As the world struggles with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, transgenders of Gujarat’s Lakshya Trust have come to the rescue of thousands of slum dwellers and daily wagers in Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat. Headed by former prince of Rajpipla Manvendra Singh Gohil, the world’s first openly gay royal, the Lakshya Trust has been actively engaged in rescue and relief works during the Vadodara floods and the Kutchh earthquake as well. 30 Stades' Vedant Sharma caught up with the Prince during the Pride Month to discuss what it means to be an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer) person in India, the need to document their struggle and stories, a special course on Section 377 in law universities and the transformation in relations with his father almost 14 years after he came out. Edited excerpts:
Q. How is the attitude of Indians towards the LGBT community?
The attitude of people towards our community is primarily shaped by the deep rooted values of the society. There is guilt and stigma attached, which is harmful. People will only accept us only if they change their mindset.
The greatest hindrances to this are ignorance and misconception. People must be sensitised about it through the right kind of education.
We have a number of people outside our community who support our cause and we call them allies. Mass media plays an important role in educating people on LGBTQ issues. For instance, if a popular filmstar or sports player would talk of gay rights, people would listen to them and be sensitive towards us. So we need more allies.
Q. Has there been any change after the Supreme Court’s verdict decriminalising the Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 (which made sexual activities ‘against the order of nature’ illegal)?
The law was made in the pre-independence era by Queen Victoria. It is extremely sad that it continued even after independence. Why do we need to depend on their laws? Who is Queen Victoria to decide what is right and wrong for two people inside a bedroom? India has a rich culture and tradition.
Indian constitution does not discriminate between anyone on the grounds of caste, race, religion, sex and the choice of sexual partner. In 2013, it was religious leaders who were instigated by the government and we lost the case. However, we fought afresh from 2014 by filing a petition. And in 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalised Section 377 of the IPC.
After the Supreme Court’s verdict I am an even prouder Indian and satisfied that honesty prevailed.
Honestly speaking, a large number of religious leaders are themselves a minority in the sense that they were not sure about their sexual identity and forced into a marriage.
Surprisingly, a number of religious leaders have confessed to me that they had a different sexual orientation but were forced to marry. Running out of options, they chose to renounce the world. Some even went to the extent to offering to have sex with me.
Q. Was it difficult to disclose it to your parents? How did they accept it?
It wasn't easy.
Despite being highly educated, she was ignorant. I do not blame her for this as our education system does not mention about LGBTQ rights and related issues.
Q. How is your equation with your parents and other members of the family after the confession?
They disowned me initially and then there was a compromise through legal means. Their entire act was illegal. I was given an apartment in Mumbai and the notices were withdrawn and cancelled.
But today, the situation is reversed. My family is proud of me. My father has gifted me this 15 acre royal estate (in Rajpipla, Gujarat) to develop an LGBT community campus. People tell my dad, “You must be proud as your son is doing good work. I have appeared on the Oprah and Kardashian shows.
(Gohil married his partner Deandre, Duke of Hanumanteshwar, in March 2013 and lives with him in Rajpipla. In 1991, he was married to former princess Chandrika Kumari of Jhabua and divorced 15 months later).
Q. What more needs to be done for the LGBT community?
One of the first things is that we should be given equal opportunity in schools and colleges for education. In addition to that, as I have said earlier as well, our education system needs to be more inclusive on this subject.
All our stakeholders need to join hands, seek support of our allies in order to ensure that we are an accepted part of mainstream society.
I would strongly recommend the Law Universities to have a special course on Section 377 and its importance. It took more than 20 years for us to win the battle in the Supreme Court. People need to understand this law and its importance in order to clear their misconceptions and orthodox mindset.
The verdict and our struggle to win this fight in the courts should be recorded and documented. Today, people might remember it since it is just two years of the judgment. But 20 years down the line, people will forget this without realising the importance of the law and our battle.
Q. What would be your advice to others who want to come out and be vocal about themselves ?
At the same time, I tell them to be ready for the consequences in the family.
There are two things I would like to stress upon: Parents will try to blackmail you in case you confront them. The father might stop talking and the mother will threaten emotionally. They must be prepared to detach themselves from their family.
The other thing I would say is to be financially independent. This can only be achieved through a good education. It is very likely that your family will throw you out when you tell them. Hence, one must be financially independent in order to fend for oneself.
Q. You wanted to adopt a child.
Answer: I prefer animal babies than human ones. I have rescued 3 cats and 3 dogs and they are my children now.
Q. What activities has your trust undertaken for helping those suffering the economic consequences of COVID-19?
It is not the first time that the trust is engaged in such a cause. Previously, they were actively engaged in aiding people during floods in Baroda and the earthquake in Kutchh .
This year, the transgender community provided ration (wheat flour, rice, pulses and sugar) and medical essentials (sanitisers, masks, sanitary pads, soap) to a large number of slum dwellers and poor people in Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat. The members personally went to each house and many transgender used their savings to help others despite the fact that the same people shame them.
Q. How many members do you have in the Trust?
Answer: There are no members. We term them as ‘Beneficiaries’. We have been able to touch upon the lives of more than 25,000 people of the LGBT community in Gujarat since it began operations. The trust is around 85 percent funded by the Gujarat government for prevention of HIV/AIDS. In addition to that, we receive grants from other NGOs and foundations dealing with related issues. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation funds us as well for HIV testing of the general population.
We also have a separate cell to deal with women related issues such as dowry, domestic violence and harassment.
The royal establishment at Rajpipla is privately funded. We also engage in a number of fund-raising programmes.
I am a regular visiting faculty at Gujarat National Law University, IIT-Gandhinagar, Karnavati University. The Trust is also engaged in a research project on LGBT with Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University. I visited PDPU 6-7 months ago for a guest lecture too. I am happy that such institutions are reaching out to us. This is a sign that there are people who actually want things to change for the better.
(Vedant Sharma is a Gujarat-based freelance writer)