Forbidden Forebears: Finding the GLBT Ancestors in Your Family

01 Jun 2013

Many of us have “hidden” ancestors; those whose true stories are not easily revealed in the records. June is celebrated internationally as Pride Month for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. It commemorates the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall Inn was raided by the police and the patrons stood up for their rights as citizens to no longer be persecuted.


From the collection of the author. Copyright 2011 Michael J. Leclerc. Used with permission.

Copyright 2011 Michael J. Leclerc. From the collection of the author. Used with permission.


We all have GLBT ancestors in our family history. But because of persecution by the majority, in times past they have had to completely hide who they are. This can make them more difficult to find. But for those that look, there is evidence to be found.

Unmarried People
One easy clue is to look for men and women who remained unmarried throughout their lives. Now, not every unmarried person was GLBT. But many GLBTs chose to remain single rather than marry someone society expected them to marry. Many times they chose to live with their partner of choice while not appearing to the public as a romantic couple. In the nineteenth century and later, you can sometimes find evidence in census records. My friend David C. Dearborn, a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, shared with me the story of a Dearborn at the turn of the century who lived with his partner for many years. One was a playwright on Broadway and the other was a businessperson. On census records, the relationship between the two is given as “partner.”

Diaries and Journals
Diaries can be a great source of information. Not only GLBT individuals, but others in the community might detail revealing stories. John Winthrop kept a diary of his experiences that is widely accepted as the greatest source of knowledge about the history of New England in the 1630s and 1640s. He wrote about William Plaine of Guilford in the New Haven Colony “it was found, that being a married man, he had committed sodomy with two persons in England, that he had corrupted a great part of the youth of Guilford. . .” by convincing them to pleasure themselves. Plaine was executed in 1646 for this activity.

Court Records
Plaine’s activities are well documented in court records of the time. Because of the wide variety of laws against GLBT individuals and activities, court records can be a tremendous source of information. In the Plymouth Colony in 1636, Thomas Roberts and John Allexander were found guilty of “lude and uncleane carriage one with another.” The following year, Roberts was brought before the court with three other men for “disorderly living” and were forced to discuss their living arrangement.

Be wary of using published court records, as these may have been scrubbed of pertinent information by editors wishing to avoid controversial subjects. For example, a twentieth-century editor omitted the italicized part of the following selection: “Elizabeth Johnson, servant ot Mr. Jos. Yonge, to be severly whipped and fined 5 [shillings] for unseemly practices betwixt her and another maid attempting to do that which man and woman do. . .”

Newspapers can sometimes be very enlightening. Caroline Hall has a daughter of Boston architect John Rounseville Hall. Like many girls of her station, she left Boston for a tour of Europe. In 1901, a Charles Winslow Hall was onboard the Città di Terrino with his wife of ten years, Giuseppina Boriana, returning to the U.S. to see his dying father, when he fell ill and died. After his death it was discovered that Charles Winslow Hall was, in reality, Caroline Hall. Her story appeared in papers around the country.

GLBT Family Members
There are reasons that stereotypes exist: because many people fit stereotypes. I remember when I started researching in the 1980s discovering that my grandmother’s brother had left Rhode Island to live in Boston. He never married, had a drinking problem, and lived in Boston’s South End. I had my suspicions, but couldn’t bring myself to ask my grandmother about her brother. One day while sitting around the table with various family members, I commented that I had discovered Uncle Arthur in Boston, with other details. My father suggested to his mother that her brother might have been gay. She responded “Well you know, we had them in my day too.”

I have very dear friends who are two of four brothers. The two of them are gay, and the other two brothers are straight. I have done a great deal of research on their family, the Lavenders (seriously, that is their surname) of Provincetown, Massachusetts. I am continually amazed at the shear number of men and women in their family who either never married, or married for the first time late in life (age 55 or older).

To discover more about our GLBT ancestors, you can read about our history. Books like Improper Bostonians from The History Project provide detailed examples or our rich and varied past. Some of the examples above come from that work. Reading such books can give you more suggestions of clues to look for in your research.

Another clue is unmarried people interested in family history. GLBT individuals have made major contributions to the field. They have written article and books, edited and published journals, and were among the  members of  genealogical organizations for well more than a century. Today we are teachers, authors, editors, and researchers, still working to help people preserve our families’ histories. And we continue to work to preserve the memories of our GLBT ancestors and celebrating them for their contributions to our community’s history. Help us out by recording the GLBT people in your family tree.