GEDCOM

As I discussed last month, it is possible to have genealogy software that is more LGBTQ friendly. Software that allows for Family History, not just DNA connections. Software that recognizes people have more than two opposite sex parents. A system that allows for recognition and weighting of the real parents, not just the biological (DNA) ones. Software that recognizes there are more than two genders, like Trans, Non-Binary, Intersex, and others. Software that recognizes the complexities of human relationships and identities beyond the hetero-normative nuclear family unit.

When I’ve approached software companies with requests to modify their software, they’ve told me it is not possible because GEDCOM will not support it.

The GEDCOM acronym stands for GEnealogical Data COMmunications. GEDCOM is a data structure created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1984 for storing and exchanging genealogical information. GEDCOM development had been stagnant for over 20 years.

Tamura Jones, a computer scientist, genealogy technologist, and GEDCOM expert, has written an excellent history and explanation of GEDCOM in his blog Modern Software Experience. The blog post “A Gentle Introduction to GEDCOM” on 24 August 2010 provided the following GEDCOM history chart. [1]

This table shows the main GEDCOM versions.

date version brief note
1984 1.0 first version
1985-12 2.0 PAF 2.0
1987-02 2.1 PAF 2.1
1987-10-09 3.0 lineage-linked form
1989-08-04 4.0
1991-09-25 5.0 draft lineage-linked structures
1993-11-04 5.3 Unicode, schema (abandoned),
used draft
1995-12-11 5.5 official standard
1999-10-02 5.5.1 de facto standard
2000-12-18 5.6 unreleased draft
2001-12-28 6.0 abandoned draft

The de facto standard, version 5.5.1, is 22 years old, which is ancient in terms of software. An update to this table can be found at GEDCOM.org which lists the newest version of:

2018-05-10 5.5.1 AE special release Annotated Edition; annotations & corrections.
2019-10-02 5.5.5 standard Maintenance release. Quality. Simpler & Stricter.

In 2012, The Family History Information Standards Organisation (FHISO) began working on improving the GEDCOM standard. They grew out of a BetterGEDCOM wiki, an online forum that was detailing the data transfer problems experienced by many.[2]  FHISO “is an international organisation established for the purpose of developing and recommending information standards for genealogy and family history purposes. It exists to bring together genealogy companies of all sizes, as well as professional genealogists and hobbyists, to collaborate on standards that will benefit the work of genealogists around the world.”[3]

While FHISO has been working on a better version, Tamura Jones published GEDCOM 5.5.5 on 2 October 2019.[4] GEDCOM 5.5.5 was the first to recognize same-sex partnerships and encoded data transmission of those unions. In version 5.5.5, same-sex unions became part of the standard code, and are explicitly supported.  GEDCOM 5.5.5 was also the first to include a SEX option other than M or F, allowing for X which supports Intersex, Trans, and Non-Binary.  The industry needed to adapt to this new revision and modernize its software. Genealogists should maintain appeals to software developers to adopt the 5.5.5 standard. Continued development, news, and download of GEDCOM 5.5.5 can be found at GEDCOM.org.

This year, the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endorsed and published GEDCOM 7.0. Continuing news on this alternate GEDCOM can be found at FamilySearch GEDCOM. The second revision, version 7.0.2, was published on 15 June 2021. Luther Tychonievich, current Chair of FHISO, and Tony Proctor, former FHISO board member, contributed to version 7.0.[5]

The GEDCOM 7.0 specifications for a Family Record are explained as,

“The FAM record was originally structured to represent families where a male HUSB (husband or father) and female WIFE (wife or mother) produce CHIL (children). The FAM record may also be used for cultural parallels to this, including nuclear families, marriage, cohabitation, fostering, adoption, and so on, regardless of the gender of the partners. Sex, gender, titles, and roles of partners should not be inferred based on the partner that the HUSB or WIFE structure points to.”[6]

Therefore, the Latter-day Saints version now allows for same-sex couples, which 5.5.5 already did. The antiquated HUSB and WIFE labels are still used for partners, but sex and gender should not be inferred from those labels. I’m assuming continued use of these labels is a software limitation that has yet to be overcome? This is still a binary system without recognizing more than two parents in a family record.

