelled across the world. People are fascinated and inspired by it. It’s drawing a lot attention with a lot of people interested in documenting it,” he said.

When asked whether he has any regrets, the prince responded reflectively that he has no regrets and that the episodes in his life have made him the person he is now. Indeed he is very confident, articulate and very much at ease with his sexuality. He cites his work with the Trust as offering a great deal of personal satisfaction.

Having experienced so much in his life — he’s now 44 — the prince offers this advice to those challenging their sexuality.
“I have been telling all my friends to be proud of what you are. Whatever you are, you are born like that. It’s not out of choice. You have to appear proud that you are gay and you should be happy with the situation you are living in,” he said.

“I hope society will come to a point where they respect everyone alike, irrespective of sexual orientation. We are all equals, we are all human beings.”

info: The free community forum featuring Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is on Wednesday, November 4 at Paddington RSL from 7pm. The prince will also be the guest of honour at a special fundraising event at Sydney’s Victoria Room on Thursday, 29 October at 7pm with proceeds going to ACON and the Lakshya Trust. Tickets are $25 from www.everydayhero.com.au/The_Prince

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