Chasing Rainbows – In search of LGBT Family History

Families Come in All Shapes and Sizes

During February, Manchester will be hosting the first ever National Festival of LGBT History. The Family History Help Desk will be open as usual from Monday to Friday offering free help and family history guidance. We can assist by getting new family history researchers off and running with their family history research or help out with any ‘brick walls’ which they may have encountered.

Families Come in All Shapes and Sizes 

Perhaps you are interested in beginning to explore your own family history or find out more information about an ancestor who may be gay? Maybe there are clues you have already identified in your current research and would like to find out more? Have you have already identified the childless maiden Aunt who lived with her companion or the Uncle that never married, recognised particular occupations or well known lesbian or gay communities where ancestors chose to live?

Religious intolerance and discrimination meant that lesbian and gay communities have been effectively concealed within the wider community until the late 20th century and you may have to look carefully at historical evidence in order to confirm your findings. Family history is more than just names and dates its about documenting our ancestors during their life’s journey as well as providing evidence of those all important vital statistics. It is always fascinating to uncover facts about our ancestors and it helps us to put their lives into context. Remember it is our stories that help to bind us together as a family.

Blogger extraordinaire and founder of Geneabloggers Thomas MacEntee has written an excellent blog called ‘Hiding out in the Open: Researching LGBT ancestors’ which I would highly recommend if you are endeavouring to research any LGBT ancestors.

What Information does Archives+ hold?

So what information can you utilise in your research? Take a look at the information that is available at Archives+ Manchester Central Library and which may assist you to investigate your LGBT family history:

1. The LGBT History Source Guide - which is an introduction to the extensive archive and printed material held at Archives+ (including details on other material held elsewhere in the NW). This guide relates to the history of Manchester’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.

2. Civil Partnership Index - Archives+ holds this index on microfiche which dates from 2005 for all England and Wales. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 allows that a person may get married or enter into a civil partnership in the UK if they are: 16 or over, free to marry or form a civil partnership (single, divorced or widowed), not closely related. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 allows legalised full same sex marriages from March 2014 and states that same sex couples can get married in England and Wales. From 10 December 2014, legislation allowed that couples were able to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. Note: There are different rules for getting same sex couples getting married in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

3. Official Source Records - Historically, the invisibility of the LGBT community means that records will tend to be found in ‘official’ sources. These include: Quarter Session Court records, Hospital, Local Authority or Community collections. Judicial and religious courts dealt with sex crimes as before 1967 gay sex between males was illegal/though same sex female relationships were not. For example, homosexuality was considered a psychiatric condition and details may be found for individuals in records of Mental Health institutions.

4. GM Lives - Check out the GMLives online catalogue. This is a searchable database which identifies documents, books, maps, photographs and more held by archives and local history libraries within Greater Manchester. Try using the simple search term: ‘LGBT’ to see what the database holds. Remember the terminology you may use now may not have been used in the past, so ‘LGBT’ material may relate to more recent documents only.

5. British Newspaper Archives - Consult the British Newspaper Archives to discover events and stories. Access to the BNA is free at Central Library using your Manchester library card. I have been following up the eventful story of the Hulme Drag Ball of 1880 as it was reported in the newspapers of the time. The papers reported this scandalous ‘fancy dress ball’ held at Hulme’s Temperance Hall on York Street where forty seven men were arrested (including 22 in ladies wear) and then named and shamed in a story that ran in the National press. Detective Jerome Caminada had been tipped off by the Chief Constable of the Manchester City Police Department and he staked out the venue for several hours before raiding the hall with the assistance of colleagues. Names and full address were given and with some careful research interesting stories are beginning to emerge about individuals that attended this event.

6. Flickr- LGBT Historic Images from the Archives + collection

7. The Manchester Collection on findmypast. These include Manchester prision records from 1847-1881.

Creating a Modern Family Tree

Veronica Rhodes, the Gay Genealogist describes creating a Modern Family Tree in her blog and spends time thinking about any 22nd century researchers looking for information on her. “As I've signed my official documents -– New York City domestic partnership agreement, New York State second-parent adoption forms, California wedding license, name change form – I can't help but think about how being gay complicates things.

Will my searching descendants think to look in California for my marriage license, when I lived in New York at the time? Will they be looking for a 2008 document at all, when we'd been together since 1993, bought our house in 1999, and started our family in 2004? Will they have that "aha!" moment when they realize same-sex marriage was (briefly) legal in California that summer, when it still wasn't sanctioned in New York?

Rhodes also mulls over the inevitable family tree project at school “I'm thinking about it already. I know it will be a tough one. I don't think there's a good model for an adopted child in a gay family”. She hopes her children will come to understand they will have more than just a biological family tree.

Future research

So, what does the future hold for family historians tracing LGBT ancestors? Well, certainly there will be more openness and visibility in the records that are available. The most important resource we have of course is our own family and the stories that they will share. Previously where a family may have hinted or covered up the existence of any LGBT relatives these stories can now be heard and documented accurately. It may now and in the future be possible not only to document the ‘family’ version of an ancestors life but also the actual factual details that you have managed to uncover. There will be far more variety of information to be had, not least archival material but also first hand accounts - oral, digital and visual aids which can be added to your own family history for posterity.

Modern family tree programmes are now coming into line with modern family units and have the ability to designate the appropriate position of an individual within your family and not just make use of the traditional profiles you would expect. I use a 2005 edition of Family Tree Maker and I can assign any of the following relationships to individuals in my tree: friends, married, partners, private, single or unknown. I know more up to date programmes will define individuals in other ways. Sometimes it is a good idea to look at a number of programmes before deciding which best suits your needs.

All families have a story to tell and researching your own family history is a fun, interesting and rewarding way to share your family’s story. I would encourage everyone to have a look and discover your own rainbow connection.

Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society Help Desk is available for free family history advice and guidance to members and non-members on the Ground Floor at Manchester Central Library, Monday-Friday 10:30- 3:30.

By Leslie Turner, Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society

Websites and further reading

Read Veronica Rhodes’ full blog post here ‘Creating a Modern Family Tree’:

Read Thomas MacEntee’s full blog ‘Hiding out in the Open: Researching LGBT ancestors’ at GeneaBlogger

Interested in more about LGBT History check out some of the podcasts from The National Archives.

A Gender Variance Who’s Who

LBGT History Source Guide (pdf)

Archives + flickr - Hulme Drag Ball

British Newspaper Archive

That Class of Men blog – “Masculine Women/Feminine Men”: Gender Transgressions in Scotland, 1850-1930