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Finding Your LGBT Ancestors

Thomas MacEntee

Professional Genealogist
Finding Your LGBT Ancestors

You heard family stories about a relative who was “different” or perhaps you’ve discovered someone who simply “disappeared.” Have you considered the possibility that you could have a gay or lesbian relative in your family tree?

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered) people can be found when researching genealogy, but the search syntax, keywords and strategies are very different. By understanding the basics of “gay history” as well as how LGBT folk lived, worked, and socialized, you’ll not only locate these relatives, but realize the importance of preserving their stories.

With the advent of the Internet and use of social media, tracing family history has become easier for most of us. Websites such as MyHeritage provide access to billions of records via easy-to-use search engines. Yet, despite all these online tools, as well as greater access to records at national and regional archives, documenting the lives of LGBTQ people can be challenging.

LGBT relatives: why their stories are important

Does it really matter that you know more about a LGBT ancestor and that person’s activities? What value could such information add to the overall information about that ancestor? For those of us seeking an entire picture of the ancestor using genealogy-related records, details as to sexuality and lifestyle do matter, especially if they had an impact on major life decisions including employment and relationships.

I believe the pursuit of such information is valid for another reason: future generations of genealogists may become so accustomed to personally knowing self-identified LGBT folk; they also may take the existence of same sex marriages for granted, etc…. and they won’t know what to look for when it comes to older records. Even now, the younger generation seems to take much about LGBT lifestyles for granted. Often they don’t understand what it was like to live and act and talk in “Code” as a means of survival or that there were life and death consequences to being “outed.”

If you are committed to serious research involving a possibly gay ancestor, take time to consider how you’ll use the information and how the information will be shared. I don’t necessarily believe there is a proper way to “out” a gay aunt or bisexual uncle; in fact, I think it is a matter of presentism creeping into one’s research that makes many believe a relative would identify themselves as homosexual if they were alive today. Unless you yourself identify as a LGBT person, it is difficult to understand all the issues involved with daily life “in the closet” or the impact of “coming out.” Outing your gay ancestor may not be the best way to preserve that person’s memory, let alone share family history with your living relatives.

Understanding gay history in the United States

Before you try to research various records, either in person or online, do some basic background reading on the history of LGBT people in the United States. Many people — even members of the gay community — are unaware of “queer history” and how it shaped their community and impacted the history of the United States.  Here is a glimpse at some more recent history:

  • World War II played an important role in gay history. During the war, men and women, normally turned away from military service for their sexuality, were pressed into service in order to help win the war.
  • Between 1939 and 1945, large numbers of gay men and women who lived in isolation in rural areas had the opportunity to interact with others who were “just like them” thanks to military service.
  • Look at current locations with large gay populations: San Francisco, New York, San Diego, Chicago, and Philadelphia. They were all important military installations during World War II. Many in the military saw their service end in these cities and simply stayed there and became part of the community.
  • The military witch hunts of homosexuals returned once World War II was over. Pair this with the rise of McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare and you begin to understand why talking and behaving under a “Code” continued to develop as a means of keeping a job or interacting with other LGBT folk.
  • In most places, homosexuality was a crime; those suspected of being “queer” or “different” could lose their jobs and be shunned by their families.
  • Prior to the 1950s, very few LGBT people lived an “out” lifestyle or were open about a long-time relationship with someone of the same sex. Such information was only shared with a close group of friends, and possibly sympathetic relatives. It is difficult to find evidence of “out” individuals through public records.
  • The “bar culture” was a huge part of the social world of gay men and women, and in many cities, such as New York, bars were controlled by the Mafia or other crime syndicates. Gays were often extorted for money or blackmailed. Police officers were paid off to look the other way when it came to gay bars. When a raid did happen, it often resulted in some bar patrons having their names, addresses and occupations published in the newspaper.
  • The Stonewall Riots in June 1969 are considered a watershed moment in gay history. Taking place in Greenwich Village in New York City, Stonewall at its core was a rejection of the status quo when it came to how LGBT people were treated by society. Led by a group of drag queens during yet another police raid on the Stonewall Inn bar, the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is marked annually on the last Sunday in June as Pride Day.

