There are many historical rulers who for their gender expression or sexual orientation would today be seen as LGBTQ+. By digging into the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection we can uncover these stories immortalized by coins.Less
Historically there are many examples of people who for their gender expressions and sexual orientations would today be seen as LGBTQ+. Chief among those who had the privilege of living and loving as they saw fit in their time were LGBTQ+ rulers. These historic 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+ leaders throughout history.
Roman Emperor Elagabalus lived a privileged life of open expression. Wearing cosmetics and women’s clothing, he self-identified as queen, lady, mistress, and wife. Despite many affairs—including marriage to a male athlete—Elagabalus loved one man above all, the chariot driver Hierocles, calling him husband. During his reign, Elagabalus expanded the Temple of Jupiter, near the Colosseum and rededicated it to the god El-Gabal. He is depicted as a traditional male emperor on this gold Aureus.
At the age of 18, Princess Isabella of Parma married Archduke Joseph of Austria and moved to Schönbrunn Palace. Joseph was happy with Isabella; however, she preferred the love of his sister, Archduchess Maria Christina. Their letters illustrate the depth of their love for one another. The relationship lasted until Isabella died from complications of childbirth at 21. Just after her death, the archduke became Holy Roman Emperor. His lonely likeness lives on in the gold ducat coin of Regensburg.
Men engaging in same-sex relationships is well documented in Moorish Spain, though citizens were encouraged to keep the romances to themselves. And so the Caliph Al-Hakam II conducted himself, enjoying romances with other men. Eventually he was compelled to marry a woman to produce male heirs—though she dressed and acted in the manner of a man—and he gave her the male name Jafar. The Dirhem coin above was minted for the Caliph’s reign, during which he expanded the Mosque of Cordoba.
In medieval Japan male sexuality was often fluid, with samurai taking on younger male lovers. This practice, known as wakashūdo, was encouraged and was seen as an important part of samurai training. Perhaps most famous for this practice were the rulers of the Tokugawa shogunate. Eight of the 11 Tokugawa rulers—who lived in Edo-jo Ato—are known to have had male lovers, including Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu. The Kanei Tsuho coin above is similar to other coins of the Tokugawa era.
Queen Christina of Sweden was raised and educated like a boy. She ruled from Tre Kronor for 10 years, then abdicated the throne in favor of a cousin, Charles X, so that she didn’t have to marry and could convert to Catholicism. She shocked many courts in Europe, including the Vatican, wearing men’s clothing and acting in the manner of a man. She loved and had relationships with many women. Many of her likenesses, like this silver taler, show the former leader in a more feminine light.