Monday, 2 November 2015

Out of Our Trees : Queer Family History

This is a sort of Hallowe’en-related article. Today is the Christian festival of All Souls (or All Hallows) Day. It’s the day to remember all those Christians ancestors of the past. The festival is extended to ancestors of all denominations as one big family. The spirits of our ancestors have been celebrated for many centuries at this time of year, and I have been celebrating with mine this weekend! The Christian festival may not have any connection with pre-Christian festivals of the dead as often stated at Hallowe’en, certainly no more than we remember the fallen in war on Armistice Day on November 11th, very much within the ancient ancestor-worship season.

The latest series of “Who Do You Think You Are?” ended last week There seems to be no end in the popularity of such programmes, particularly recently with commemorations of World Wars I and II and the discovery of the lives of veteran ancestors.

There has been a good representation of lgbt celebrities featured in the UK series over the years. They have been (in chronological order) Stephen Fry, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Rupert Everett, Alan Cumming, Alan Carr, Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Gatiss. It is clear from this list, however, that female lgbt celebrities are missing. This cannot be said the same about the USA versions of “Who Do You Think You Are?” which have featured Rosie O’Donnell, Cynthia Nixon and Melissa Etheridge as well as several male lgbt celebrities.

Genealogy is not devoid of lgbt researchers. There are professional, amateur and semi-professional (like myself) genealogists. You may even be one yourself. What a large proportion of us are intrigued by is the possibility of us not being the first Queer in the in family. In my own researches I discovered a gay relative in the USA, a descendant of my grandfather’s aunt, and have discovered two much more distant bloodlines to two former partners (one featured here).

As more and more lgbt rights are being legalised with regards to families it is appropriate for contemporary genealogists, regardless of their own sexuality/gender, to think about how same-sex union, gay parents and adoption should be recorded. For instance, how would descendants of Sir Elton John and David Furnish’s children display their family lineage? Is the “pure” bloodline of descent becoming a thing of the past?

Lateral genealogy has been around for many years and is becoming more popular. This is research into associated families to which there is no blood link and in which a family is related by marriage. My own lateral relations include the Duchess of Cambridge (a “cousin” through my step-great-grandfather) and a victim of the 1916 HMSS Britannic disaster (my step-grandfather). Both are members of my extended lateral family. If you don’t think step relatives and their families matter think about this. The only reason I exist is because my step-grandfather died in 1916 allowing my grandmother to remarry to my grandfather. His ancestors are very much the reason I am here today as much as my biological ancestors.

After the article I wrote about the ancestry of Cyd Zeigler I received new information which meant that one branch of his family tree I researched was, in fact, from an earlier marriage of his ancestor. Even though I revealed that Cyd was a close relative of Benjamin Franklin the new information that revealed Franklin was actually a step-relative doesn’t eliminate him from having an influence on his family tree.

In the “Who Do You Think You Are?” series one episode dealt with adoption. Celebrity Nicki Campbell traced the ancestry of his adopted parents, very much a part of his family as his biological parents.

Family history has been dominated by the need to show bloodline inheritance. That’s why ancient, powerful rulers of the pre-modern era were so keen to show their descent from their local gods and deities to “prove” their right to rule. Two examples within the lgbt community are Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Alexander claimed descent from the Greek gods to ensure his right to the Macedonian throne, and Caesar even claimed that Venus was his grandmother.

The problem confronting genealogists today is interpreting the evidence. No-one today would ever claim that Venus actually was Julius Caesar’s grandmother. In his lifetime people accepted it as true. The written evidence we discover today about our ancestors hides as many truths as presents lies. Most gay men and women his their sexuality and led secret lives and left no personal testimony to indicate their sexuality or gender. Such was the stigma in society against lgbt lives at the time.

Stigma effects another family situation, another one which directly effects me. My mother was a bastard. She was born in an era when bastard children were stigmatised. Illegitimacy was covered up as much as possible. My mother’s birth certificate doesn’t name her real father but that of her mother’s husband. My mother was fortunate, however, by growing up in a small community where sympathies were with her and her father and they were able to live open lives as father and daughter.

Many married gay men may not be the actual fathers of their named children, despite the evidence of a birth certificate. It’s one of the most difficult pieces of evidence to discover. Quite often family rumours can lead to evidence that a male relative wasn’t the actual father of a child. Research into the lives of these male relatives may reveal connections to known lgbt people or locations. It’s a careful path we need to tread when interpreting such evidence.

The traditionalist view is that genealogy is only about blood lines and true biological pedigrees, and that only traditional male-female marriages should be recorded. This view is, of course, totally discriminatory against lgbt families. Traditionalists would even say family members with no children should not be included in family trees. I would certainly not agree with that, considering quite a lot of family historians themselves have no children.

Today people want to know about the actual lives of out ancestors. At one time lgbt ancestors were deemed “black sheep of the family” or, ironically, “skeletons in the closet” and never talked about. Modern attitudes to all kinds of relationships, whether same-sex, inter-racial or non-marital, are being more important in everyday lives.

One gay professional genealogist who is leading in the education of the importance of recording lgbt ancestors is Thomas MacEntee. Of the many articles he has written on the subject this one is, perhaps, the best.

Once research has been done on your own family tree you may want to produce a family tree. That brings a new set of problems. There are symbols which indicate birth death and marriage, but how do you represent (if you feel it important to do so) a biological parent of a child to same-sex parents. For a few people there may be a wish to record sperm or egg donors and their families who are still involved in their biological offspring. Other family relationships may be included in family trees. How do you show them in a simple emblem without filling the family tree with written explanations? That’s a topic I hope to return to next year – new ways to draw up a family tree.

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