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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Unhiding The Past: Gay and Lesbian Ancestors


Today, October 11, is National Coming Out Day and every year I make an effort to honor those in my family tree who are not-so-easily found because of their sexual identity. I also "come out" to the genealogy community as a self-identified gay man.

I Am a Gay Genealogist

Or, perhaps "I'm a genealogist who happens to be gay," would be a better way to express that. Readers may or may not know that I am gay and that I've been "out" to family, friends and colleagues for over 25 years now. When I meet others in the genealogy field, whether it be online or in-person, I don't put my sexuality on the front burner.  Not only would that be inappropriate, in my opinion, but it doesn't define who I am in the genealogy world.

Being gay is something I'm comfortable with and if it comes up in conversation, so be it.  I've been on the receiving end of many different responses and reactions to my being gay, positive and negative, including:

  • Isn't it difficult being a gay genealogist? Actually, no it isn't.  I encounter the same record sets, the same brick walls, the same everything that any other genealogist does.
  • What about the Mormon influence on genealogy . . . have you had anyone avoid working with you because of your sexual identity? Yes, I've had several people and firms decide not to work with me, most likely due to the "gay" thing, but it isn't just limited to LDS folks. Sometimes people let their personal views impact how they interact with me.  It's a free country and as far as I'm concerned, it is their loss.

    And as I tell anyone who asks about genealogy and the involvement of the LDS church, I count my Mormon friends and colleagues as some of the best people to work with. Period. I've never had a harsh word towards me nor has there been any attempt to "convert" me in any way. Our focus is on genealogy and family history and we celebrate our common mission in making sure that everyone can find all their ancestors.
  • Isn't a bit of an anomaly that a gay man with no children would focus on genealogy? I don't see it as odd and if you think that gay men and women don't have a sense of family, then you are mistaken. Many of us are raising our own children or we are a big part of the lives of our cousins, our nieces and nephews and other family members. Everyone has family. And everyone should have the ability to find out more about their family's history.

Ancestors: Come Out, Come Out

The ability to be integrated into society as a gay man or woman is much different than it was 50, 75 or 100 years ago. It is much easier for me than it was for those gay men and women who came before me. Have you ever wondered if someone in your family tree was gay?  Gay people are often left hidden in our family history, or family members just don't want to talk about them.

In my own genealogy research, my goal is to make sure that each person is fairly and wholly represented and  each on has an equal voice.

I'm Thomas. I'm a Genealogist. And I'm Gay.

Just in case you didn't know.  If this is news to you, now that you know, how are things different?  They aren't.  You just know more about me than you did a minute ago.  I'm still the same Thomas.

Photo: Joe and Friend, abt. 1936, Long Island, New York. Personal collection of Thomas MacEntee.

© 2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

15 comments:

Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana said...

One of my first 'finds' in my family is that we have a long line of gay and lesbian relatives. The best part? Being able to have a conversation with someone in my family about it, and having them shyly say to me, "I'm gay." That person might not have told me if it weren't for this observation on my part. What's more, it provides me with ancedotal evidence for some of the people in older generations who I know never married, or married and had no children. I'm still trying to unravel the relationship between my two Stellas; I may never know for certain whether their relationship was one of friendship or much more than that. Does it matter to me? Not one bit. But then I understand that not everyone shares my view.

You're a great genealogist, Thomas. The rest simply shouldn't matter.


MissPeggy said...

Thomas, this certainly hits home with me, as I am a genealogist, a Mormon, a wife and a mother with two gay sons.

Our oldest son went down a terrible path, due to bullying and never quite fitting in. It took him deep into the world of drugs and alcohol and disease, which eventually led to his death nearly three years ago.

At his funeral, there were so many people that told of his kindnesses to them. He skipped lunch for six years in school to read to the handicapped students. He was still the sweet, young man that I raised into adulthood.

Our youngest son and his partner have taken a different route, choosing to become educated and hard working.

Our other two children have families.

As you can see, my immediate family is quite diverse. I must be honest and admit that there have been some tears and some grieving - for the daughters-in-law and the grandchildren that will never be. But, there is absolutely nothing about these children that my husband and I do not love. Most members of our local LDS congregation are aware of their lifestyles, and have always, always reached out to embrace them. There is no judgment. That's not for us to do.

For the people I know that are gay, it is just not the thing I think of when I think of them. I think of their goodness, the light in their eyes, their kindness, and their love for me.

They are indeed my brothers and sisters.

Tina said...

A person never knows when a gay or lesbian member may appear in their family tree. When I first started doing research, I was contacted by an author doing a book on Tony Sansone, a bodybuilder from New York. He wanted to try and connect him to the Memphis Sansones. The author said he felt this Tony was involved with some of the leading male actors in early Hollywood history. Tony Sansone was one of the first male models that hit the gay magazines. He was an actor, dancer and also opened up several gyms. While married with a child, it was belived he had a double life as a gay man. In the early 1920's it was not something you would come "out" with as many do today. Most men married and had families, but also had their secret lives. As genealogists, we can not judge these family members, but just document what we find. But, yes, we must be sensitive to family members that are living. I decided not to share my family information with this author, since I married into the Sansone family and felt it was not my information to share.

Thomas, I judge people on how they treat me and others. So, if anyone asks, you are a very generous and giving man of your friendship, time and talents.

Tina Sansone

moughty said...

Thomas,

What a beautifully written piece. My daughter and her partner were married in 2010 and I am expecting word of my first grandchild at any time (due date this past Monday). I have a wonderful daughter-in-law who is carrying this child and although not genetically linked to me, it makes no difference. I can't wait to spoil this child (my prerogative as Grammy)!

Donna

Jordan M. Scoggins said...

