Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Hidden - LGBT Family Members and Genealogy

The photo above was found in The Box earlier this year and must have come from either my great-grandmother (Therese McGinnis Austin) or my great aunt (Ethel McCrickert Hannan) when I cleaned out my mother’s house. On the back, it is marked in simple script: Joe and “Friend”. My guess is the date was around 1936 given the swimsuit style and the size of the photo.

Again, it’s a shame that I don’t have more information about these two men, arms around each other, enjoying a day at the beach, probably Coney Island or Jones Beach in New York. In past posts I’ve bemoaned the fact that many of the photos in The Box are not labeled. And while this one is, it is not labeled in a way that helps me identify Joe or his “friend.” Remember: label pictures with full names, not “Auntie Em” or “Uncle Fester.” You may know the people but will the person who later comes across the photo know them?

Who were these men and are they somehow related to me? Were they just good friends or in a relationship? Perhaps the fact that they were in a relationship is indicated by the “quotes” around the word friend and the fact that I can’t get any information from family about them.

As I’ve discussed the plight of women in genealogy, a similar story can be drawn about our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered (LGBT) family members and how, and if, they appear in our family histories. It really is up to the researcher to make sure these people have a voice and a place in the family tree.

My Perspective

I’m gay (in case you haven’t figured that out yet – and my family knows because they’ve seen how I walk) and have been with my partner for close to eight years now. We have registered our Domestic Partnership in Cook County, Illinois, a legal option afforded to all couples regardless of sex, in the same bureau that handles marriage licenses. I have also reflected this in my genealogy database using Family Tree Maker software. To me it is a no brainer – it seems natural to me in a family history to try and identify how your ancestors lived, worked, worshipped, and had relationships with other people. But the topic of including LGBT people in genealogy research opens up a Pandora’s Box of issues at the very root of what genealogy is or is not.

This posting is not some part of the “homosexual agenda” or because I feel like going on a rant today. This posting comes from my actual encounters with data and photos during the journey of tracing who I am and where I come from.

The Challenge

How do you handle the following relationships or situations when performing genealogy research?

• Same-sex Relationships
• Civil Unions or Gay Marriage
• Same-sex Divorce
• Gender Reassignment
• Genetic Parents vs. Responsible Parents

Genealogy or Family History?

Technically, genealogy is how one studies and traces a family pedigree by collecting information (names, dates, etc.) and establishing relationships between these people, all supported by documentation or evidence. Family history usually involves genealogy data but researchers tend to include more information such as oral and written interviews, photos, etc. in order to portray that person as a round character as opposed to a flat one.

There are many researchers who go by a strict interpretation of genealogy and refuse to track what they define as “non-traditional” (and in one case “aberrant”) relationships outside the perceived norm of man and wife. The various arguments made, all of which don’t hold water with me, include:

• Genealogy is meant to trace pedigree and blood lines only.
Oh really? Then perhaps it might be better for you to use a software program from the AKC and use the terms “stud” and “dam” instead of male and female.

• You should only document legal marriages.
Legal by whose definition? Inter-racial marriage was not legal in all 50 states of this country until 1967. Does this mean that the relationship between these two people should somehow be diminished or seen as “less than”?

• Genealogy only tracks relationships that produce children.
Is that so? So what do we do about “outside children” that the father has produced with that other family across town or across the country? What do we do about “childless marriage” such as a woman of non-child bearing age who marries late in life or for a second time? What do we do about a woman who is a surrogate mother for relatives or friends who can’t conceive a child?

Very often genealogy and family history are used interchangeably as is common these days. I guess if I had to delineate my work between one or the other it is developing my family history. The genealogy side of blood lines, dates, etc. has always bored me and in my mind doesn’t adequately represent that person or their relationships. But invariably when you draw lines, margins, and distinctions some people are inside and some people are left outside.

Same-Sex Relationships Have Always Existed – This Is Not New!

It’s a fact and just because a person doesn’t approve or agree, it won’t go away. What we see in modern society are 1) advances in technology that allow people to benefit from having children via surrogate mothers, artificial insemination, etc.; and 2) societies and governments willing to offer to all its citizens the same benefits of marriage that have historically been reserved only for the man and woman marriage.

