Royal Rebels: Amar Singh and Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil

Andrew Bullock, Vanity Fair, October 18, 2022

They say it takes a village. But as the world continues to tilt on its current axis of lunacy, with even basic human rights being scoffed at by those who think they know better, a battalion seems more apt.

Let us shine a spotlight on just one of the various pockets of delusional law that exist around our planet in 2022: conversion therapy. Yes, it’s still “a thing”. The aim—to de-gay someone. Or to “cure” someone’s “crisis” of gender identity. If you don't identify as straight, male or female, you need to be 'fixed'. You are not adequately human.

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, known as the world's first openly gay prince, has been a face of India’s LGBTQ movement for years. He has weathered death threats, disownment and the aforementioned conversion therapy. Amar Singh—a 33-year-old arts patron, entrepreneur, and member of India’s Kapurthala Royal Family—has called upon his own vast resources to fight for the rights of women and LGBTQ people around the world. He pledged to give $5 million worth of art by women and LGBTQ artists to museums worldwide by 2025, and has already donated this value of art in under two years.

Amar, neither gay nor a woman, is as passionate about allyship as advancing global human rights. Together, the Indian royals, who have been friends and fellow activists for 15 years, are uniting to abolish conversion therapy throughout India’s LGBTQ community, and send a message to the world. “LGBTQ rights are absolutely human rights. Men should not be writing laws suppressing LGBTQ communities, men should not be writing laws suppressing women,” says Amar. “This applies not only to India but the entire world. Enough is enough.”

He comes from a long line of women’s rights activists. His ancestor Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was a feminist leader in India during the fight for independence and his grandmother championed women’s education alongside the likes of Nehru. LGBTQ conversion therapy exists in every corner of the world and is legal in most countries. That’s not to say some progress hasn’t been made. But there’s still much to be done, and Amar is armed to the teeth.

He had a different upbringing to his friend, Prince Manvendra. Amar was raised in the UK and attended Charterhouse School, while Prince Manvendra grew up in the most populous democracy in the world—where, ironically, he was forbidden to live freely. In his youth, he was banished to conversion courses, where he endured electroshock therapy to zap the gay out of him. “Once, I was taken to one temple in the state of Punjab,” the prince recounts. “They try to cure you as if some spirit or ghost has gone inside you. The priest whacked me in front of so many people in the temple. He said I need to be beaten up to make sure the spirit comes out of me and that was supposed to make me normal.”

Prince Manvendra recalls this troubling experience with exceptional pragmatism. Yet his desire to evoke change is what drives him. “One doesn't normally like to remember stressful memories; but in this case I’m more motivated to put an end to conversion therapy. I don’t wish any other person to suffer shame and humiliation—especially at the hands of parents—like I have. So I don't like to forget what I have undergone. Remembering it helps me work towards banning it.”

In his youth, Prince Manvendra married a woman to please his parents. He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in 2006 about this. The breakdown of the marriage and his honesty about his sexuality led to attacks on his home, rejection from his family and threats on his life. “I have never felt hurt when people pass homophobic remarks. I don't blame the people, I blame the existence of ignorance,” he says. “It is my duty to bring them to a stage where they are educated. Where they understand the issues. I have seen a lot of people change. I have seen homophobia in transition—I’ve seen people turn into supporters.”

Prince Manvendra won't encourage people to flee from hate. “That's escapism and I don't believe or preach that. We need to face the homophobic world and face the challenges and obstables we’re up against, instead of running from them. That is the only way we can bring about change and get people to accept us,” he says.

So, where is that battalion? It exists in the form of Prince Manvendra and Amar, both of whom lent their voices, alongside others, to take down the Section 377 law in India in 2018, which criminalised homosexuality. Of this, Amar remarks: “Yes, homosexuality might have be legalised but conversion therapy still exists, same-sex marriage is illegal and same-sex adoption is illegal. I won’t rest until all human rights are afforded to LGBTQ communities.”

Whilst Amar was not part of the formal Supreme Court proceedings that legalised homosexuality, he saw how India’s justice system could be utilised as a force for good. Most people spent lockdown reading books and watching Netflix; Amar spent it building an entire Supreme Court case to take down conversion therapy in India.

First, he had to build his case, a two-year task starting as soon as the previous case had been successful. Between 2018 and 2020 he approached leading authorities such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and the World Psychiatric Association to provide him with their backing. “I didn’t take no for an answer. The people I found who could help me take this case forward, I called and emailed them non stop.”

A large part of Amar’s lockdown was spent on zoom calls with leading LGBTQ figures such as the United Nations’ Victor Madrigal-Borloz and Dr Dinesh Bhugra CBE, former head of the World Psychiatric Association. Both men brand conversion therapy “an immoral practice”.