In the post-Stonewall era, the gay rights movement started. Over the subsequent four decades advancements have been made in terms of rights concerning marriage, adoption, and employment for LGBT people.

“Code” and subcultures: learning a new vocabulary

The term “Code” or “The Code” is often used to designate slang, terminology, and code words that one learned as they navigated the various subcultures in the LGBT culture. Since homosexuality was illegal and being “outed” had many ramifications in terms of employment and societal integration, a secret language or argot developed among gays and lesbians. For example: Polari is a slang language developed in Britain and used by gays as well as performing artists, criminals, prostitutes, and others living on the margins of society. Polari as a language has roots as far back as the 16th century and is still in use today; many practitioners say it is an “attitude” more than a language, much like the current Drag culture. Today’s “Code” is marked by phrases, vocabulary, and gestures some of which have made it into mainstream culture thanks to greater acceptance of LGBT people, especially as portrayed by the media.

As with many underground cultures, various LGBT subcultures developed over time. Studying and knowing the differences between the gay male culture, the lesbian culture, the transgender culture, etc. is vital to “decoding” information, especially in personal letters and diaries. Some of these subcultures, to the outsider, are often seen as “deviant” or tend to reinforce stereotypes about gays and lesbians. Put aside your preconceived notions when investigating a subculture. As with any reference material, take note of items that can later help you locate information about a gay ancestor.

Understanding language related to LGBT life can offer many clues when looking at records or reviewing personal letters and diaries. The same holds true for the various queer subcultures: many had their own Code, their own practices and even their own symbols and forms of dress.

Know your gayborhoods

Many of our immigrant ancestors flocked to specific neighborhoods when they arrived in America. The reason? They felt safer with those who spoke their language and kept the same customs as in the Old World. These neighborhoods in large urban areas often had strict dividing lines and offered a “step up” on the path to becoming an American citizen and being successful.

The sense of belonging in a geographical sense was, and to some extent is, still true for gay men and women. Certain districts in cities such as New York (Greenwich Village) and San Francisco (The Castro) are where newcomers would settle in order to be closer to the LGBT culture. Again, don’t fall victim to presentism when it comes to noting the “gayborhood” in which an ancestor may have lived. Research the neighborhood designated as the gay ghetto during your ancestor’s time in that location. For example, The Castro was not a predominantly gay neighborhood until the early 1970s; prior to that time the Polk Gulch area is where you would find bars, bookstores, and other LGBT hangouts and where your ancestor may have lived.

Queer work: occupations offer clues

A recent client noted that her uncle was a hairdresser by trade and she asked, “Why are so many male hairdressers also gay?” What may not be apparent to “straight eyes” are the realities of earning a living for many LGBT persons.

Legally, you could be fired for being gay in many locations in the United States up until recently. For that reason, many homosexual men and women earned a living as small business owners — florists, hairdressers, etc. — in which they were the boss and knew they would not be fired based on their sexuality. In addition, certain professions, such as working in a barber shop or hair salon, were “portable,” meaning you had little inventory (i.e., a good set of barber tools) and could pick up and work in another city if needed.

The hands of young barber making haircut of attractive bearded man in barbershop
LGBT folks took up professions where they were less likely to be fired for being gay

There were specific professions — in the art and design fields, for example — where you could meet other gay men and women. In department stores, males behind the counter were “salesmen”, but were often called “ribbon clerks” as part of gay slang. Look for bars near these large stores as places for socialization after work. Often on census sheets, you’ll see the general term “artist” used as opposed to “set designer” or “interior decorator” or “fashion designer.”

In some cases, the partner of a gay man or woman might be listed as an employee such as a “private secretary” or “assistant” and listed under the head of household. Also, a place of employment would be “in a private home” or “for a private family.”

Looking for clues in mementos and items left behind

On rare occasions, I’ve worked with clients who inherited from their LGBT ancestor or relative a group of letters, diaries, or even small collections of items such as match book covers and ticket stubs to plays and performances. Read letters and diaries and remember “the Code,” and look for specific occupations as well as geographical locations that were historic gay neighborhoods.

