All Over The Map | Dec. 4, 2014

By Liz Massey, Dec. 4, 2014.

Recently, my partner and I have indulged the history-geek side of our relationship by watching Finding Your Roots on PBS. We both love the celebrity guests that host Henry Louis Gates Jr. selects for each episode, and have noticed that a considerable number of them — including Billie Jean King, Anderson Cooper and Tony Kushner — are openly gay.

I really love how Gates just throws his gay guests into the mix, demonstrating that LGBT people come from families and have roots and ancestors like everyone else. The one thing I do wish I could change about the show is the way in which it is entirely focused on the guest’s family structure before their generation — because that approach provides no opportunity for them to discuss how their roots have influenced the families they have built during their lifetimes.

LGBT family issues have really come into the forefront in the past 15 to 20 years. No longer is it assumed that coming out mandates a childless existence or ensures the loss of custody or visitation rights. While too many LGBT people are still rejected by their family of origin, or must struggle with their clan’s very conditional “acceptance,” more and more queer individuals are claiming the people they are closest to as family — whether they are related to them by blood, marriage or are part of a very special circle of friends — and giving those ties the value that they feel they deserve.

Despite the newness of talking about family history in our community, it’s worth making the effort. A recent study by researchers at Rutgers University indicates that children who know the stories of their relatives are better able to cope with stress and manifest resilience. Beyond our immediate children, kids with same-sex parents and LGBT teens benefit by knowing about other people who’ve been part of an LGBT family and not only survived, but thrived.

Whether you are single or coupled, have kids or don’t, or are connected to your family of origin or not, you can add your personal “ornament” on the community’s collective rainbow family tree. Here are a few suggestions for getting started.

Find and document your queer relatives.

If you’re already into genealogy and stumble upon an anscestor who had a “special friend” or left traces of having a non-standard sexual orientation or gender identity, try to discover more about their lives, and share your conclusions with others.

Create a family tree document that includes your chosen family.

LGBT people are known for crafting complex parenting arrangements and valuing close friends as truly being a part of their family. If your particular tree more closely resembles a fluffy shrub than a mighty oak, so be it.

Record a “how we met” story with your beloved.

Your children will thank you for documenting the origins of your union. Everyone else will appreciate a good love story.

Help your family digitize and accurately label old photos.

He or she who braves the techno-hurdles involved in photo preservation may very well determine whose images make it into the 22nd century.

Participate in an LGBT-themed oral history project.

Even if you’re single or get nauseated at the whole concept of “family,” you can do the entire community a favor by talking to someone (preferably someone who has an audio recorder or video camera running) about what your life has been like. The queer generations alive today have lived through everything from Stonewall and the AIDS crisis to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the expansion of marriage equality all across the nation. You’ve played a role in that, even if all you’ve done is show up and be yourself.

As with a lot of traditions, when we as LGBT folks lay claim to our place in an institution that forms as much of the cultural bedrock as the family, suddenly what we’re doing isn’t stodgy and assimilationist — it’s radical.

Part of why recording our queer family history matters relates to our current life, and the lives of those around us now. But there’s also the future to think of. Jarrett Terrill, a writer for the South Florida Gay News, put it this way: “Should there ever be some gay, lesbian or transgender descendant from one of my many cousins in the future, I want them to look at our family tree and see that they are not alone. I want them to take pride in our shared history and feel that they are loved, included and valid. Gays and lesbians have been systematically deleted from history for far too long and it’s time we started owning our rightful place in the records of our families.”

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