The “Family Events” specifications do not recognize Domestic Partnerships or Civil Unions. They only recognize MARR = “A legal, common-law, or customary event such as a wedding or marriage ceremony that joins 2 partners to create or extend a family unit.”[7]  GEDCOM 5.5.5 has a long list of supported relationships such as “partnership” and “registered partnership”. [4]

The GEDCOM 7.0 specifications for Sex are explained as,

“This can describe an individual’s reproductive or sexual anatomy at birth. Related concepts of gender identity or sexual preference are not currently given their own tag. Cultural or personal gender preference may be indicated using the FACT tag.”[8]

Value Meaning
M Male
F Female
X Does not fit the typical definition of only Male or only Female
U Cannot be determined from available sources

In this spec language, there is a least a recognition that more than two genders exist (use value “x”). GEDCOM 5.5.5 used this same X, and therefore the Latter-day Saints version adds nothing new here. The specs identify the sex tag as being “sexual anatomy at birth” which implies a recognition of Transgender people but there is no promise of gender identity ever having its own tag. Given the stagnant development by the Church over 20 years, I doubt evolution of this category will ever happen. Sexual preference should not be categorized under the sex tag.

Since 1984 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has shut out LGBTQ people from genealogical software by controlling the underlying data transfer protocol known as GEDCOM. Their new “update” finally recognizes same-sex unions and gender beyond M or F. But this is nothing new compared to the GEDCOM 5.5.5 standard published in 2019.

GEDCOM 5.5.5 is an independent standard that can be universally adopted by all genealogical software vendors. GEDCOM 7.0 is a proprietary specification under religious control of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have a proven track record of hostility to LGBTQ people.  Louis Kessler writes in his blog post “Can GEDCOM 7.0 Succeed?” that FamilySearch trees do not support any GEDCOM version and doubts version 7.0 will be successful.[9]

Anyone interested in the freedom of genealogical data exchange and support of LGBTQ family history should continue requesting the adoption of GEDCOM 5.5.5 by their favorite software companies. A few vendors are already supporting GEDCOM 5.5.5. The GEDCOM Group was the first to bring us an LGBTQ friendly code. I believe they will continue expanding the standard towards more inclusivity of all relationships and genders.


[1] Tamura Jones, “A Gentle Introduction to GEDCOM,” Modern Software Experience, 24 August 2010 (https://www.tamurajones.net/AGentleIntroductionToGEDCOM.xhtml : accessed 1 May 2018), GEDCOM Version history chart.

[2] Family History Information Standards Organisation Inc., History of FHISO (https://fhiso.org/history/ : accessed 1 June 2021) .

[3] Family History Information Standards Organisation Inc., History of FHISO (https://fhiso.org/ : accessed 1 June 2021).

[4] Tamura Jones, “GEDCOM 5.5.5: Just a Revision,” Modern Software Experience, 2 October 2019 (https://www.tamurajones.net/GEDCOM555JustARevision.xhtml : accessed 3 October 2019).  And, Tamura Jones, ” GEDCOM Relationships,” Modern Software Experience, 7 October 2019 (https://www.tamurajones.net/GEDCOMRelationships.xhtml : accessed 8 October 2019).

[5] Family History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The FamilySearch GEDCOM Specification: 7.0.2,” technical specifications, 15 June 2021, FamilySearch GEDCOM (https://gedcom.io/specifications/FamilySearchGEDCOMv7.html : accessed 15 June 2021), Section 5. Contributors.

[6] Family History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The FamilySearch GEDCOM Specification: 7.0.2,” technical specifications, 15 June 2021, FamilySearch GEDCOM (https://gedcom.io/specifications/FamilySearchGEDCOMv7.html : accessed 15 June 2021), Section 3.2.2. Records, Family_Record.

[7] Family History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The FamilySearch GEDCOM Specification: 7.0.2,” technical specifications, 15 June 2021, FamilySearch GEDCOM (https://gedcom.io/specifications/FamilySearchGEDCOMv7.html : accessed 15 June 2021), Section 3.3.1.2 Family Events.

[8] Family History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The FamilySearch GEDCOM Specification: 7.0.2,” technical specifications, 15 June 2021, FamilySearch GEDCOM (https://gedcom.io/specifications/FamilySearchGEDCOMv7.html : accessed 15 June 2021), Section 3.4. Enumeration Values, Sex.

[9] Louis Kessler, “Can GEDCOM 7.0 Succeed?,” Behold Genealogy, 16 June 2021 (https://www.beholdgenealogy.com/blog/?p=3826 : accessed 16 June 2021).

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