There can be little doubt that as long as there have been humans there have been LGBT humans. There is evidence of close bonds between people of the same gender almost as far back as we can see. Most of the time they must have gone unnoticed, as most people from history have. Sometimes though LGBT people have either been born to greatness or risen to it on their own merits. When being LGBT has not been accepted often that portion of their lives has been written out of the history books. Only now are historians beginning to re-evaluate the past and bring these hidden aspects back to light.
Sexuality is a complex thing. Many people find it hard enough to label their own private feelings. How much harder is it to examine people who lived centuries or millennia ago and give them a single, simple, identity. None of these people lived in an age when homosexuality had a name and so to label them precisely would be wrong. The best we can do is set out the evidence from their own lives. Many tried in some ways to hide their feelings, but they still left hints about their loves.
Some of these figures are remembered as great, some as lamentable, leaders. When their followers felt they were doing well then their sexuality could easily be excused. For those who suffered defeat their “eccentricity” became another stick to beat them with. It is comforting to know that human nature never changes, in both its love and its hates.
The Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54-68 AD, is known for many things; none of them good. He came to the Imperial throne at the age of 16 and proceeded to rule in the manner you would expect of a teenage boy. While under the guidance of his mother and tutors the empire remained fairly stable. One by one though he had these moderating presences removed by murder and forced suicide. Finally rebellions ousted him and he died on a servant’s sword saying “What an artist dies in me!”
A flamboyant individual, Nero did not allow his position to cramp his style. He performed in singing contests and acted on the stage. This shocked his contemporaries. It would be like President Obama appearing on Big Brother. He enjoyed several marriages, to both men and women. In one wedding to a man Nero played the bride, and in another the groom. He ordered a man who bore a resemblance to his former wife to be castrated before marrying him.
Nero was not wholly unloved though. For years after his death flowers were placed on his tomb by unknown admirers.
14. Emperor Ai of Han
Emperor Ai came to be Emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty at the age of just twenty. He had impressed his childless uncle, the former emperor, who made him heir. His rule began with hopes that he would be an innovator and moderate leader. Suppression of those who disagreed with him soon disillusioned the people.
His most loyal supporter was also his lover. Dong Xian was a court official and soon became a favourite of the emperor. Emperor Ai loved Dong more than anything else. The emperor rewarded Dong with money and ever greater titles. Finally, at the age of just 22, Dong was made commander of the armed forces. After the emperor’s sudden death at an early age Dong was forced to commit suicide.
The relationship between the two men is known as the “passion of the cut sleeve.” The story goes that once, when Dong was sleeping in the emperor’s arms, the emperor had to get up. Rather than disturb his lover by moving his head the emperor cut off his sleeve to slip away.
13. Willem II
Willem II of the Netherlands had affairs with both men and women, but his relationships were kept a closely guarded secret. Ruling from 1840-49 his bisexuality was only revealed in 1966. He served in the British army in the Napoleonic wars where he earned the nickname “Slender Billy.”
His marriage to Anna Pavlona, sister to the Russian Tsar, was not a happy one. He surrounded himself with attractive male servants. In 1819 he faced blackmail from a minister who threatened to reveal his “shameful and unnatural lusts.” In 1848 revolutions spread across Europe. Willem decided to give up many powers to secure his throne. He said he “changed from conservative to liberal in one night.” There have been rumours that his change of heart may have involved further blackmail relating to his sexuality, but this has not been proven.
12. Gian Gastone, Grand Duke of Tuscany
Gian Gastone proved to be the last of the Medici Grand Duke’s of Tuscany. As a bookish boy he was disdained by his powerful father and older brother. Deprived of funds he could not join in the dissolute fun of court. Given how he was treated Gian Gastone it was understandable he became depressed and hid, weeping, in his room for long periods. An unhappy forced marriage did little to improve his mood. The death of his brother made Gian the heir to Tuscany, where he ruled from 1723-37.