Amar’s incentive was somewhat simple: prove that conversion therapy was ineffective and dangerous. Smart, therefore, to ask the world’s leading voices in human rights and mental health for their input. The letters and documents from these authorities came through, in serious support towards the case. Amar also spoke to countless members of the LGBTQ community—students, academics, lawmakers—in order to further gather evidence for his dossier. Ryan Lanji (of BBC Three's Big Proud Party Agency) admires Prince Manvendra and Amar’s dedication to LGBTQ rights. Born in Canada to Hindu Punjabi parents, Ryan is a self-professed “beacon” for LGBTQ South Asians. He “likes to live laterally as a form of hope, to prove there is light at the end of the tunnel”.

Ryan’s experience of conversion therapy was subtle, suggested and self-inflicted. “In my youth, I was made to feel that I had to dress straight and not dance to Bollywood music and feel that I couldn't enjoy cooking with my aunties. I had to go out and drink beer with my uncles and mow the yard. I had to consciously covert myself to be more palpable to the men,” he recounts. “When I came out to my mum, she asked if I should see a professional to help me. That was a devastating feeling. She was suggesting that someone try and help me be someone other than who I was. I didn’t grasp this as a form of ‘conversion therapy’ at the time but I said to her, we have an opportunity to tackle something difficult together here. We had the opportunity to break the mould, rather than add to the obstacles."

By adding his voice to Amar and Prince Manvendra’s efforts, Lanji aims to help others visualise the possibilities of not having to convert themselves. “Conversion can be something you do to yourself. Many queer South Asians are audaciously living their authentic queer lives or supressing it deeply. You either exile yourself or you swallow your truth so deeply and just try to appease your parents until they are no longer with us. But my raison d'être is that these individuals are celebrated in their homes regardless of how traditional they are. There is much more strength to a family who shows unconditional acceptance. That’s where the allyship of people pushing for this case comes in.”

How does one push a case through the Supreme Court though? Rights for LGBTQ people in India is still a fresh concept and remains taboo. One cannot merely knock on the door and ask to be heard—even with a human rights lawyer in your back pocket like Amar and the prince. “I reached out to dozens of lawyers across India. I can still hear the sound of phones hanging up when I think about it,” Amar recalls. “Thankfully I came across a human rights lawyer called Ravi Kant who dedicated his life to women’s rights and won important cases at India’s Supreme Court. He agreed to take my case—his first LGBTQ case.”

Kant is something of a legend. Aside from his anti-trafficking expertise, he won the landmark Indian Supreme Court case Shakti Vahini vs Union of India (2018), which took on another outdated practice: honour killing. Kant’s victory saw the court implement guidelines to curb putting those to death who bring so-called shame on a family. Kant recruited fellow human rights lawyer Ankita Surabhi and united with Amar to formalise the conversion therapy case.

“Amar emailed me and then we had a Zoom call in 2020. I agreed to take this case to help the LGBTQ community and especially to help children within this community,” Kant explains. Amar took care of the costs—something he continues to do. His philanthropic endeavours are unwavering in the fight for equality (amongst other donations, between 2021-2022, Amar donated $250,000 alongside LVMH and the Rewind Collective to the foundation Mag Jeune in Paris to help LGBTQ youth and pledged $1 million to Vital Voices Foundation to further women’s rights). “Being an ally is the least we can do to help those in need," he presses. “Allyship is essential for human rights to prevail.”

To be a petitioner in an Indian Supreme Court case you have to be an Indian citizen. Amar, who is not an Indian citizen, had to find a person born in the country. He reached out to his friend Prince Manvendra and asked him to be the lead petitioner on the case. Prince Manvendra agreed, despite knowing the risks associated with such a high profile matter. “I contribute to this cause by sharing my struggles, my personal story of coming out to my parents and the medical and religious conversion they tried to impose on me,” the prince says.

The team brought on a second petitioner, Deepak Kayshap, who had experienced conversion therapy as a child. “I am grateful to Prince Manvendra and Deepak for being the petitioners because their bravery in putting themselves as Indian citizens at the front of this case will help impact the lives of all LGBTQ citizens of India,” Amar says. Prince Manvendra adds: “Amar is a very good friend of mine. He’s a straight person but very supportive of the LGBTQ cause. Since 2010, he has actively been advocating my cause, LGBTQ rights and, by putting together the case to end conversion therapy, he has been the ultimate ally."

The road to victory at the Supreme Court remains stony, but a dream team has been assembled. The fight for LGBTQ rights remains assertive and confident. Now, they wait for a hearing. Prince Manvendra remains unwavering in his faith in the case, saying he is “sure conversion therapy will be banned”. He particularly looks for hope in the outcome of the Madras High Court's ban on conversion therapy in the State of Tamil Nadu, the first state in India to see this happen. “This makes our case to ban this practice on a national level much stronger,” he says. And, undoubtedly, there's strength in numbers.

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