“All genealogists strive to reconstruct family histories or achieve genealogical goals that reflect historical reality as closely as possible.1” We gather data, evaluate and analyze information, and often, we tell a story. We try to avoid bias, prejudice and presentism. Identifying LGBTQ+2 ancestors and telling their stories is no different from sharing the information of any other person in your tree.

Sometimes the evidence is clear, other times it is indirect or ambiguous.

We all have LGBTQ+ ancestors in our family trees. Finding those ancestors and giving them a voice, just as we give a voice to other ancestors, is the responsibility of every family historian. By sharing the stories of our LGBTQ+ ancestors without bias, we invite them back into the family history. Just as we try to paint a picture of our immigrant female ancestors who can be challenging to research, we can also paint the life stories of our LGBTQ+ family members.

This is not about “outing” them, it’s about letting the stories unfold without judgment.

Finding your LGBTQ+ family members before immigration might be challenging, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Issei and Nisei relatives may have been unable to live openly for various reasons, such as parental expectations, societal norms, legal matters and military careers.

Clues to Look For
When researching family members, notice the clues that might indicate they were LGBTQ+. Look for patterns to help you draw conclusions. Just because laws were (or are) in place against the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t mean that an ancestor was a cisgender heterosexual. As you gather data, ask yourselves questions such as:

Did your family member leave a diary or series of letters?
Did your family member have a long-term relationship with someone of the same gender?
Do photographs or home movies tell a story?
Did long-term friends of the same gender request to be buried next to each other?
Were two adults of the same gender repeatedly defined as “partners” in several censuses?
Did military records suggest a dishonorable discharge? Have you ordered those records?
Are there clues in a will, probate file or court record?
Have you looked at newspapers for arrests, protests or obituaries? Was a partner or other friend named?
Did your relative live openly, or was your relative closeted?
What was the community like where your relative lived, worked or socialized?
Just as there were anti-miscegenation, alien land and anti-naturalization laws, anti-LGBTQ+ laws have existed over time. What laws were in place when and where your ancestors lived?

The Trouble with Software
There are challenges and limitations with various genealogy programs, including Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic and Ancestry. Documenting same-sex partnerships, transgender identities and non-traditional family structures doesn’t always “fit” the software. Most programs allow the assignment of a single gender (male, female or unknown), but there is no opportunity to include a non-binary status, assign multiple parents or specify pronouns. Adding “alternate” parents (biological, adopted surrogate, etc.) is possible, but these individuals won’t all appear simultaneously or in your charts.

It’s ideal if you can write a narrative for each person and create your own charts. PowerPoint and Lucid Chart are two easy-to-use programs that allow you to construct any sort of chart that you can imagine. You might document a family with multiple parent figures, same-sex marriages or other genealogical stories and relationships you want to show as well as tell.

Living Family
Strive to be respectful of the dead and the living. The stories of our ancestors should be told both truthfully and respectfully. When documenting living family members, it’s particularly important to honor privacy issues, regardless of gender identification or sexual orientation. Talk to your living family members before writing about them, whether that means someone as close as a sibling or a distant cousin you met through a DNA match. You will uncover sensitive information as you research your family, but keep data about living people privately.

Consider the pronouns a person prefers: he/him, she/her, they/them. All languages change over time; LGBTQ+ is a relatively new term. They/them can be plural or singular. Used as a singular pronoun, they/them is considered gender-neutral. Rather than making assumptions about living people, start the conversation and ask.

If your family includes transgender individuals, ask how they would like to be included in your narrative. For many transgender people, using the name given to them in infancy (sometimes called a “dead name”) is offensive. Be sure to use appropriate pronouns and assign them the gender with which they identify.

Every story deserves to be told with honesty, dignity, and respect.

Resources
Fountain, Isabel. “How and Why Did Tolerance Towards Homosexuality Disappear in Meiji Japan.” The Manchester Historian (blog). 23 March 2021: https://manchesterhistorian.com/2021/how-and-why-did-tolerance-towards-male-homosexuality-disappear-in-meiji-japan-by-isabel-fountain/
GLBT Historical Society: Museum and Archives: https://www.glbthistory.org/
Moray, Mavini. 23 March 2021. Bespoken Bones: Ancestors at the Crossroads of Sex, Magick and Science. Podcast Episode 28, “Where did they go? Finding the Queer and Trans Ancestors Hiding in Plain Sight in Our Genealogy”: https://bespokenbones.com/episode-28-where-did-they-go-finding-the-queer-and-trans-ancestors-hiding-in-plain-sight-in-our-genealogy/
Okaeri: Nikkei LGBTQ Community
https://www.okaeri-losangeles.org/
Six Generations Genealogy
https://sixgen.org/.

The author wishes to thank Stewart Blandón Traiman, MD, and Victoria Kolakowski, JD, for their assistance with this article.

 

1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2nd ed., revised, (Nashville, Tennessee: Ancestry.com – an imprint of Turner Publishing, 2021)

2. For the purpose of this article, the term LGBTQ+ references a diverse body of individuals who may identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and other terms. The author recognizes that this is not a one-size-fits-all acronym.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily of the Nichi Bei News.

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