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
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
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
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.