Young, Royal & Gay: the Life of an Indian Prince

What is it like being homosexual in the land of the Kama Sutra?

RAJPIPLA, India, June 3, 2009 — -- He types awkwardly, his fingers scrunched on the keyboard, back hunched over and elbows bent outward. I'm guessing he's rarely done it.

"Never mind typing, I've never had to bathe myself," he says, turning his attention back to a gay men's Web site.

Such is the life of a prince. Literally, it's the life of Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, who was raised in a pink-colored palace located at the bottom of long driveway dotted with purple flowers. His upbringing was so formal he felt more affection toward his nanny than his mother. His closest friends were his servants.

Now, though, some of his closest friends are the ones he's met in "pen pal" ads in gay newspapers. Men from around the world e-mail him, often seeking his advice on homosexuality.

If it's not obvious, the Prince is a gay man, which makes life rather complicated in a country where being gay is illegal. Article 377 criminalizes the act of homosexuality between men.

India's attitude toward homosexuality is a combination of homophobia and ignorance. Sometimes, homosexuality is flat-out ignored. Walk past any black-and-yellow taxi at midnight, and you're just as likely to see two men spooning in the front seat as a flashing-neon Ganesha on the dashboard.

India's attitude toward sex, in general, seems hypocritical. After all, it's the birthplace of the Kama Sutra, and some of its famed temples offer graphic murals and sculptures depicting sex, including same-sex sex behavior. It's a country where men can walk down the street, holding hands, arms wrapped around each other, but young men and women must cower in parks to sneak a kiss away from their families.

What's a person to think? It's confusing for most people, but particularly a prince, who never even knew what it meant to be "gay." It took a year of an unconsummated marriage, a subsequent divorce and a nervous breakdown to give him some perspective.

"Being brought up in such a protected atmosphere, there's nobody to share your thoughts, your feelings with anyone. I was confused whether I'm getting attracted toward the same sex. Is it a kind of disease? Is it a mental disorder? Am I the only one suffering for this mental disorder? I was totally confused about myself," he said.

How to Translate the Word 'Gay' in India

India doesn't make it easy for gay men. Ashok Row Kavi, considered India's first openly gay man, explains that India doesn't even have a translation for the term "gay."

"'Gay'" is a Western word," said Kavi, 62.

So what do you call it?

"We don't," he said. "There's no word here."

The closest term is "masti," which means "mischief." So when two men have sex, it's nothing more than "mischief."

"It's a problematic situation that's not taken seriously," said Powkavi.

Wearing a traditional orange tunic with a matching scarf tossed over his shoulder, the tall and slender prince said he was 30 years old, when he finally understood who he was sexually. Now, at 42, he's considered something of an expert. He's openly gay and has founded, Lakshya Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gay men and HIV/AIDS education.

At one of the three Lakshya centers in Baroda, Gujarat, a dozen men chat casually in a large office dotted with Hindi language posters and a photograph of two men kissing. Two small offices for counseling sessions are off to one corner.

"Being a gay in India is very, very, very difficult," said Siddhi Pandya, a counselor at Lakshya.

Pandya attributed most of the problems to lack of education about homosexuality and a national obsession with marriage.

"They have constant marriage pressures if the guy is of the age 22 or 24," she said. "They do not have a very strong reason to say why they don't want to get married. They stay in constant anxiety, depression."

Much of Pandya's work is to offer support and guidance through their often tempestuous relationships with other men. On occasion, she has the opportunity to educate families of the gay men who come to the center. Slowly, she is making a change.

One 20-something man in her office said he had pressure on him because he is the only man in the family. But with Pandya's support, he was able to speak with his family who, it turns out, knew he was gay all along.

"Earlier I was much more depressed," he said. But now, he's like the prince. "I'm proud of myself."