Uncover the lost LGBTQ branches of your family tree

An online workshop hosted Saturday by the Ohio History Connection will guide amateur archivists toward creating more inclusive family histories

Bob Vitale
Ned Ross

Our ancestors are coming out of the closet.

They might have kept their orientations and identities secret in their own day, back before people were here and queer and everyone pretty much got used to it. 

But they likely left clues, historians and genealogists say, and it’s time to stop pruning their branches of our family trees.

An online workshop hosted by the Ohio History Connection on Saturday, Sept. 18, will guide amateur archivists toward creating more inclusive family histories by recognizing the rainbow flags raised in old photographs, census records, newspaper clippings and other research material.

“Don’t ignore it. Don’t dismiss it,” said Stewart Blandón Traiman, a member of the board of directors for the California Genealogical Society, who will lead the session. “It’s about getting away from the notion that homosexuality tarnishes a person’s character. It’s about inviting that person back into the family history.”

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Elizabeth Woods, director of the Ohio History Connection’s Archives & Library, said her own experience led to the idea for a series of workshops designed to help people expand their research into family histories beyond direct lines of ancestors. The “Where My Single Folk?” series, which began this summer, has explored how to research relatives who were unmarried, never married, divorced, widowed or, possibly, gay, lesbian or transgender.

Woods was taking stock of the records to gather about her grandparents, great-grandparents and others when she thought about her favorite aunt, Bonita Payne.

“She did not have children, nor a husband that I was aware of at that time,” Woods said. “While thinking about how she supported me, including emotionally and financially, I knew it was important to learn her story.”

Woods found record of a brief marriage for her Aunt Bonita; previous workshops covered some of the hurdles in finding information on women ancestors. There was no record of an LGBTQ identity, but some of our ancestors, sometimes conspicuous in their sudden disappearance from family photos or whispered about for generations, likely were.

Blandón Traiman suggests family historians pay attention to important clues while conducting their research. 

Chief among them are U.S. Census records, which become public after 70 years. Our lesbian, gay and bisexual aunts and uncles didn’t leave a historical trail of marriage certificates, of course, but decennial census records identify people living in the same home and even used the word “partner” as far back as 1900. 

In his own research, Blandón Traiman found one woman described as the head of a household in 1930 and the woman she lived with described as a “roomer.” Ten years later, he said, the roomer was listed as head of the household and the other woman was listed as her partner.

Family members who suddenly moved far from home might have left for a reason, Blandón Traiman suggested. Most people still live within 50 miles of their birthplace, and queer people have long been drawn to safe spaces in big cities.

Photos also offer clues — sometimes obvious ones — that long went ignored.

Karen Robertson, a manuscript curator at the Ohio History Connection, wrote on the agency’s history blog in April about a Warren County family’s photo collection from the 19th century and a woman identified as Ned Ross whose gender expression appears decidedly more masculine than the sister and cousin with whom she lived most of her life.

When Robertson first wrote about the collection five years ago, they avoided any inferences about Ned Ross’ gender identity or expression because of an old convention among curators and historians that a person’s LGBTQ status only be mentioned if that person self-identified or if their queer behavior was documented. 

“Identity is a tricky and personal thing,” Robertson wrote. “It is always best to define a person in the way that they define themselves, past or present. But often, details of a person’s life are left out of the historical record, and we have to make inferences. Why not infer queerness?”

Should we be troubled, though, by giving modern identities to people who might have kept that identity hidden — or possibly didn’t even know such an identity existed?

Quincy Balius, an intern at the Ohio History Connection’s Archives & Library who helped organize the genealogy series, said we shouldn’t look at family research as outing our queer ancestors. Narrowing down the people we talk about as being LGBTQ based solely on whether they identified themselves that way severely restricts LGBTQ history. 

Still, Balius said, researchers should respect older terminology and labeling and should use clarifying language to respect the names, pronouns and identity terms that our ancestors used.

“I believe there’s a difference between inferring that a family member may have been LGBTQ and outright stating that they were,” Balius said. “There’s a lot of gray area there.” 

Just as it’s easier for many people alive today to come out as LGBTQ+, though, our dearly departed are finding more acceptance, too, genealogists said. One of Blandón Traiman’s projects is pushing developers of genealogy software to be more expansive in how they allow people to define familial relationships and histories.

“Not everybody was Ozzy and Harriet with two kids,” he said.

LGBTQ+ Genealogy–Inclusion of All Our Ancestors

Saturday, Sept. 18, 10 a.m.

$20 for Ohio History Connection members, $25 for nonmembers

Register at ohiohistory.org