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13 LGBTQ royals you didn’t learn about in history class

From the Emperor Ai of China’s Han Dynasty to Sweden's Queen Christina, here are notable leaders who crossed sexual and gender boundaries.
Image: King Edward II of England, Queen Christina of Sweden and King James I.
King Edward II of England, Queen Christina of Sweden and King James VI and I of England. NBC News / Getty Images

The Dutch monarchy made international news last week after announcing that royals can marry a same-sex partner without giving up their right to the throne. But while the Netherlands, which in 2001 became the first country to legalize gay marriage, has paved the wave for a queer royal to officially wear the crown, LGBTQ people have long been doing so unofficially. 

While it’s difficult to assign modern labels to figures from the past, there were notable leaders from centuries — even millennia — ago, who crossed sexual and gender boundaries. Some were celebrated by their subjects, others vilified.

In light of the Dutch monarchy’s recent announcement and in honor of LGBTQ History Month, which is celebrated in October, here are 13 queer royals you didn’t learn about in school.

Emperor Ai of Han (27 - 1 B.C.)

Made emperor of the Han Dynasty at age 20, Ai was initially well received by his subjects but eventually became associated with corruption and incompetence. He was also widely known to have been romantically involved with one of his ministers, Dong Xian, though both men were married to women. 

In the “Hanshu,” or “Book of Han,” Dong and Ai’s relationship is referred to as “the passion of the cut sleeve.” As the story went, the pair had fallen asleep together on a mat and, upon waking, the emperor cut the sleeve off his robe rather than disturb his lover. (The term “cut sleeve” remained a Chinese euphemism for male homosexuality for centuries.)

Dong was granted many honors, eventually being made commander of the military, and he and his family lived inside the imperial compound.

According to historian Brent Hinsch, many Han emperors reportedly had “male favorites” who were listed in both the “Book of Han” and the “Shiji,” or “Records of the Grand Historian.”

“It is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler,” the "Shiji" reads, according to Ban Gu’s “History of Early China.” “Courtiers and eunuchs can play that game as well. Many were the men of ancient times who gained favor this way.”

Emperor Hadrian of Rome (76 - 138 A.D.)

Another leader who showered his male lover with attention, Hadrian was in a politically arranged marriage to the great-niece of his predecessor — a loveless union that bore no children. It wasn’t unusual for high-powered Romans to have male partners in addition to their wives, but Hadrian was almost slavishly devoted to his young consort, Antinous.

The Roman emperor Hadrian.ullstein bild via Getty Images

When Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile in 130 A.D., Hadrian was so grief-stricken he had the young man deified and put up monuments to him everywhere. 

“Hadrian was clearly bereaved and he had lots of images put up,” Thorsten Opper, who curated an exhibit on the emperor at the British Museum, told The Independent in 2008. “When a city [in Egypt] was founded close to the spot where Antinous drowned, he named it Antinopolis. It was a sort of hero cult-worship of Antinous.”

Al-Hakam II of Córdoba (915 - 976)

A 10th century caliph in Córdoba, Spain, Al-Hakam was known for his largely peaceful reign and his love of learning: His library contained more than 400,000 books, and he provided sanctuary to many writers and philosophers. 

The caliph’s sexuality has been the source of some debate: According to the French medievalist Évariste Lévi-Provençal, the phrase “hubb al-walad,” found in 16th-century historian Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari’s compendium "Nafh at-Tib" in reference to Al-Hakam II, translates as a “preference for boys,” though other scholars maintain it refers to paternal love.

The Medieval Europe scholar Francisco Prado-Vilar wrote that knowledge of Al-Hakam’s homosexuality in the court of Córdoba “encouraged the ambitions of the factions gathered around his much younger brother, Prince al-Mughira.”

“In his youth his loves seem to have been entirely homosexual,” queer studies scholar Louis Crompton wrote in “Male Love and Islamic Law in Arab Spain.” “This exclusivity was a problem when he succeeded to the throne, since it was incumbent upon the new caliph to produce a male heir.”

Despite rumors of having a male harem, Al-Hakam did marry a Basque concubine named Subh, but reportedly gave her the masculine nickname Jafar. Subh is said to have worn the short hair and trousers of a ghulam, or young man, to garner her husband’s attention.

King Edward II of England (1284 - 1327) 

King Edward II of England’s intense relationship with Piers Gaveston drew the ire of many nobles at court and forced Edward to send his favorite away more than once.

