“Kings” and “Queens” are nothing new to queer culture, and I’m not just talking about drag. Throughout history, queer folx have reigned supreme over empires and nations, although their queerness is left out of the history books and, for many, their names, too. We all know Henry VIII of England but how many of us know about Cristina of Sweden? Or that Queen Anne is rumored to have carried on a lesbian affair with not one, but two ladies?
Here are nine queer royals who lived, ruled, and loved, some openly, others in secret, whose names will live on as long as we remember them.
EMPEROR ELAGABALUS OF ROME (204 – 222)
When Julia Maesa arranged the assassination of the Roman Emperor and put her 14 year-old grandson on the throne, she probably expected a grateful, pliable boy to be her royal puppet. Elagabalus was none of those things. Considered by some to be the first recorded transgender figure in history (who reportedly sought physicians to construct her a vagina) she married several women (and at least one man) including a Vestal Virgin Priestess; tried to unify all Rome’s religions; allowed women into the senate; championed sex workers; and distributed food to the poor during festivals. Grandma Julia responded by having Elagabulus and her mother murdered and replaced with her grateful, pliable 15 year-old cousin, Alexander.
QUEEN CALIFIA OF CALIFORNIA (1510)
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How perfect is it that California was named for a fictional Black lesbian amazon warrior queen? Written in 1510 the novel, “The Adventures of Esplandián,” was well-known enough to be mocked in Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” as one of the popular novels that turned Quixote’s mind to mush. It was clearly in the mushy minds of Cortez and subsequent bands of raider/sailors who went looking for (and may have thought they found) the island kingdom of California inhabited by big, black women in solid gold armor who rode man-eating griffons. Their queen was Califia, the biggest, baddest pulp fiction diva of them all.
KING/QUEEN NZINGA MBANDE OF ANGOLA (1583–1663)
Nzinga! Her name is a battle cry for the ages. The “Double Queen” of Ndongo and Matamba (present-day Angola), Nzingha was a tireless strategist, diplomat and warrior queen. Although her history is problematic, she remains an icon and inspiration to many –including queer Africans. Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna said “The thing about Nzinga is her title was Ngola, and Ngola means king. 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.”
QUEEN CHRISTINA OF SWEDEN (1626 – 1689)
She abdicated the throne refusing to give any reason other than she was “simply not suited to marriage.” Queen Christina Of Sweden had a passionate relationship with her lady-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre, whom she introduced to an ambassador as “my bed-fellow,” adding “her intellect is as striking as her body.” Pope Alexander VII described Christina as “a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame.”
ANNE OF GREAT BRITAIN (1655-1714)
This is the rumored royal lesbian love triangle that shaped the world: Queen Anne; Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; and Baroness Abigail Masham. Ambitious and political, Sarah Churchill was openly the power behind the throne. She used her relationship with the Queen to secure wealth, titles and positions for herself and select family members. Sarah would regret introducing her cousin, Abigail, to court. Abigail surpassed Sarah in Anne’s favors (see 2018 movie “The Favourite”). When the Queen refused Sarah’s order to fire Abigail as her Woman of the Bedchamber, the jilted Duchess tried to get Parliament to intervene. When that failed, she had pamphlets “leaked” by Churchill’s secretary, Arthur Mainwaring, talking of the ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark deeds at night’ between Anne and Abigail. Finally, Sarah threatened to publish Anne’s explicit love letters to her. This strong-arming blew up in Sarah’s face, ending whatever tenderness remained between her and Anne. The Queen fabricated embezzlement charges against Sarah’s husband and dismissed them both. The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough left England in disgrace. Abigail remained at Queen Anne’s side until her death.
PRINCESS ISABELLA OF BOURBON-PARMA (1741-1763)
Princess Isabella of Parma (Isabella Maria Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Domenica Giovanna) was the grandchild of Louis XV of France and Philip V of Spain. Less than a year after her mother died of smallpox, Isabella was married to Archduke Joseph of Austria (who became Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor). Both were 18 years old. Joseph was smitten with her but Isabella fell into passionate (and reciprocated) love with his younger sister, Maria Christina. “My dear angel,” “my most precious treasure,” “my consolation,” wrote Isabella to Marie Christina. “I am madly in love with you, virtuously or diabolically, I love you and I will love you to the grave.” Tragically, Isabella (who foretold her own youthful demise), felled by smallpox and complications of childbirth, was dead by 22.
WE’WHA, THE “ZUNI PRINCESS” (1849-1896)
We’wha was Ihamana, or ‘Two-spirit,’ a commonly understood Zuni gender designation separate from the male/female binary. In 1881, ethnologist Matilda Stevenson began a lifelong friendship with We’wha. In early writing Stevenson alternates between pronouns he and she, but concluded “As the writer could never think of her faithful and devoted friend in any other light, she will continue to use the feminine gender when referring to We’wha.” An accomplished potter and weaver, We’wha became an ambassador for the Zuni, travelling with Stevenson to Washington D.C. where she demonstrated Zuni basket-weaving at the Smithsonian, met with President Grover Cleveland, was lauded by the press as a Zuni Princess and feted by Washington Society.
SIR EWAN FORBES, 11TH BARONET OF CRAIGIEVAR (1912-1991)
Self-determination for trans people is nothing new. Sir Ewan Forbes changed the sex on his birth certificate in the 1940s, announced his new name in the newspaper and legally married his wife.
Ewan will have used the men’s toilets too. pic.twitter.com/gxWkSKBXVu
— Trans Actual (@TransActualUK) July 9, 2020
Ewan Forbes was designated female at birth and given the name Elizabeth. After graduating med school, Forbes shook off the last vestibules of girlhood. In 1952, he re-registered his birth as male, announcing the name and change with a notice in the local paper. His neighbors and patients were universally supportive. A month later, he married Isabella Mitchell. This story of this Scottish country doctor, like the lives of so many other gender-nonconforming individuals, might have slipped silently into local lore if Forbes’ older brother hadn’t died in 1965 with no male heir. His cousin John (next in the male line of succession) challenged Ewan’s right to inherit the title. Twelve doctors/medical experts later, the court ruled in Ewan’s favor. Cousin John would have to wait 26 years until Ewan’s death to gain the Baronetcy.
THE RED DUCHESS (1936 –2008)
Luisa Isabel Alvarez de Toledo y Maura was the 21st Duchess of Medina Sidonia in Spain. The Spanish royal, known as the Red Duchess for her opposition to dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, had three children from her first marriage but created a scandal by marrying her lesbian lover in the last literal hours of her life. Eleven hours before her death on March 7 2008, Luisa Isabel married Liliana Maria Dahlmann in a civil ceremony on her deathbed. Liliana Maria Dahlmann had been the Duchess’s longtime partner and secretary since 1983. In addition to the ceremony, Luisa Isabel wrote a will making her new bride beneficiary. Although her decision was clearly a move to disinherit her children, after a long legal battle, the Spanish Court chose to divide the estate worth in excess of $36 million between the survivors. Today, the Dowager Duchess Liliana Maria, her legal widow, serves as life-president of the Fundación Casa Medina Sidonia.