One client who scanned several matchbook covers didn’t realize they were from local gay bars that her uncle may have frequented. “How do you know?” she asked; I knew from having researched the local watering holes which catered to gay men and women. Many had names incorporating a color and an animal, such as “Black Cat” or “Blue Parrot” which was Code to out-of-town gay visitors that it was a “safe space.” For those unacquainted with the “bar culture” in the LGBT community, realize that these bars were more than just places where you could get a drink and meet someone: they often acted as social clubs and places where gay rights meetings were held, and marches or protests were planned.

So what might look ordinary to you when it comes to belongings may require further research with an eye toward LGBT culture, subcultures and history.

Using the FAN Club research strategy

The best success in determining that an ancestor may have been gay, bisexual, or transgendered is to rely upon the FAN Club approach: tracing Friends, Associates and Neighbors of the person in question. Remember that LGBT folk often lived in the same neighborhood, may have run in the same social circles, and often worked in specific fields and occupations.

Fan with gay pride colors on a white background
FAN club: Friends, Associates, and Neighbors

And before you ask, no there is no such thing as a “gay record.” Researchers need to build a body of LGBT knowledge to be successful in locating records which may indicate that a person was a homosexual.

  • Starting with the 1940 US Census, the term “partner” could be used to indicate someone living in the household that was not a blood relation. More likely you’ll see “boarder” or “roomer” used.
  • Look for occupations on military records and census records that represent “queer work” as described above.
  • Passenger lists, especially for steamship travel in the early 20th century, may show two people living at the same address.
  • Check the address listed in voting registers, city, and telephone directories and even census schedules. Does it fall within a traditional gay neighborhood?
  • Again, in census schedules, note children of adult age who are unmarried or a married couple showing no history of children.
  • Military discharge records, especially if the discharge was less than honorable, can hold important clues as well.
  • Passport applications can offer clues. With no children of their own, some gay men and women had more disposable income and tended to travel more. For passport applications, check the identity of the person verifying that the applicant is a US citizen and that they have known that person for a specific amount of time. Often, this person has a FAN Club connection to your ancestor.
  • Newspapers are a good source of obituary and death notice information. In addition, and unfortunately, any arrests of homosexuals would be detailed, and sadly, as front-page news in some communities.

Conclusion: things were different then

The term homosexual was not in use until 1869 (coined by Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny). What you and I understand in the 21st century when it comes to how LGBT people identify themselves today would likely be foreign to many LGBT people prior to the 1940s.

Living in a “marriage of convenience” was part of being in the LGBT subculture. Working in certain professions was a given. So was knowing “the Code” and passing that knowledge on to others new to the LGBT community. Looking back at how our gay ancestors lived may, in fact, make some of us feel pity for them. We may express sadness in knowing that they took certain actions based on strict societal expectations. Again, we can’t accurately compare how LGBT individuals in the past lived with members of today’s LGBT communities.

What we can do is this: try to accurately research all aspects of their lives and when discovering evidence of a lifestyle outside of the expected norm of their time, preserve the information and determine if it truly adds to the entire picture of their lives. And then add it and make it available for future generations of researchers.


Expand your knowledge about LGBT history and genealogy with these resources:


Books and Articles

  • Baker, Paul, Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.
  • Berubé, Allan, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Bronski Michael, A Queer History of the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2011
  • Cante, Richard C., Gay Men and the Forms of Contemporary US Culture (Queer Interventions), Farnham (United Kingdom): Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008.
  • Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • Duberman, Martin, Stonewall, New York: Open Road Media, 2013.
  • Gates, Gary J. and Jason Ost, The Gay & Lesbian Atlas, Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 2004.
  • Lifshitz, Sebastien, The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride. Gay Couples in the Early Twentieth Century, New York: Rizzoli, 2014.
  • Katz, Jonathan Ned, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., New York: Plume (Penguin Group), 1992.
  • Mann, William J., Behind The Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969, New York: Penguin, 2002.
  • Scodari, Christine, Alternate Roots: Ethnicity, Race, and Identity in Genealogy Media, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019
  • Stryker, Susan, Transgender History, Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008.

In addition, genealogy author and educator Thomas MacEntee has over 30 FREE CHEAT SHEETS covering a variety of topics at his site GenealogyBargains.comVisit https://genealogybargains.com/free-genealogy-cheat-sheets/ to get your free downloads today!

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