Queer coins: LGBTQ rulers through history

With Pride Month celebrations recognizing LGBTQ history and culture throughout the country this June, what better way to highlight the occasion than by studying historical LGBTQ rulers with coins?

Throughout history, there are many examples of world leaders who for their gender expressions and sexual orientations would today be seen as members of the LGBTQ community. In some regions or eras, a range of expressions of gender and sexuality were accepted and even encouraged. In regions where certain forms of self-identification and expression were unwelcome, some individuals were still true to their own identity in their own ways. Chief among those who had the privilege of living and loving as they saw fit were historic rulers we would today describe as LGBTQ. It should be emphasized that although we would describe these rulers as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer today, that identification may not have been the way they would want to be described. These terms are modern constructs and are used as aides in telling these human stories.

These historic LGBTQ rulers, like so few other LGBTQ people, have been immortalized through coins from their eras. The National Numismatic Collection has several examples of such coins that represent a wide range of LGBTQ rulers throughout history.

Emperor Elagabalus, 203–222 A.D.

Marble bust of Elagabalus and coin
Bust of Elagabalus, Wikimedia Commons / Aureus Coin, Ancient Rome, 221 A.D.

As an emperor, Elagabalus lived a privileged life that allowed for open expression. Beyond applying cosmetics and wearing women’s clothing, Elagabalus was known to have used self-referencing terms such as queen, lady, mistress, and wife. Indeed, Elagabalus is even said to have publicly married the male athlete Zoticus in a ceremony in Rome. Despite having many affairs, Elagabalus loved one man above all others, the chariot driver Hierocles, whom Elagabalus referred to by calling him husband. Though Elagabalus was assassinated in 222 A.D., the leader’s likeness—depicted as a traditional male emperor—is captured in the coinage minted during Elagabalus’s reign, such as on the gold Aureus pictured above.

Princess Isabella of Parma, 1741-1763 A.D.

Painting of Princess Isabella and gold coin with Joseph II’s profile
Liotard, Jean-Etienne. Isabella, figlia di Madame Infanta, Fondazione Ordine Mauriziano, Stupinigi. / Ducat Coin, Joseph II, Regensburg, 1765-1790

Princess Isabella of Parma was the daughter of the Duke of Parma and Louise Élisabeth, the eldest daughter of the king of France, Louis XV. At the age of 18, Isabella was married to Archduke Joseph of Austria, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor. However, Isabella was incredibly unhappy with her marriage to Joseph, even though he was very happy with her. Instead, the princess sought out the love of her husband’s sister, Archduchess Maria Christina. Many of Isabella’s letters to Maria Christina still exist today, and illustrate the depth of their love for one another. Their relationship lasted until Isabella died in childbirth at the young age of 21. Shortly after her death, the archduke became Holy Roman Emperor; his lonely likeness lives on in the gold ducat coin of Regensburg.

Caliph Al-Hakam II, 915–976 A.D.

Silver-colored coin and large outdoor statue of Al-Hakam II from the waist up
Caliph Al-Hakam II Statue, Wikimedia Commons / Dirhem Coin, Spain, 961–976 A.D.

Though not as prominent or as encouraged as in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, men engaging in same-sex romantic and sexual relationships is well documented in Moorish Spain. Instead of embracing their sexuality and announcing their love, these citizens were encouraged to keep their romances to themselves. And so the Caliph Al-Hakam II conducted himself, enjoying youthful romances with other men. However, later in his life, as the caliph it was his duty to marry and produce male heirs. Eventually he did marry a woman, but his wife dressed and acted in the manners of men of the time—he even gave her the male name Jafar. The coin pictured above was minted for his reign.

Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu, 1604-1651 A.D.

Coin with Japanese symbols and painting of seated Tokugawa Iemitsu
Tokugawa, Iemitsu. Wikimedia Commons / Kanei Tsuho Coin, Japan, 1636

In medieval Japan, male sexuality was often fluid, with samurai, and later commoners, emulating upper classes by taking on younger male lovers. This practice, known as wakashūdo, was encouraged and was seen as an important part of samurai training, with the older warrior fostering and protecting the younger novice while teaching him the ways of the samurai. Perhaps most famous for this practice in the period were the rulers of the Tokugawa shogunate. Out of the 11 Tokugawa rulers, eight are known to have had male love affairs. One particularly turbulent affair between Shōgun Iemitsu and his older lover, Sakabe Gozaemon, is said to have ended violently when Iemitsu murdered Sakabe while the two shared a bath. The Kanei Tsuho coin above is similar to other coins of the Tokugawa era, and would have circulated in conjunction with coinage of the reigning monarch of the period.

Queen Cristina of Sweden, 1626–1689 A.D.

Queen Christina of Sweden’s father raised and educated the young heir like a boy. Christina ruled for 10 years, from the age of 18, before ultimately deciding to abdicate the throne in favor of a cousin, Charles X, so that Christina did not have to marry and could convert to Catholicism. Christina shocked many courts in Europe, including the Vatican, by wearing men’s clothing and acting in the manner of a man. Christina loved and had relationships with many women, including with Ebba Sparre, who was also a Swedish noble. Christina lived a long and interesting life and was later buried in the grotto at the Vatican. Many of the portraits and likenesses of Christina such as the silver taler above show the former leader in a more feminine light. Christina may have dressed differently than described for these portraits, or artists may have changed the portrait’s appearance to conform to social norms of the period.

However these historic LGBTQ rulers would have described themselves, what is apparent is that they were true to themselves, and to their love. LGBTQ history may be harder to uncover than other histories, but sometimes if you follow the clues and look closer at the written sources and objects from their eras, such as coins, their stories may slowly start to emerge. These coins help tell LGBTQ history in an unexpected way and convey the modern message: “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”

Kelsey Wiggins is a museum specialist for the National Numismatic Collection. She has also blogged about gold rushes that weren’t in California.