To date, there have been five openly LGBTQ+ people who have served as a national head of government, in Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, and Serbia — but gay, bisexual, lesbian, and even transgender leaders have guided nations since time immemorial. From monarchs to prime ministers, these queer rulers showed a knack for the real-life game of thrones.
The ancient Egyptian pharaoh Pepi II ruled from 2278 B.C. until some time after 2247 B.C. That he sat on the throne named Neferkare leads many scholars to believe the tale King Neferkare and General Sasenet, which describes a gay relationship between a pharaoh and his general, was in fact about Pepi, though Egyptologists continue to debate if the story was truth or fiction.
Artifacts found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen indicate a bit of LGBT history involving Pharoah Akhenaten, who ruled around 1350 B.C. Stone slabs on display in the Berlin Museum seem to depict Akhenaten with his general Smenkhkare with the ruler caressing the younger man’s chin. Egyptologists have debated how this fits alongside other artifacts that seem to show the king kissing a young man sitting in his lap and the fact that references to Nefertiti as the king’s lover seem to disappear from relics dating to the later years of Akhenaten’s life, with signs pointing toward the ruler being bisexual.
The dictator of the city of Athens in 514, Hipparch had made a sexual advance toward the openly gay Harmodius and was rejected multiple times, according to historian Thucydides. This ultimately led to Hipparch’s overthrow at Harmodius’s and his lover Aristogeiten’s hands and resulted in democracy in Athens.
The Macedonian king, best known for growing a Classical empire that stretched from modern-day Greece to India, held a close relationship with his top general, Hephastion, with Aristotle describing the men as “one soul abiding in two bodies.” Historian David Lane Fox says that philosophers of the day often commented that Alexander had only suffered defeat by the general’s thighs. And historians agree Haephastion’s death devastated the ruler. Alexander reigned from 336 B.C. until his death at age 32 in 323 B.C.
Historians consider China’s Martial Emperor, born Liu Che, a prominent bisexual leader in history, taking many partners of both genders. Kate Cotoner, author of Fall of the State, makes particular note of a liaison with the musician Li Yan Nian. The Han dynasty emperor would reign from 141 B.C. to 87 B.C.
The Bythinian king would go into and out of power between 94 B.C. and 74 B.C. In addition to stories of him keeping a young Julius Caesar as his “queen of Bithina,” the ruler allegedly had libertine orgies involving those of either sex.
The most famous Roman general, Caesar faced rumors about his bisexuality from early on in his military career. The historian Suetonius suggested he had an affair with King Nicomedes, whom he had visited while still under the training of M. Minucius Thermus. This certainly may have been gossip spread by Caesar’s political opponents, but he would visit regularly with Nicomedes for years.
The emperor of the Chinese Han Dynasty reigned from 7 B.C. to 1 B.C. and would be among the last of his line to lead the nation. His short time was marked by corruption and unpopular decisions, with Ai considered a tool of his grandmother, according to the Book of Han. But history also remembers Ai of Han for his effusive homosexuality. While he married the Empress Fu, he also had a male lover, Dong Xian. A story from Chinese lore describes the “comrades of the cut sleeve." This references accounts of the emperor cutting off his sleeve rather than awaken his partner sleeping in his arms.
Publius Aelius Hadrianus would serve as Roman emperor from 117 to 138. The original “Build a Wall” ruler quite clearly preferred the company of men, according to classicists including Roystan Lambert. He famously fell for the teenage Antinous, who would be deified by the ruler after his death.
This transgender Roman emperor rose to power at age 14, in the year 218, and ruled the Empire for four years with a type of debauchery that might have made Nero blush. Martjin Icks’s The Crimes of Elagabalus chronicles the ruler’s reign. In addition to dressing as a woman, he would dispatch the Praetorian Guard to find well-endowed men to satisfy the “lust in every orifice of his body.” He once sought a physician to alter his physical anatomy. He would pronounce himself married five times during his reign, the last time to his charioteer, Heirocles, and would refer to himself as Heirocles’ wife and queen. Ultimately, the violation of so many taboos led to revolt, and Elagabalus and his lover died at the hands of his own guards.
The ruler of England from 1087 to 1100, King William II was gay, according to the writer Eadmer, though effeminate mannerisms and fashion choices seemed his primary evidence. The king would sire no children of his own and may have died at the hands of his brother Henry, who succeeded him on the throne.
Richard the Lionheart has been depicted as gay in books and films, most famously by Anthony Hopkins in The Lion in Winter. Much of the talk of his purported homosexuality stems from the time he spent with King Phillip II of France in 1187. One chronicler of the time stated that “at night the bed did not separate them.” While Professor John Gillgham has suggested there were no sexual overtones to the relationship, Dominic Sellwood points at other text about the “passionate love” between the men that leaves little doubt the kings were lovers.
The relationship between King Phillip II of France would sour when Richard I in 1191 broke an engagement with the French ruler’s sister Alys of Messina. Outside the stories of relations with the Lionheart, Phillip’s documented relationships otherwise consisted of a number of political marriages to European royal women.
