Researching Our LGBT Ancestors

As we celebrate 50 years since the Stonewall Riots, this year’s LGBTQ Pride Month is more significant than ever. It is a well-established fact that ever since there have been humans on the earth, there have been LGBTQ people. Noted historian John Boswell traced our history from our unions in Greco-Roman times to the Church-sanctified ceremonies for same-sex marriages in Europe during the Middle Ages. This seminal book, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe(New York: Villard Books, 1994) is the definitive work on the subject.

For far too long, people have tried to write us out of history. In the past the truth about heroes such as Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Florence Nightingale, Billie Holiday, and Alan Turing was hidden. It is only recently that historians are finally acknowledging our foreparents as LGBTQ people. For genealogists it is equally important for us to tell the stories of our LGBTQ ancestors. 

Because many in society have tried to erase our existence, research can be challenging. We must look for clues that might escape notice without analysis. Among things to look for: people who never married (or married very late in life when they were aged); people who lived with a “roommate” or “friend;” people who became clergy or entered religious orders; unmarried individuals who moved far from their family of birth; those who worked in stereotypical occupations, e.g. men who were interior designers, florists, actors, writers, etc.; women who were mechanics, librarians, teachers, etc. 

I have friends, brothers who are both gay. They remember one great-aunt particularly well—an unmarried woman with a penchant for using her mechanical skills on automobiles. A second cousin is a gay man who served in Congress. Examination of their family tree shows a number of ancestors who never married, married very late in life, or exhibited other signs of stereotypical LGBTQ behavior. While they may not have all been gay, it is likely that many of them were. 

In my own family, I discovered a great uncle who never married, had a drinking problem, and left Rhode Island to live in the city of Boston. The family did not know much about his life. When I discovered this information, I assumed he was gay, but didn’t think I’d be able to ask my grandmother directly. A chance conversation with family members about some of my genealogical discovered, however, led Mémère  (in her own way) to confirm my theory. 

I have clues and theories about other family members as well. And as times have changed and are lives and relationships are more recognized, I have been able to gather direct evidence for many of my LGBTQ family members.

It is critically important for us to document their lives as fully as possible in our family history. It is up to us to shine a light on their lives as we shine light on the lives of other family members. Because if we don’t, there are plenty of others who will try to hide us. 

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