Friday, October 19, 2007

Defining Relationships

Thomas MacEntee posted an interesting article recently regarding issues that pertain to genealogy and LGBT family members. The article was both enlightening and thought provoking. I was glad to find somebody willing to bring these sensitive topics to light. These are issues that virtually all genealogists will have to deal with at one point or another.

For myself, I'm not recording anything that I don't know to be a fact when it comes to people's lifestyles. I made a bad assumption a while back about the nature of the relationship a family member had with their roommate and it caused me more than a little embarrassment. I won't make that mistake again. Unless someone "comes out" and tells me something definitive about their intimate relationships I'm not gonna assume anything. I'm not even going to make note of my suspicions or hearsay in the notes section of my genealogy software.

By the way, I use Legacy Family Tree software which does allow a great deal of flexibility when it comes to defining relationships. However, I've yet to figure out the proper way to record my nephew who has three mothers... the biological mother who donated the egg, the surrogate birth mother who carried him in utero, and the mother who has raised him since the day he was born (married to his biological father). I don't even have names for two of the three mothers and don't feel comfortable asking for them. All I can think of to do is make a comment in the notes section and leave it at that. Some choices just don't lend themselves to a drop down list.

How have you dealt with issues regarding LGBT family members or unusual birth circumstances?


  1. My daughter married her partner in a religious ceremony at which a member of the clergy officiated, and I recorded the event exactly as I would for any other marriage. Similarly, I recorded the marriage of a niece and her partner. When that couple later had a child, I indicated the birth mother in the family history, but I saw no need to ask for the name of the male parent (I'm sure the couple has the information if it's ever needed for medical or other reasons). As far as I'm concerned, people who are part of the family by adoption, artificial insemination, commitment ceremony, or whatever, are FAMILY, and we love them and record their genealogical data just as in any other family.

    I have also been requested by three different relatives to omit information on a previous "conventional" marriage that had not resulted in "issue," and I was happy to comply. On the other hand, I've also recorded children born to unmarried parents, when the relatives willingly gave me the information. My family history is detailed and extensive, but it is not a vehicle to expose other people's secrets, betray their confidence, damage their reputation, or make them feel uncomfortable.

  2. Thanks so much for the mention!

    I've received some really positive feedback on my post.

    I think that being sensitive to the wishes of the living family members is important and needs to be weighed against the need for accurate info. Like Susan said in her comments, as a chronicler of your family history, the body of work you leave behind in your research should never harm others or make them uncomfortable.


  3. In some cases I don't know what to call relationships in my genealogy software but the relationship becomes clear in the narrative. My son chooses not to marry the mother of his children even though they have lived together for more than 10 years now. I refer to Jae as my daughter-in-law as that is how I think of her. In FTM they are listed as partners. I don't know what date to record; should it be their first date or when they first started living together? I lived with John prior to our marraige but the recorded date is our wedding day.

    I am comfortable with LGBT relationships but one such relationship in our family is still whispered about and makes much of the family uncomfortable. I would love to sit down with that family member and talk about his partner (who died more than 20 years ago) but I don't really know how to approach him. Another member of the family married, had a child, divorced and had several lesbian relationships. None of those relationships lasted long so I haven't included them in the family tree but they were a huge factor in shaping who she is today.

    Both Susan and Thomas make the point that your family history should not make other family members uncomfortable. This is an area where I still struggle with issues that have nothing to do with sexuality but rather personalities and mistakes made by individuals. Do I really want to record that Uncle A got into trouble as a young man and went to jail? He went on to become a good family man and respected member of his community.

    I also have a situation where I think the father listed on the birth certificate and who raised the child was not really the father who provided the sperm. This child had a father that loved them and for me right now that is enough. But will a DNA test down the road reveal this family secret?

    A very interesting discussion and one that there are no simple answers for.

  4. I know exactly the struggle that you have with some of the situations and relationships - I've been challenged with the same types during my 10 years of research.

    I can tell you how my partner Whatshisname and I mark the date in Family Tree Maker. We decided that May 6th would be our anniversary - it was our first real date, not meeting for coffee or a drink. And to cement that date, we filed our domestic partnership papers on the same date five years later. So when we discuss anniversaries, we say we've been together seven going on eight years as of 5/6/2000.

    Most couples, even if they haven't solemnized or marked the relationship with a ceremony, celebrate some sort of anniversary. Just ask Jae - I'm sure she'll tell you. And you really honor her by using the term daughter-in-law. I call my partner's parents Mom and Dad and introduce them as my in-laws.

    I agree that some issues like jail time don't belong in a family history, especially for a living relative, unless you discuss it with them and they feel that it really changed the course of their life and helped shape them.

    I've also used the terms "genetic parent" and "responsible parent." The case where someone realizes they aren't the sperm donor but raises the child as their own should be recognized but without the scientific detail. I'm working on a family history project - not producing an episode of the Maury Povich show. I only add details after discussing the issue with the parties involved and getting their approval.

    And it isn't comfortable I agree. I've burned some bridges in my family, as tactful as I've tried to be. I never pressured anyone for more information but the mere fact of knowing the "secret" somehow can set people off.

    As much as I would love to include the following delicate situation in my family history, I just can't do it because it will hurt way too many people right now:

    I have a living person whose first child was fathered by her father when she was a teenager. The child suffered from a birth defect and died before her first year. After that, her father told her that the rest of the family wanted nothing to do with her (which wasn't true) so she ran away. My mother looked for her for over 30 years, and one day saw her name in an obituary, and luckily it was for the woman's husband. She had lived less than 50 miles away and we never knew it. I know it sounds like a soap opera but you should have seen the reunion we had.

    I so much want to somehow recognize this on paper rather than the oral history of this event that has been passed around for the past 50 years. But it crosses the line of family research becoming a manifesto on how toxic secrets can be in a family, about child abuse and other not so pleasant things. So I opt to write this in a private journal or even in fiction as a short story.