LGBTQ Family History TranscriptEpisode 06
Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with Permanent.org. This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent and I'm also your podcast host.
In this episode, our theme is genealogy, but specifically understanding how LGBTQ stories fit into our family histories, a timely and important topic for Pride Month. I'm joined by Stewart Traiman, who is a professional genealogist, a graduate of ProGen 49, a public speaker, and a blogger.
He began building his genealogy skills as a teenager by interviewing his great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother about their Nicaraguan roots. He has maintained the oral history of his family for decades. When he married, he took on the new adventure of researching his husband's Ukrainian and Polish Jewish immigrant ancestors. He's researched both of his children's biological origins back to Colonial America and Western Europe.
He's also accomplished client research with Irish, Swedish, German, and other records covering the 17th to 21st centuries. Stewart has been a volunteer with the California Genealogical Society since 2014, serving six years on the board of directors with five years as Recording Secretary. He published the monthly CGS E-News for eight years. He continues to volunteer with CGS on the Digital Archive Committee.
For more information, see sixgen.org.
So welcome and thank you for being here to talk about LGBTQ genealogy, especially during Pride month. I'm super excited for this episode and just to be able to speak with you and learn more about your work.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Thank you very much for inviting me. I'm really eager to talk about this subject.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. First off, just how are you doing?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: I'm doing pretty well today. You know, just juggling lots of things - family and work and home life and "what's for dinner?"
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I've been doing stuff.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Yeah.
Amanda Meeks: Great. Well, I'd like to start by jumping into some questions about your own journey through your family history and genealogy research. So what inspired you as a teenager to capture the oral histories of your family of origin?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: I don't know. I don't know why I have a genealogy bug, why I have this obsession, and a lot of genealogists talk about having the bug. And for many genealogists, it happens later in life, it's like a retirement project. But there are a few of us who got interested as teenagers and have never stopped.
So, even before. I was a teenager, growing up Catholic, and in Catholic schools reading the Bible, the book of Genesis, I would actually mark in the margins of my Bible, all the begats, all the begats. And I kept wondering if I could put together a chart of all of those begats.
There's something about that that always has fascinated me, and I didn't know it was called genealogy at the time. And then as a teenager, when my great-grandmother came to visit the United States, I really got much more interested and started asking her questions like, "Who are your parents? Who are your grandparents? Where did they live? When did they die?" And that just started it. And then talking with my grandmother and then talking with my mom, who's the greatest source of all of my oral history, because she's in contact with lots of cousins in this country as well as in the homeland of Nicaragua.
So then, when I met my husband, who's Ukrainian Polish Jewish descent, I started asking him all kinds of questions about his family and then his cousins. And I sent out questionnaires to distant cousins in New Orleans and in Michigan and they responded like, "This is all of our family information and this is what I know about our grandparents."
And I was able to put all of that together for him. And it just continues from there. Then friends started asking me, "Could you look into this? Could you just answer this question?"
Then my husband and I had children. One is adopted and one is from a surrogate. I've done both of their DNA genealogy, which is the difference. There's the adopted genealogy and then there's the DNA genealogy. So I've done both of them.
My son is a Mayflower descendant. My daughter comes from 1600 Massachusetts as well, I've got her back that far. Not connected to Mayflower yet, but maybe someday. I keep thinking that my son and my daughter are probably 15th cousins, twice removed or something if I ever get far enough to make that connection with the few white people that existed in Massachusetts in 1600. So it just keeps on going. Clients, friends, all of these projects are very fascinating to me.
Amanda Meeks: I love that. Yeah. One of the reasons I asked that question is that we don't often come across young people who are doing genealogical research, and I think that we all love to hear those stories when we're young, but I don't know that many of us think to necessarily capture them and preserve them. So I love that you're doing that and that you've also done it for your children.
I am curious if there were any particular surprises or favorite stories that you discovered through the process of doing your children's genealogical research.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: So yes, there's favorite stories all over the place.
For my children's specifically, well, it's interesting that in my son's line there's, again, I'm not gonna be able to place him exactly, but he's a great-great-great grandfather of some branch or some line, and in his will, it's very curious that he says that if any of his children become a Papist, then they will be disinherited. Okay. Well, he had very strong feelings about religion and you know what he expected. On another branch of my son's lines that I've just been working on recently is, I've come across the first Confederate soldier who was captured and held at Fort Delaware and wasn't released until he signed the Oath of Allegiance to the United States government in 1865. So he was in prison for about two years. And that's the first time I've ventured into Tennessee, into southern genealogy. So that's interesting.
On my own line, there's my great-grandfather who was quite the, how do you say that politely? Um, he had a lot of sex. He had a lot of female partners. As far as we know, they were all female. But I wouldn't be surprised if there was a man in there or two because he was so hypersexual. He kept a little black book, a literal black book. I wish I knew where that book existed today. I would love to see it. But he would keep track of every conquest and the date and maybe some notes about it as well, is what I'm told.
And when children would come up to him and say, "I think you're my father," he would look in his black book and just go, "Who's your mother? Yep, yep. You might be my child." It was amazing. So I don't know how many cousins I have from him because of his promiscuity.
Amanda Meeks: And you don't have that black book?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: I don't have that black book, right?
I know there's several cousins, several of his children. I know several of them, but I don't know that I know all of them.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Those are some incredible stories. I'm sure your kids love hearing them too.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Yeah. On my husband's side, I was able, when last time we were in Paris, which is in 2016, I was able to take him to the address where his grandfather lived at the time that he registered for his marriage to his grandmother.