In “The Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II,” historian George Haskins describes the then-prince as entranced by Gaveston from their first meeting in 1297.

“When the king’s son gazed upon him, he straightaway felt so much love for him that he entered into a covenant of brotherhood with him and chose and firmly resolved to bind himself to him, before all mortals, in an unbreakable bond of love,” wrote one chronicler at the time. 

The sexual nature of their relationship has been alluded to in Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play, “Edward II,” and addressed more directly in queer filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1991 film of the same name. 

But even contemporaries were claiming the two men were unusually close, with some nicknaming Gaveston a “second king.”

According to English Heritage, which manages historic British monuments, “It is impossible to know the exact nature of their relationship, but there is strong evidence to suggest it was a romantic one.”

Eventually, their relationship estranged Edward from his wife, Isabella of France, and her allies at court. After he returned from exile a third time in 1311, Gaveston was hunted down and decapitated by a group of noblemen, including Edward’s cousin Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster.

In 1326, Isabella and her possible lover, Roger Mortimer, seized power and had Edward deposed and imprisoned. He died at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire a year later.

Rumors that Edward II had been gruesomely executed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his backside spread quickly, likely started by his political enemies.

Queen Ana Nzinga of Ndongo (1583 - 1663)

The gender-nonconforming ruler of Ndongo and Matamba in modern-day Angola, Nzinga fought off Portuguese colonialists, alternately through diplomacy, trade and guerrilla warfare. 

She welcomed runaway slaves and European-trained African soldiers, and adopted kilombo, a military strategy in which male youths were taken from their families and raised communally in militias.

In a 1670 book, her Dutch bodyguard, Captain Fuller, described 60-year-old Nzinga as wearing “men’s apparel” during ritual sacrifice, “hanging about her the skins of beasts … with a sword about her neck, an axe at her girdle, and a bow and arrows in her hand.” 

Fuller also described a cadre of young men whom Nzinga kept dressed in women’s clothing.  

“The thing about Nzinga is her title was Ngola, and Ngola means king,” the Nigerian American photographer Mikael Owunna told NPR in 2017. “Nzinga ruled dressed in full male clothing as a king, and she had a harem of young men dressed as women who were her wives. So in the 1600s, you basically had a butch queen with a bunch of drag queens for wives leading a fight against European colonization.”

King James I of England (1566 - 1625)

The son of Mary, Queen of Scots, this British monarch, known as both King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England, has been described by the historian Michael B. Young as “​​the most prominent homosexual figure in the early modern period.” 

Married to Anne of Denmark, James is thought to have had relationships with several male courtiers — most notably, George Villiers, whom he made the Earl and later the Duke of Buckingham. (In the early 2000s, restoration work on Apethorpe Palace revealed a secret passageway connecting James’ and Villiers’ bedchambers.)

“To the shock of many courtiers, the pair were demonstratively affectionate to each other in public, despite James’ various proclamations against homosexuality,” Daniel Smith wrote in “Love Letters of Kings and Queens.”

A popular epigram at the time compared the Jacobean monarch to his Tudor predecessor, Elizabeth I, declaring, “Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen.” 

Contemporary poet Théophile de Viau put it more bluntly: “It is well known that the king of England f---- the Duke of Buckingham.”

Fending off claims of favoritism, James proclaimed, “You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else.” 

“I wish … to not to have it thought to be a defect,” he added, “for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.” 

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626 - 1689)

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction with this 17th-century Swedish royal: Her predilection for wearing men’s clothes and enjoying literature, hunting,  alchemy and other male-dominated activities spurred rumors Christina was a sexual deviant or intersex. 

“There is nothing feminine about her except her sex,” a Jesuit priest wrote in 1653. “Her voice, her manner of speaking, her walk, her style, her ways are all quite masculine.” 

Oliver Cromwell’s secretary of state John Thurloe commented on Christina’s “Amazonian behavior” and said that “nature was mistaken in her,” while salacious French pamphlets claimed she was “one of the most ribald tribades ever heard of,” using the contemporary term for a lesbian. 

But how many of those barbs were simply attempts at character assassination isn’t clear.

“The monarch has been described at best as ‘unconventional’ and at worst as an impulsive, over-emotional murderer,” historian Amy Saunders wrote in The Royal Studies Journal. “Christina’s sexuality and gender have been constantly reconstructed, re-examined, and re-interpreted.” 

