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28 June 2020

LGBTQ Genealogy: Illuminating the Past

Writer Gertrude Stein with her life partner, Alice B. Toklas
Image: Beinecke Digital Collections

CGS Recording Secretary Stewart Blandón Traiman has been researching, writing, and teaching genealogy for more than 30 years. He writes a LGBTQ Genealogy blog series at his website, Six Generations

On this day fifty years ago, 28 June 1970, the first Gay Pride march happened in San Francisco.  This was to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that took place one year earlier in New York.  Those riots fifty-one years ago, much like today’s riots, were sparked by police behavior. Drag queens, transgender people, male prostitutes, and other queer folks said “NO MORE!” to the police.  Another raid on our safe places would not be tolerated that night. This watershed event sparked a strong movement for social change and the birth of the modern gay rights movement (which is different from the early gay rights movement of the 1950s).

Though today we can be out loud and proud, it wasn’t always like this. Gay people often had to hide their love and relationships to remain safe and to keep their families safe from bigoted retaliation. This presents a challenge for the genealogist. Just like other relationships, LGBTQ relationships should be documented and preserved in the family record. It sets a double standard if a genealogist is willing to write freely about heterosexual marriages, illegitimate children and bigamy but when it comes to Queer relatives they choose to obscure the truth or not investigate further. Acknowledging homosexual relationships should be no different than documenting heterosexuals in our family history.

Elizabeth Shown Mills states it eloquently in the opening paragraph of Evidence Explained, “Bias, ego, ideology, patronage, prejudice, pride, or shame cannot shape our decisions as we appraise our evidence. To do so is to warp reality and deny ourselves the understanding of the past that is, after all, the reason for our labor.”

However, LGBTQ relatives and relationships can be difficult to prove. Thomas MacEntee has observed that just as it can be a challenge to trace our female ancestors, “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.” 

A genealogist will need to look carefully at available historical records for clues to sexual orientation. When you look through your family tree, does anything raise a red flag (or, as I like to call it, a rainbow flag)? Look for the bachelor uncle or spinster aunt.  Do not assume that they were unlucky in love. Perhaps they did have a partner, but there is no documentation, nor did family pass down that history.

Clues may be found in photographs, or in census, cemetery, criminal, or military records, in newspapers and in LGBTQ archives. For example, look in the census and city directories for evidence of two people of the same sex living together over many years. Did a relative live in a “known” gay neighborhood? Was he or she mentioned in a newspaper story about a police raid on a gay club, or did he receive a “Blue” or Other than Honorable discharge from the armed forces?

Look at a family member’s choice of profession. The stereotype of the gay hairstylist exists for a reason: an independent hairdresser could own a salon and not be subjected to a boss’s prejudices.  Professions that are mobile allow for a restart in a new city. Independence might be found as a florist, or interior decorator, or as a registered nurse—skills that are valued almost anywhere.  Queer folk tend to gravitate toward the arts – dancers, artists, authors, actors, and sculptors might be blackballed from their professions, but they might also find independence and mobility if needed.

In obituaries, look for code words like “lifelong bachelor,” or a mention of a “longtime companion” or “devoted friend.” In rare cases, you may find same-sex couples buried together in the same cemetery.

Sexual orientation is inherent to family history. Their sexual orientation affected the decisions our ancestors made. It affected their choice of profession, or where they lived. It also affected their relatives, friends, associates and neighbors. Did family members know and keep the relative’s secret? Were there family rifts or unexplained separations?  Being aware of non-heterosexual ancestors may put family stories into entirely new context.  

Knowing history illuminates the genealogical records. Knowing LBGTQ history will equally illuminate the lives of our ancestors.

The LGTBQ Community has made great advances in the past fifty-one years. In June 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples had a fundamental right to be married. Just this month the Supreme Court ruled that lesbian, gay, trans, and bisexual people are protected against discrimination in the workplace. This is a month to celebrate our pride in our achievements, our history, and our peoples. Be aware of the Queer relatives in the branches of your family tree. Add their stories to your family. Give them a voice if they did not have the opportunity to be “out” during their time.

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