I am so pleased to run across your post on how gays and lesbians fit into our collective genealogies. This is something I've been wanting to find a way to discuss on my own genealogy blog, but have not found the right way to do so yet. Perhaps your post will set me on the path.

I, too, have wondered about the sexuality of some of my ancestors. Some of those old bachelors and old maids seem surprisingly gay at times. And, of course, as Tina pointed out, some of the married men and women were just doing what was culturally expected, too. We'll never know the details about these people. But the ability of genealogy to spark the imagination and to take you on a trip into the past is whats so valuable to me.

Thank you for your voice. It is warmly welcomed!

betsmeier said...

My oldest son is gay and of my three children he's the one most interested in genealogy. I have told him that when I depart this earth I want him to continue my genealogy work. Also will make sure that he gets all the work I've done.

Thank you Thomas for this wonderful article. I sent it to my son.

I told my son Roger that you conduct webinars and I do attend and have learned so much from you.

Thank you,
Elisabeth Meier

Ezri J. Rediker said...

Sexual preferences aren't important. It's the coming age of another civil right's movement in America. Let me be the first to state, "An individual should be not the sum of a collective opinion, but a sum of their own opinion." Ezri J. Rediker, 10.13.2012
Long live the Bill of Right's, Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Happiness.

Mariann Regan said...

You are absolutely correct. Now that I know you are gay, things are exactly the same. It makes no difference to my interest in your work, my respect for your posts, and my (virtual) view of you as a person. The same goes for all my gay friends and also the gay members of our extended family.

Fifty years ago, when a first cousin of mine was identified as gay, the rest of the family was completely shocked. Even today, they won't admit it, to the point that they have faked his death date ... (he was one of the first to die of AIDS, I've been told). When I found his actual obituary, I just had to shake my head. I'm fairly sure one of my great-uncles was gay, and that the family covered that up with stories of his scandalous sleeping around with women (scandal covers scandal). And so forth.

But today, things are different. One cousin's daughter and her partner came to the reunion with their two adopted daughters, and they were heartily welcomed. Another cousin has finally healed his relationship with his grown son, who is gay and whom I met for the first time at the reunion and like a lot.

Nationally, attitudes have progressed greatly in just the last 10 years. I'm so relieved to think the suffering for LGBT people may be on the way out. It's about time.

In genealogical terms: Ancestry.com doesn't have "partner" in its software. That made me angry. I've had to list people as "married" who cannot get married in their own state. (In fact, it was NC, which just passed that outrageous law...) I'm ready to sign any complaint/petition to Ancestry to erase that technological bit of discrimination.

Thank you for this fine post, courageous and forthright.

DianaR said...

Hi Thomas ~

That question, "Isn't a bit of an anomaly that a gay man with no children would focus on genealogy?" always seems odd to me because historically the family historian was often the "maiden aunt" in the family and no one seemed to find that strange.

I can't thank you enough for all your work in the genealogy community. Becoming a blogger and being connected to this great network has been such a wonderful experience for me.

George Geder said...

Hi Thomas,

Great post!

You, and others, already know that I stand for the access and inclusion of all individuals, blended families, non-traditional families and the likes in all areas of the genealogy community.

I've openly challenged the genealogy software companies to change/add codes to their products so that everyone can properly identify themselves, their families and their Ancestors. It can be done; and folks needn't have to do silly workarounds to notate their peeps. I want to easily and truthfully include all of my family members in my digital family tree.

It's a Civil Rights thang; and I've always maintained that I will never be free until EVERYONE is free.

Peace & Blessings,
"Guided by the Ancestors"

Craig Manson said...

A great post, Thomas! You are among the most authentic people I know; a guy who's comfortable in his own skin. Not many folks are . . . .

Julian H. Preisler said...

Amen!! Excellent blog post. I too am a genealogist who happens to be Gay. I am also the child of Holocaust Survivors. Ever since I was a child I have been interested in my family history and in my early 20's decided to try and find out more. I've discovered a great deal and feel that genealogy is more than just passing information along to the next generation...it is about making sure that we honor our ancestors and make sure that they are remembered. Besides you never know who might be looking for a family member or ancestor. A sense of family and history is not something that goes way beyond one's sexual identity.

Sheri Fenley said...

What - you're Gay?????

Seriously Thomas, I can't believe in this day and age that people get in a twist over one's sexual preference, but unfortunately it happens.

Your work in the genealogical community speaks for itself and you never need to defend it or yourself to anyone! You Dahling are Mahvahlous!

At least if you were called a "bit of fluff" it might be considered a compliment. LOL

Much admiration and love.

Anonymous said...

Hello Thomas,
I became interested in genealogy after I retired from teaching. I am a 60 year old gay man and live in the house my parents built back in 1949.So I live in my families history.
After hours and hours of research I have joined several historical societies,they are: Sons of the American Revolution, The National Society of Sons of the American Colonists, Society of the Descendants of Washington's Army at Valley Forge and Sons of Confederate Veterans.
As you know, you have to prove that you are related to each of your ancestor's to get into these historical societies. Which is not an easy thing to do !!! Getting documentation is'nt easy going back two hundred years.
I even made my own website in celebration of the repealed DADT Law and I figured I can't be the only gay person interested in genealogy and have joined historical societies ? Plus, I can't be the only gay guy in my family tree,right ?
Historical Yours,
Ron Dodds

Kurt said...

Hi Thomas,

Great article, the funny thing for me as a gay genealogist, is that a lot of my friends look at me like I'm insane when I tell them of my "hobby". Then a few days later they will ask if I can help them find a great grandparent or something like that. :-)

I have a few life-long bachelors uncles and always wondered what it was like for them.

Thanks for sharing your blog, I hope to launch my family site within the next two weeks or sooner. Will send you the link and would love your opinion!