Since childhood, the queen’s closest companion was Countess Ebba Sparre, whom she introduced as “my bed-fellow.” 

“How happy I should be if only I could see you, Beautiful One,” Christina wrote to Sparre in 1656. “But I am condemned by destiny to love and cherish you always without seeing you. I cannot be completely happy when I am separated from you.”

“It’s difficult to imagine just how Christina understood her own feelings for Ebba, and for those of other women, like the Comtesse de Suze, on whom she is said to have been keen,” Sarah Waters, author of “Tipping the Velvet," wrote in the Feminist Review in 1994. “There was certainly gossip about Christina’s relations with women in her own day, identifying her as the aristocratic ‘tribade.’”

Christina, who abdicated rather than marry, wrote in her memoir that she felt “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.”

Though the 1933 film “Queen Christina” inserts a fictional heterosexual romance, the movie cemented screen goddess Greta Garbo's status as a queer icon.

Queen Anne of England (1665 - 1714)

Anne, who suffered from frail health throughout her life, met Sarah Churchill when the two were girls. They quickly became close confidants, embarking on a relationship that lasted well into adulthood.

“If I could tell how to hinder myself from writing to you every day I would,” Anne wrote to her friend. “But really I cannot … when I am from you I cannot be at ease without enquiring after you.” 

Queen Anne of England.Print Collector / /Getty Images

When Anne became queen in 1707, she made Sarah and her husband the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and appointed Sarah the Keeper of the Privy Purse. Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark, but rumors circulated that the two women were having a secret romance.

Eventually Sarah became a bit too accustomed to her access and influence and Anne became more drawn to Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Masham.

In 1708, political pamphlets likely circulated by a jealous Sarah pointed to  “dark deeds at night” between Abigail and the queen. After a final falling out at Kensington Palace in 1710, Sarah and Anne never spoke again. 

“The Favourite,” a somewhat fictionalized 2018 account of Anne’s relationships with Sarah and Abigail — complete with lesbian liaisons — earned Olivia Colman a best actress Oscar as the conflicted queen.

Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712 - 1786)

Even in his lifetime, this Prussian royal was widely rumored to be a homosexual, though that term wouldn’t be coined till nearly 90 years after his death.

Two years after the king’s death, his physician Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann published a book in which he desperately tried to dispel gossip Frederick had a “Grecian taste in love.” 

In “Frederick the Great: King of Prussia,” T.C.W. Blanning writes that Zimmermann claimed the king had a minor deformity on his penis that rendered him impotent. And rather than let that secret out, Frederick pretended to be gay, “so that he would continue to appear virile and capable of sexual intercourse, albeit with men.”

But Frederick’s proclivities were apparent at a young age: As a 16-year-old crown prince, he was caught having an affair with a 17-year-old page. 

“We were unaware of my brother’s artifices,” his older sister Wihelmine wrote. “Though I had noticed that he was on more familiar terms with this page than was proper in his position I did not know how intimate the friendship was.”

Their father, King Frederick William, detested what he saw as his son’s effeminacy and was increasingly despotic toward him. Frederick tried to run away with another rumored lover, Hans Hermann von Katte, but the pair were caught.

Von Katte was executed in front of Frederick, shouting, “I die for you with joy in my heart!” before being beheaded. 

Frederick became king of Prussia in 1740 and was considered a savvy military leader, politician and patron of the arts committed to the Enlightenment. But he did little to obscure his sexuality: Sanssouci, his palace in Potsdam, was filled with homoerotic art and, across Europe, “les Potsdamists” became slang for homosexuals.

The king allegedly pursued the Venetian philosopher Francesco Algarotti and even famed French philosopher Voltaire, who lived with him at Sanssouci, though it’s not certain if either relationship was sexual.

After Voltaire’s death in 1778, a manuscript of his memoir detailing Frederick’s homosexual tendencies in detail was stolen and published in the Netherlands. 

Because of his military acumen, Frederick was glorified by the Nazis as a great German leader, though his sexuality was heavily obscured.

Princess Isabella of Parma (1741 - 1763)

Wed to Archduke Joseph of Austria, Isabella was rumored to truly be in love with Joseph’s sister, Archduchess Maria Christina, known affectionately as Mimi. 