Once in power Gian Gastone barely ever left his bed. But this was not the melancholy bed he had retreated to in despair. From his bed in the palace he gathered a collection of beautiful boys to serve him. Termed the Ruspanti, this gang of youths satisfied him in a way his wife, who he never saw, never had. From 1729 until his death the Grand Duke only left his bed twice.
The Roman Emperor Trajan expanded the borders of the empire to their greatest ever extent. His rule was so magnificent that it was hoped that future emperors would be “As lucky as Augustus and as good as Trajan.” To celebrate his military successes he set up a very large column in Rome. Married for political purposes Trajan was almost certainly completely homosexual. This seems to have been accepted as an eccentricity in the face of the Emperor’s achievements.
Homosexuality in Rome was tolerated to some extent, though only for men who played the “active” role. Political opponents were always ready to smear their enemies for effeminacy. Trajan’s sexuality was used to win favour. When King Abgar of Edessa displeased the emperor he sent his attractive young son to give his apologies. When Hadrian, Trajan’s successor, fell in love with the same boy as the emperor the two are said to have quarreled.
10. Edward II
Edward II is often claimed as an openly gay English king. This is a distortion of the available facts. We know the he fathered children with at least two women. It is also true that contemporary sources refer to his over-the-top love for Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser.
Edward was the son of Edward the First, a warrior known as the Hammer of the Scots. Unfortunately his father’s death left the country deeply in debt and in a poor military position. It is in this situation that Edward II came to rely heavily on his male favourites. Piers Gaveston was a friend of Edward from his youth, though Gaveston was exiled by Edward I for unspecified reasons. During Edward II’s own lifetime he was accused of sodomy with Gaveston. After Gaveston’s murder Edward came to depend on Hugh Despenser, who may have been another lover. Edward was deposed by his own wife and barons in favour of his son. Supposedly he met his end when a red hot poker was inserted into his rectum – though this may be a piece of homophobic propaganda.
Elagabalus was barely 14 years old when he was raised to the throne of Rome by his grandmother. In his four years in power he caused turmoil with his sexual scandals. He was also a prankster; once smothering his guests in rose petals until they suffocated.
As with so many ancient people the question of Elagabalus’ sexuality is complicated. He married and divorced at least five women, including a Vestal Virgin who was religiously bound to remain a virgin. One historian said that Elagabalus’ strongest relationship was with his male chariot driver Hierocles, who he called his husband.
Less reliable sources have Elagabalus publicly marrying a man, wearing makeup, putting on wigs, and offering himself as a prostitute. He is said to have offered a huge amount of money to any surgeon who could give him female genitalia. His sexual behaviour, along with his religious reforms, led to his assassination at the age of 18.
8. James I
James I of England, also James VI of Scotland, wrote harshly against the vile sin of sodomy calling it unforgiveable. Yet in his lifetime and since there have been strong rumours that the king’s relationships with men were more than platonic. People joked that after the reign of “King Elizabeth” they were now ruled by “Queen James.”
As a young man he was deeply devoted to Esmé Stewart, who he made Duke of Lennox. He was seen to kiss and embrace him in public. The king only gave him up when forced to by nobles who kidnapped the young royal. Another favourite was created Earl of Somerset by the king. But Somerset fell from favour because, as the king wrote he was “creeping back and withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber.”
James’ greatest favourite was the man he made Duke of Buckingham. About him the king said “You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else.”
7. King David
Many people find in the Bible nothing but condemnation for homosexuality. There are, however, those that see in King David a gay ruler. There are, of course, those who do not agree.
The evidence for King David being gay comes from his close relationship with Jonathan as described in the Book of Samuel. After David’s defeat of Goliath Jonathan befriends David immediately. Their souls are declared to be knit together. David declares that he loves Jonathan as himself. Jonathan’s father rebukes him for his friendship with David, calling it a disgrace. After Jonathan’s death David mourns for him saying “Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.”
Oscar Wilde would later use the example of David and Jonathan in claiming his relationships with other men to be natural and respectable.