And these “non-traditional” relationships have existed through history in different forms, forms often not talked about or hidden away. And in order to dispel any notions that, heaven forbid, these were sexual relationships between two people of the same gender, terms such as “Boston marriage” or “romantic friendship” were developed. While we may not yet have evidence that a couple such as Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed had a sexual relationship, such a relationship exists in the realm of possibilities and you have to wonder what, if any, evidence has been destroyed, hidden or altered.

The reality is we just know more now about these types of relationships and the motivations behind them than we did years ago. The same as what we know now about slavery, what we know now about indigenous peoples, what we know now about the environment.

Research Obstacles

As a researcher, many times you want to take data and information as it is for the sake of expediency as well as other researchers citing the same data and documentation. But researchers are also investigators and when I notice relationships or data that “just ain’t right” or “seems odd,” parts of me want to just stop and go down that sleuthing trail. Perhaps the birth certificate was forged or changed years after the birth to cover up a family secret? Perhaps that auto accident wasn’t just an auto accident. As Vera Donovan says in Dolores Claiborne: “Husbands die every day, Dolores. Why... one is probably dying right now while you're sitting here weeping. They die... and leave their wives their money. I should know, shouldn't I? Sometimes they're driving home from their mistress' apartment and their brakes suddenly fail.” I guess I just live up to my first name and the “doubting“ that always goes with it. I’m a skeptic through and through because it makes for better research.

Very often while conducting research or talking with living family members, I hear some “code words” or see some non-verbal language which raises a red flag that some more research is required and perhaps to not take the information at face value. Terms such as “outside family,” “Boston marriage,” or “she was odd,” don’t always pop up and aren’t generally used. But I will see terms like “friend,” “took care of each other,” “had a special friendship,” or “was very dear to him,” used. I look for hidden meanings, read between the lines and try to find out the exact nature of the relationship. Then I decide if it can be documented or warrants inclusion in my family history.

But It’s Uncomfortable!

Yes it is uncomfortable to discuss certain issues or relationships when building a family history. There have always been concerns about listing relationships which include children conceived outside the marriage, incest and even inter-racial marriage and same-sex relationships or gender reassignment. Just as there are some researchers concerned about ancestors who were slave owners or who beat or even killed their wives, children, husbands, sisters or brothers. This will never change.

But think of how uncomfortable it must have been for my ancestors who experienced these relationships or situations. I’d like to think that in the cases of same-sex relationships or gender issues that the person was not uncomfortable with their life and the essence of who they were. But they most probably were made uncomfortable by the society around them for whom they chose to love or how they expressed their true being. They didn’t have the ability to have voices back then, the way we do now. Oh sure, there were pioneering people such as Harry Hay and John Burnside, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and others. But many didn’t have that opportunity or freedom. They deserve to have their voices and I intend to give that back to them through my research.

I include information on past slave owners in my family, for instance, in order to understand more about society norms at that time, what my ancestor did or didn’t do about slavery, etc. It is called history in context. I find slavery abhorrent, just as I do infanticide or domestic violence but it doesn’t give me the right to avoid including it or discussing it with family members. There are ways to include the information for future researchers that may not directly agitate or anger living relatives:

• Can your genealogy software keep certain items private or password protected, such as research notes?

• If not, can you reference a document in Microsoft Word or some other software that you can password protect?

• Add a note such as: “There are various conflicting facts concerning this person/relationship. Please contact [your name] at [your email address] for more information.”

• When someone does contact you and wants to discuss the issue, determine that person’s need to know, how they might react to the information, and what they intend to do with the data.

Responsibility of the Researcher

As researchers we’ve all encountered or uncovered situations or information that can make other family members uncomfortable: old love letters written to a woman that wasn’t your grandfather’s wife; photos of people that “just aren’t talked about;” and birth certificates or death certificates that just don’t match up to family stories or previous research.

• Avoid judgmental or moralistic terms such as “aberrant”, “tranny”, “alternative lifestyle,” or even archaic terms like “Uranian”. Do some research on sites such as Wikipedia on same-sex relationships, gender identity disorder, etc. and you’ll find that the common terminology includes terms such as lesbian, gay, transgender, gender reassignment, domestic partnership, etc. And please don’t use POSSLQ because that’s just wrong.