She spent all her time at court in Vienna with the archduchess, rather than her husband, and the two exchanged hundreds of letters. Maria Christina’s were destroyed after her death, but Isabella’s make her ardor apparent: “I am told that the day begins with God,” she wrote in one. “I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.”

The relationship was also a great source of conflict for Isabella, because it meant betraying her duties as the wife of a prince. More significantly, though, Isabella realized this was the great love of her life, but she knew that for Mimi, it was more of a youthful dalliance.

The princess died giving birth in 1763 at age 21.

Archduke Ludwig Viktor of Austria (1842 - 1919)

Being the younger brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I didn’t save Ludwig Viktor from ruin when he made an unwelcome pass at a man at Vienna’s Centralbad bathhouse.

“It appears there was a row, and the Archduke was knocked down by one of the bathers, an athletic young man of the middle classes,” The Chicago Tribune reported in 1906. “According to witnesses, the young man’s actions were justified.”  

Ludwig was banished from Vienna for the remainder of the emperor’s life.  “He has also been forced to resign his patronages, and most of his staff have been moved to other positions,” the Tribune reported, adding that the archduke has been “virtually ostracized” from society. 

“The Viennese are very tolerant of scandals in imperial and aristocratic circles,” the paper wrote, “but Ludwig Viktor’s affairs proved to be too much even for them.”

The archduke spent the rest of his life in seclusion at Klessheim Palace near Salzburg, where he died at the age of 76 in 1919, three years after his brother’s death and one year after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved after the end of World War I.

Mwanga II of Buganda (1868 - 1903)

Discussion of Uganda’s treatment of homosexuality usually settles on President Yoweri Museveni’s “Kill the Gays” bill, but this 19th century kabaka, or king, of Buganda allegedly had sexual relationships with men along with his 16 wives.

In 1886, Mwanga II ordered the brutal torture and deaths of dozens of courtiers and pages, with many burned alive. While some sources claimed the incident stemmed from the victims’ attempt to save a British missionary, The New York Times reported the massacre was sparked by “the refusal of a Christian lad acting as the king’s page to commit an abominable crime.”

According to Andrew Kiwanuka, who witnessed the massacre, that crime involved “the works of Sodom.”  Modern historians have suggested Mwanga saw their refusal to have sex as an unfathomable act of disobedience to his absolute authority. 

Whatever the cause, the mass slaughter earned international condemnation and further destabilized Mwanga’s rule, leading to his eventual exile and British annexation of Uganda in the 1890s.

The victims were beatified as martyrs in 1920, and then canonized in 1964. There is a shrine dedicated to them in Namugongo and Martyr’s Day is still celebrated in Uganda every June.

Over time, they became national heroes and the “founding narrative of Christianity in Africa,” political scientist Rahul Rao told The  Atlantic.  

More than a century later, right-wing religious and political leaders like Museveni still use the martyrs to justify attacks on the LGBTQ community in Uganda. 

“I hear there was homosexuality in Mwanga’s palace,” Museveni told a crowd of thousands on Martyr Day in 2010, the Atlantic reported. “This was not part of our culture. I hear he learnt it from the Arabs. But the martyrs refused these falsehoods and went for the truth, which is why we are honoring them today.”

King Umberto II of Italy (1904 - 1983)

After Mussolini’s fall, Umberto’s father, King Victor Emmanuel III, was viewed as a Fascist sympathizer. Under pressure from Allied forces, he abdicated in favor of his wastrel son, Umberto, in 1943. 

Italian King Umberto II greets the crowd gathered on Piazza del Quirinale in Rome in 1946.Mondadori Portfolio / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images

Umberto was married to Queen Marie-José of Belgium and the couple had four children. But the Orva, Mussolini’s secret police, had kept dossiers on Umberto’s male lovers, who reportedly included famed filmmaker Luchino Visconti, boxer Primo Carnero, and French actor Jean Marais. 

One former fling said when he was a young lieutenant in Turin, the prince courted him incessantly, giving him a silver cigarette lighter with the inscription “Dimmi di sì!” (“Say yes to me!”).

Critics decried Umberto as dim-witted, shallow and a poor leader. 

The same year he was made regent, Umberto was outed by the Fascist press in an attempt to discredit him. It worked: After just 34 days the public voted to abolish the monarchy.

Separating from his wife in 1946, Umberto lived out the rest of his life in exile. He died in Geneva at age 78.

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