Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, the first openly gay prince in India, took to a makeshift stage in a swanky Indian restaurant in New York last week. Clutching the microphone with two hands, he could hardly be heard over the din of guests on their fourth round of free Absolut.
“As we say in India, Namaste,” he smiled.
“Yeeaaa! Namas-TAY,” screamed a woman, swaying from side to side.
The soft-spoken prince of Rajpipla took it all in stride, seeming to enjoy himself—and even inviting everyone in the room to his pink palace. “It is like a strawberry shortcake with icing. And you are all welcome. I mean it. You can come see royalty.”
The crowd had gathered to raise money for the prince’s charity, the Lakshya Trust, an organization founded by five men in rural India dedicated to raising awareness of HIV/AIDS. The disease is spreading quickly in India—2.4 million people are living with HIV there, according to the World Health Organization. The guests—mostly Indian, gay, or gay Indians—mingled nervously at as the evening began. A protocol sheet on how to treat a prince was passed around.
“One should wait for the prince to extend his hand, before you go to shake it.”
“Do not turn your back on him as he moves on.”
By the end of the night, guests were joking freely about how they would treat the prince.
Sequestered in a dimly lit corner in the back, the prince saw people in 10-minute intervals, freely discussing his sexuality and the AIDS crisis in India.
“I am still single and need to mingle.”
“In India, HIV has been a blessing in disguise,” he said. “HIV gave us a platform to empower ourselves. A lot of my friends are getting infected.”
Gohil, 45, first came out to his family in 2002, after a nervous breakdown. He couldn’t hide his sexuality anymore at that point. He had been married to a woman in 1991, but only a year later, without ever having consummated the marriage, he got a divorce. He still lives with the guilt of hurting his wife. By 2006, he officially came out when he gave an interview to a local paper. Relations with his family became strained, and have yet to be fully repaired. Since then, he has taken his story all over the world, even appearing on Oprah twice.
But just last week, as Gohil arrived in New York to raise awareness, and discuss how difficult and taboo homosexuality is in India, two Americans in the public eye caused a stir when they came out. First there was the president of the Phoenix Suns, who came out in an interview with The New York Times. Then, Don Lemon, the CNN anchor, told the world he was gay on Twitter.
The prince didn’t seem too surprised that homosexuality was still somewhat of an issue in the States. “Religion has played a role in many issues, and also in homosexuality, so even America hasn’t been spared from that,” he said. “I think it’s important for people who are known to come out of the closet.”
That said, the prince has a long way to go. Being raised in a society—and a family—where homosexuality was not even an option seems to have had its effect on him. Nearly 10 years after coming out to his family, the prince still doesn’t have a partner. And the nightlife isn’t for him. “I’m not used to the party culture because I come from a royal family.” He visited a gay bar while in America, but didn’t exactly blend in. “I don’t feel very comfortable in the gay bars,” he said. “I am always in formal attire.”
Still, the life isn’t completely foreign to him. When asked if he was still single, he smiled almost mischievously. “I am still single and need to mingle.”
Roja Heydarpour is an editor at The Daily Beast. She has reported for the The New York Times and The Times-Tribune.