NEW DELHI: From setting up his own charity to hanging condoms on trees, Manvendra Singh Gohil has dedicated himself to fighting the scourge of AIDS since coming out 10 years ago as India’s first openly gay royal.
A member of a royal warrior clan and heir apparent to the throne of Rajpipla in deeply conservative Gujarat state, Gohil uses his fame and status to educate the gay community about safe sex and their rights in a country where gay sex is a criminal offence.
“People say homosexuality is a part of western culture. It is absolutely wrong,” Gohil told AFP in an interview, citing the Kamasutra and the homoerotic sculptures that feature in ancient temples across the country.
“It is the hypocrisy in our society which is refusing to accept this truth. And this motivated me to come out openly and tell the world ‘I am gay, so what? And I am proud of it’.”
Gohil has been part of a campaign against the colonial-era law that bans homosexual acts in India, which he says has contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
His charity the Lakshya Foundation works with homosexual men and the transgender community to promote safer sexual practices, though they face constant obstruction from police.
“People are having sex under fear and unsafe sex practices are going on,” he said.
“When we started work among the MSM (men having sex with men), we were harassed and threatened by police.
“We would keep condom packets in public toilets, and even hang them on trees in public parks because we did not want to stop them from having sex in toilets or behind the bushes. We just wanted them to have safe sex.”
Gay sex was effectively decriminalised in 2009 when the Delhi High Court ruled that prohibiting it was a violation of a person’s fundamental rights.
But in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the responsibility for changing the 1861 law rested with lawmakers and not judges.
Prosecutions are rare, but gay people say they face significant discrimination as well as harassment from the police.
Gohil said even a government contract to distribute condoms did not protect his workers from police harassment.
“They said we were spreading homosexuality,” he recalled.
“Some of our workers were arrested and taken to the police station where the cops themselves had forced sex with them without condoms.”
India has the third highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the world according to the United Nations, with about 2.1 million people in 2015, although the rate of infection is falling.
In another positive sign, two bills designed to end discrimination against transgender people and individuals infected with HIV are currently going through the Indian parliament.
Working with people in the transgender community is a priority for the government in its national AIDS response plan, but social isolation means the community is still at particularly high risk of HIV transmission.
The bill seeks to prohibit discrimination in any form and specifically bans denying them access to public places, on pain of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine.
But campaigners have objected to a clause which would force people to undergo tests to determine their gender identity.
They say this is against the spirit of a 2014 Supreme Court judgement that allowed anyone to “self identify” which gender they are.
“When the social empowerment ministry itself is not clear who a transgender is how will they address their issues?” said Gohil.
“It is a challenging situation. I don’t blame any political party. It’s not the party but the individuals who are either homophobic or gay friendly.
“It’s our duty to educate them because they are ignorant.”