• Just stick to the facts ma’am. That means if you receive information about Joe and “Friend” try to find out, in a tactful, non-judgmental way, if friend is really code for lover, partner, or if in fact this was a war or college buddy.

• Don’t attempt to excise facts to protect people nor should you try to make unsubstantiated family secrets become facts.

• What do you want to leave to other family members or researchers in the form of your work? Do you want it based on honest facts and documented research? Or data that has gone through your personal filter of views and values?

To Judge or Not To Judge?

This entire topic of how to recognize same-sex relationships in genealogy and family history research has been raging for years. A typical discussion will often start with a basic “how to” question about a specific software on a message board and then snowball into a petty, judgmental, holier-than-thou discussion about such topic being a sign of the End Times or how this country is going to hell in a hand basket. Dick Eastman, of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter presents some interesting facts about same-sex relationships and the children of same-sex partners.

The Role of Genealogy Software

I guess I was lucky when I chose Family Tree Maker as my software to track my research. In a brief check of currently used programs including Legacy, Roots Magic, Family Tree Maker, The Master Genealogist and others, some programs allow you to either note specific relationship types such as Partnership, Civil Union etc. or create your own custom relationship tags and indicators. And some software programs have a policy of not offering anything besides the man marries woman relationship.

Family Origins
You can create your own “fact types” besides pre-defined fact types.

Family Tree Maker
You can select from several relationship types including Partner. But instead of marriage, the fact appears in the Individual View as “meeting.” You can also create your own customized relationship facts such as Domestic Partnership.

The Master Genealogist
Program allows customization of marriage facts.

You can specify your own words for Spouse and Marriage such as Partners and Domestic Partnership.
Also see Denise L. Moss-Fritch’s site on how to alter Legacy for gender changes.

Roots Magic
You cannot use other relationship types or customize for same-sex relationships. On the Roots Magic message boards there has been quite a heated discussion using terms such as “aberrant relationships” and discussing whether people trace genealogy (as in genes) or family history.

Personal Ancestral File
Program does not recognize same-sex relationships or allow customization of marriage facts.


Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

A very interesting topic. I hope you are able to discover who Joe and "Friend" are and record their story, what ever it turns out to be.

Unknown said...

An excellent article on an important topic!

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks Joy!!!

Miriam Robbins said...

Hi, Thomas,

Fascinating topic! I absolutely love RootsMagic software, but wish I could have more control about the way partners (same or different sex) are listed. While I've only stumbled across one (hinted at) same-sex relationship in the family tree, there are multiple non-married opposite-sex relationships among close relatives that produced children in the last 30 years. At least FTM, which is not my favorite program, offers "John SMITH met Jane DOE" as a relationship description, but as you've mentioned, RootsMagic does not acknowledge relationship types apart from marriage.

Your blog is extremely interesting, and I've added it to my Google Reader.


Anonymous said...

Schelly Dardashti forwarded your comment on my presentation tomorrow here in San Diego. I, too, am sorry you can't attend. I am quite familiar with the LGBT community and am also adopted, so you can see that my concern with how non-traditional families are represented in family trees comes from several directions. Perhaps we can communicate further?

Thomas MacEntee said...

It would be great to communicate further on this topic - please find my email under View My Profile and let me know!

Gini said...


This is an excellent post, you put into words what I have had in my head and was unable to express.

My mother and father were never married, that has sort of haunted me in regards to genealogy. But outsiders do not understand why they never married. I do know the true story and I want my descendants to know the facts and not have to speculate.

So with respect, I have included that information in my FTM program and will give meaning to their lives, then there will be no room for judgement or gossip, "just the facts ma'am".

Thanks Thomas for sharing on a very important subject that is part of life!

Valorie said...

Excellent post, Thomas. Thanks so much for making it. I love the photo, and hope you discover more about the pictured couple.

McGenealogist said...

I love the picture of Joe and friend. You presented a topic that is of interest to many, but not addressed in genealogical circles.

Abba-Dad said...

Thomas, this is a truly great post. The only reason I 'figured' it out was because I saw the size of your mardi-gras beads ;-)