LGBT Genealogy

National Coming Out Day was last week, a day set aside to give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people encouragement and space to come out of the closet to their friends, colleagues, or family.  And one such “coming out” rang out loud and proud in the genealogy community, despite being completely unsurprising to anyone who’d met the geneablogger extraordinaire.

There is far more gay-ness in family trees than many genealogists are likely to admit or even realize.  We study vital records — marriage records and birth certificates, records often associated with the fruits of a heterosexual relationship.  Plus, reasons for getting into genealogy are about as plentiful as genealogists, children often playing a role.  Many, myself included, catch the bug in part because of the desire to share family history with future generations, often ones own children.

If it sounds like I’m hedging my bets in that last sentence, it’s because I am. The simple fact is that every family is unique.  Yet, when a predominantly heterosexual group of people start talking about family structures, you get a lot of generalizations that don’t actually stand up in reality.

The reality is that many (but not all) homosexuals and transsexuals have come to understand their sexuality or gender later in life.

The reality is that many (but not all) homosexuals and transsexuals have had “traditional” family structures before coming to terms with their own identity.

The reality is that many (but not all) homosexuals and transsexuals have had kids, even before adoption and surrogacy became feasible for same-sex couples.

The reality is that many (but not all) homosexuals and transsexuals are very close to their family before and/or after their “coming out.”

The reality is that even in situations where someone has come out to their family and been rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean that person becomes uninterested in their family history.

The reality is that the 2010 US census estimated 135K same-sex married couples and over 500K same-sex unmarried couples in the US.  To my knowledge, no one has ever done an estimate of same-sex households in 1900 America.

The reality is that, if prevalence estimates are correct, and 1 in 10 people are born gay, then every genealogist can probably point to an unmarried collateral, a brother or sister of their ancestor, and say, yup, they may have been gay.  That genealogist might even be right.

And the not-so-simple reality is that just because an ancestor married and had one or more children, it doesn’t mean that ancestor wasn’t a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, who chose early or late to live within societies structures rather than fight against them, a fight which far too often could result in death.

So when you look at large diverse cities with large gay populations like San Francisco or New York through a genealogist’s lens, don’t forget that people who moved there came from somewhere else and had parents and sometimes a husband or wife and kids.  And their own children or the children of their brother or sister or cousin might look at the family tree and wonder “What happened to Uncle John?”  Or “Why did Grandma leave the family all of a sudden?” If we try to maintain that genealogy is a study of heterosexuals, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to honor all of our relatives for who they were not for who we think they should have been.

I wish it were easier in genealogy software and pedigree charts to note individuals’ sexuality and gender. Though the software frustrates me on other levels, MacFamilyTree does have a setting in the preferences to change it from Husband/Wife to Partner1/Partner2.  I have yet to confirm a LGBT relative so I haven’t switched it over for my own tree, but I’d hope it would then change the Father/Mother labels to Parent1/Parent2.  The only issue I find is that I would rather that be setting I could change for the couple rather than tree-wide.  And I have yet to see any software that makes a distinction between a biological sex and gender for transsexuals in a tree.

I know I am not the only one to bring these issues up.  Other writers have talked about techniques to honor everyone in our family tree and let those later generations know that if they fall within the LGBT spectrum, they are not the first in the family.  Here are a couple other posts to discuss this topic more fully:

About kimcotton

Professional Genealogist, specializing in 19th & 20th Century U.S. records, particularly California & Connecticut, with a dash of North Western Mexico.

3 thoughts on “LGBT Genealogy

  1. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill 😉
    http://drbilltellsancestorstories.blogspot.com/
    Author of “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories” and family saga novels:
    “Back to the Homeplace” and “The Homeplace Revisited”
    http://thehomeplaceseries.blogspot.com/
    http://www.examiner.com/x-53135-Springfield-Genealogy-Examiner
    http://www.examiner.com/x-58285-Ozarks-Cultural-Heritage-Examiner

  2. I know that Family Tree Maker software could handle the conundrum of a gay couple at least 10 years ago. I know this because I put a couple of same-sex couples in it. The trick was trying to get cleverer than the software. If I remember correctly, first you entered the relative by blood (and assign the correct male/female value). Then you entered the spouse (and accept, for the time being, that it’s incorrectly assigned the male/female value to the spouse). After staring at the screen in mute frustration for about 5 minutes, you pull up the family screen that shows the spouse with his/her parents. Voila! It lets you change the male/female value in this screen! It’s been a while since I played with it, and I don’t remember if it used husband/husband and wife/wife titles or the default husband/wife once you fixed the individuals. Considering the number of cousin marriages (which gave the software fits), children before marriage (which confused it), and other genealogical quirks in the family tree, including a same-sex couple was something of a no-brainer.

    1. It should be a no brainer. It’s the quality software that builds flexibility into the system to allow for things software/database designers didn’t anticipate. Very few families can really be traced through many generations without finding something scandalous that a genealogy program will have to deal with. For me, those are still some of the most interesting people in the tree.

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