6. Queen Christina of Sweden
Queen Christina ascended to the throne of Sweden at the age of 6, and would abdicate it at age 28. In between she refused to behave as others thought a queen should. She wore men’s clothes and loved books and learning. She had a close female friend who often shared her bed. As a child she was a tomboy and when she grew up it was said she “walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers.”
Her contemporaries described her as manly and when she was born there seems to have been some confusion as to whether she was a girl or a boy. Christina refused to even consider marriage and would hint that it had something to do with her “constitution.” Her refusal to marry played a large part in her giving up the throne. Historians debate whether the queen was a lesbian or potentially intersex.
5. Ludwig II
Ludwig II of Bavaria should be known to anyone who has ever seen a Disney film. The Disney castle is based on one of Ludwig’s extravagant fairytale constructions. Ludwig kept building his dreamlike castles until his kingdom could no longer afford them. His other obsession was with the music of Wagner… as well as with Wagner the man. He wrote to the composer “Ardently I long for you, O my presiding Saint, to whom I pray! … How I love, how I love you, my one, my highest good!”
Ludwig was a devout Catholic who never married. He seems never to have slept with anyone but his personal diaries reveal his deep emotional bonds to men. He became attached to a groom, Richard Hornig, who he dined and travelled with to such an extent that it caused a scandal.
Ludwig was deposed on the grounds of insanity. He mysteriously drowned in a lake alongside the doctor taking care of him.
4. James Buchanan
People often ask when the United States will be ready to elect a gay president. Several historians are convinced that it already has. James Buchanan served as the 15th President of the United States and remembered mainly for being in office when the secession of states that would lead to civil war began.
As a young man Buchanan courted a girl but never married her as she called it off. The main companion of his life would be William Rufus King. The two lived together for years and became known for their closeness. President Jackson referred to the pair as “Aunt Fancy” and “Miss Nancy.” King described the relationship between the two as a “communion.” When King moved to Paris Buchanan wrote that “I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” He said he could see himself marrying a woman to care for him in his old age, so long as she did not expect too much in the way of romantic feeling.
Hadrian was the successor to the emperor Trajan already mentioned in this list. Hadrian married Trajan’s grandniece, but the marriage was famously unhappy on both sides. There was only one great love in Hadrian’s life and that was a pretty boy called Antinous.
Hadrian met Antinous when he was likely very young. Antinous became the emperor’s favourite and constant companion in the emperor’s travels. After several years together the two visited Egypt and it was on the banks of the Nile that tragedy struck. Antinous was found drowned in the shallows of the river. Hadrian, in deep mourning, built a city on the site and called it Antinoopolis. He also turned his dead lover into a god.
Sculptures of Antinous were set up throughout the empire to allow for his worship. Today he can be found in the great museums of the world, looking down with his beautiful face forever young.
2. Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar was a little bit of everything. He was a great general, a wily politician, and an author of books and poetry. He was also described as “every wife’s husband, and every husband’s wife.” As a young man Caesar was sent to the court of king Nicomedes of Bithynia. He spent so much time with the king that later in life he would be called the “Queen of Bithynia” and his soldiers would say that “Caesar may have conquered the Gauls, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar.” Catullus the poet called him a “Sodomite Romulus.”
Other men were linked to Caesar as potential lovers but it is Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra which is best remembered today.
1. Alexander the Great
The ancient Greeks and Romans had no word for homosexuality. But homosexual behaviour was an accepted part of life. Alexander the Great’s father had a male lover and was considered a great leader. At least until his son was found to be greater.
Alexander’s conquests were the largest the world had known. He conquered Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan, and moved on into India. Through it all Alexander kept with him a band of young friends. But his closest friend, and many say lover, was Hephaestion. It was said of Alexander that he was “ruled by Hephaestion’s thighs.” When someone once mistook Hephaestion for Alexander the king forgave the mistake saying “You were not mistaken; this man too is Alexander.”
When Hephaestion died Alexander was inconsolable. He clung to the body weeping for a whole day and had to be finally dragged away.