When writing our ancestors stories, we want to tell the most truthful account of their lives that we can. Yet when it comes to LGBTQ ancestors I hear some family historians say they don’t want to “out” their ancestor. Or that their ancestor chose to keep this part of their life private, therefore their wishes should continue to be respected generations later. I think 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 relations they choose to obscure the truth or not investigate further.
Just like any other relationship, LGBTQ relationships should be documented and preserved in the family record. Our LGBTQ ancestors did not keep their lives private because of shame, but for survival. Exposing their lives should be no different than any other ancestor. In fact, it is more important to spend time learning all that we can.
When coming across a person or a record that gives a hint towards a person’s homosexuality it is especially important to take a closer look and not shy away from discovering more. Telling truthful stories means moving away from the notion that homosexuality tarnishes a person’s character. Revealing the truths of the past, to tell stories openly without judgment, about the struggles they endured will honor our ancestors and will give us a deeper understanding.
As genealogists, we compile all available genealogical records, then analyze the facts of each piece, which gives us insight into how our ancestors lived. But it may still be difficult to know our ancestors’ motivations, emotions, politics, characters or who they truly were.
When writing a person’s story, I am reminded of the science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card entitled “Speaker for the Dead”. This is one of my top ten favorite books. The protagonist plays the role of speaking truth at a person’s memorial, both good and bad, holding nothing back, regardless of the pain it may cause. It is through this sharing of a person’s motivations, emotions, and character, where family and friends come to understand who they were. From that “Speaking” comes understanding. In the novel, the “Speaking” begins to heal decades of pain by the exposure and understanding of family secrets. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who likes a good family story.
Elizabeth Shown Mills also write about speaking truth in her book, “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.”
Speaking truth is critical in genealogy and it is especially important for our LGBTQ ancestors. When you find a “red flag”, or a “rainbow flag” if you will, toward someone’s sexuality embrace, pursue and write about it openly.
Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead (New York: Tom Doherty Assoc. Inc., 1986).
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2017), Third Edition, Revised. Opening paragraph, page 15.