Edward of Caernarfon, who reigned as king of England from 1307 until being deposed in 1327, maintained a longtime relationship with adviser Piers Gaveston that would be used by his enemies. Gaveston was originally assigned by King Edward I to serve his son, but the elder Edward exiled him when the young men grew too close. Upon Edward II’s ascension to the throne, Gaveston returned to his side — until opponents hunted the adviser down and beheaded him. The king would abdicate his throne months before his own death during imprisonment, according to Seymour Phillips’s Edward II.
A son of Henry II of France, Henry III would serve on the Lithuanian throne from 1573 to 1575 and as the king of France from 1574 until his death in 1589. He would produce no heirs of his own and was plagued by rumors of homosexuality in his lifetime. While many historians wonder if the talk came from critics seeking to undermine the ruler, historian Gary Ferguson finds some truth in the rumors based on the king’s closeness to many male favorites.
The twice-numerated monarch served as king of Scotland beginning in 1567 (the sixth of his name) and united his nation with England and Ireland in 1603 (becoming King James I in the United Kingdom). James engaged in a political marriage to Anne of Denmark, with whom he produced three children, but historians say he always preferred the company of men. Historians point to evidence he had relationships with:Esme Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox; Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset; and George Velliers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham. The last of the men was at his side when he died.
The Swedish royal would reign as queen from 1644 to 1654 before stunning Europe by abdicating her throne. As the only child of King Gustav II, the princess and ruler in waiting was reared by her father more like a son, and her early ascension to power put her in the world of men. But accounts of her birth have led some to believe the monarch to have been born intersex. She also exchanged letters of a very intimate and adult nature with lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre, revealing same-sex desires.
The grand duke of Tuscany from 1621 until 1670, Ferdinando married and produced children, but also quarreled with his mother, Maria Maddelina of Austria, about whether homosexuality should be outlawed. Historians say the mother once gave her son a list of reported gay people and said that they should be burned. He added his own name to the list and then threw it in a fire, declaring “Voila, your command has already been accomplished,” according to Paul Strathern’s book The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance.
The queen of England would be crowned in 1702, and historians say the love interest of her life appears to have been Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough and an ancestor of Winston Churchill. The relationship would inform Anne Somerset’s 2013 book Queen Anne.
The last grand duke in the Medici line ruled Tuscany from 1723 until his death in 1737. He produced no heirs with his wife, Anne Maria Franziska, who he reportedly could not stand, and preferred instead the constant company of men. He kept an ongoing relationship with groom Giuliano Dami, but the two were hardly exclusive. Indeed, on trips, Dami would recruit Ruspanti, young male prostitutes, to engage in orgies with the duke.
A Confucian ruler at the height of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong at age 65 took an interest in guardsman Heshen, who would quickly become a powerful member of the administration. Many historians believe the men were engaged in a homosexual relationship, not uncommon in the era. A ruler in one of the last dynasties, Quianlong would reign from 1735 to 1799.
It was briefly a gay old time in the White House with Lincoln succeeding Buchanan in office. While the Republican represented a diametric shift from his predecessor on the major issue of slavery, the two shared an affection for the male sex. While Lincoln of course had wed Mary Todd, historical evidence reveals multiple male relationships, including a long-term connection with Joshua Speed and of sharing a bed with his bodyguard, according to historian C.A. Tripp. His bisexuality inspired the formation years later of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Likely America’s first gay president, Democrat James Buchanan won the election of 1856 — rallying support from the slaveholding states in the original Southern Strategy. He would serve just one term before retiring to Pennsylvania and being succeeded by the antislavery Abraham Lincoln. He remains the only lifelong bachelor to hold the office of president, and reportedly had a longtime relationship with William Rufus King while the men served together in the Senate. Buchanan even wrote a longing letter to King when the Alabama senator left his post to become an envoy in France.
The Indian crown prince of Rajpipla came out in 2006 and immediately faced a threat of disinheritance from his family. Some friction between himself and other royals persists, Gohil told The Advocate in 2014, but his activism has also demonstrated that LGBT people can show up anywhere, even in the upper classes of a caste-conscious society.
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 hours before her 2008 death by wedding her female secretary Liliana Maria Dahlman, her longtime lover. Her children and widow would enter a fierce legal battle over inheritance.
Di Rupo’s 2011 appointment as prime minister of Belgium installed a leader who spoke French instead of Dutch, didn’t believe in God, and led the nation’s Socialist Party, a surprising rise to power in a relatively conservative nation. Oh, and he was openly gay. He left office in October 2014.
The first member of the British royal family to come out publicly as LGBT, Lord Mountbatten said he confided to his first wife years ago that he was bisexual. Last year, he went public with a same-sex relationship with airline executive James Coyle. Mountbatten is cousin to Queen Elizabeth II.
The election of Varadkar as leader of the governing Fine Gael party in June made all kind of Irish history. In addition to becoming the first openly gay prime minister of the island nation, the 38-year-old was the youngest head of government for the country and the first member of an ethnic minority to hold the post (his father is an Indian immigrant).
The U.S.- and U.K.-educated prime minister of Serbia came into power in June, marking the first time a woman or an LGBT person ever held the office. While appointed, not elected, this makes Brnabić the most recent LGBT individual to be named a head of government in the world, and the first ever for an Eastern European nation.