And I was also able to take him to the house where his father was born in Paris. And we were just kind of looking around the property when a neighbor comes up to us and you know, inquires, "Can I help you?" Because obviously, we were looking suspicious, but we explained to her what were doing there.
"This is where his father was born and we're just kind of looking around the place." And she said, "Oh, what were the family called?" "Oh, they were the Orloffs." "Oh, the Orloffs yes, they were here from time to time" and then she just started telling us stories. That was fantastic. It's fantastic to be able to make those connections that are completely unexpected.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah.
Something you just said like made me think of a new question that you know, so many queer people and LGBTQ people in general, are like somewhat disconnected from their families of origin and I see genealogy work as one of the ways that people kind of make sense of their place in the world and especially within their own family.
And I'm curious if like that has led to any sort of feelings of belonging or like healing that you've seen for queer people or even experienced yourself.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: It is a very curious question that I have found lots of gay genealogists. I can't say that it's something that gay people gravitate towards, but there's a really good representation in the genealogy community of LGBTQ people. It's always made me curious as to why that is.
Why do I do this? Why am I so curious about it? And how, if at all, does my sexuality play into it? I've not been able to really answer that question. There's just, just no answer, but it's a question.
But being a gay genealogy also has its drawbacks in that, with my family in particular, that comes from Nicaragua, which is a very heavily Catholic country, and there's also been other kinds of Christian denominations, evangelicals, and such, born-again Christians. There are some cousins that I've contacted who I've had very negative experiences with.
It's like, "Hi, I'm your cousin. This is how we relate. Let's get to know each other. Let's share some information about our shared common ancestors." And as we get to know each other and I talk about my husband, it's like, "What? Uh, no, I don't believe in what you do."
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: " Okay. I didn't ask you if you believed in what I do", but, but that really sets a very negative tone and they are no longer interested in speaking with me.
And that has happened several times.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: So did I get to their question?
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I think I was more curious about this idea that genealogy is a way to foster a sense of belonging through like that family history research and like understanding relatives and I think there might be ways that it does that and that it doesn't do that for LGBTQ genealogists or even people who are not full-fledged genealogists, but maybe are estranged from their immediate family of origin and looking for others in their family who they could identify with.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: There's this whole piece about genealogy, about preserving family history and preserving the family stories. For those people who do not have children, who do not have descendants, their stories can be more easily lost because they don't have grandchildren, great-grandchildren, you know those subsequent generations that are gonna get curious about their ancestry and then start digging and finding them.
So in my research, I find that people who did not have children have less documentation attached to their ancestry accounts or family search accounts. There's less, it seems to be less, people researching them.
So there's something about wanting to preserve yourself, preserve your memory, preserve that you existed in time, and genealogists tried to bring that back, tried to bring back those family stories, especially for everyone in the family and how everyone in the family impacts each other, regardless of their sexuality.
With me, I don't have biological children. I do have children. I have two children that we adopted at birth, and if their descendants ever put together their family trees, are they going to bypass me because I'm not a DNA relative? Or are they going to be. More inclusive and do family history, not just DNA genealogy, but do family history and therefore they're gonna come across me, they're gonna come across my mother, they're gonna come across this entire branch of the family that influenced their ancestors.
Amanda Meeks: Hmm. I love that distinction between family history and DNA genealogy because I don't think I've heard it quite articulated that way before, but that makes a lot of sense in terms of making a more inclusive family tree, of course, for that exact reason that you just described.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Right. It's true for everyone that parents die, unfortunately, children are orphaned, or for whatever reason, a child is not raised by their biological parents.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: That person's story must include who raised them if it wasn't their biological parents, because that's what you're trying to do in genealogy is remember their stories tell their stories, and it must include how they grew up. So having an awareness for both biological and non-biological roots is important.
Amanda Meeks: Definitely, I would like to talk a little bit about the work you do with individuals who wanna learn more about how to look for clues about LGBTQ ancestors in their own family trees. And my first question is, why would one want to learn about their LGBTQ ancestors and know their stories?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Well, the easy answer to that is because you want to get a full, as full as possible story/history of the family.
And so if somebody was LGBTQ, how did that impact the family? Were they in hiding and their brothers and sisters didn't know, or did their brothers and sisters know? And then were they accepting? Were they not accepting? Did they help them hide? Did the parents know?
You might come across a story where all of a sudden a brother takes off and goes to California and the family really doesn't have much contact with him anymore. Why did that happen? And you want to ask that question, "Why did that happen?" so that you can get the full family history. Did it happen because there was a fight over inheritance? Did it happen because they just felt like going to California because it was more exciting than Iowa? Or did they do it because they found it to be more accepting of their sexuality? Wanting to understand that reason is important to completing the family history.
Amanda Meeks: Lovely. What are some of the unique challenges to uncovering these stories?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Well, the biggest unique challenges that there are no records. You know, people were deliberately in hiding, so how do you find someone who's trying to hide? That makes it challenging. A person may have had a long-term partner, but there's no marriage record, there's no domestic partnership certificate. There's nothing that outrightly states it, but I do show clues in the record that can help determine if somebody had a partner, like in an obituary.
One of the examples I gave in the presentation, LGBTQ Genealogy, is of an obituary where it says that she was the intimate friend for 32 years. Okay? How do you interpret that? One woman was the intimate friend of another, and there's no husband mentioned, and there's no children mentioned in the obituary, but you're gonna just think that they're intimate friends for 32 years. Yeah, that's all it was.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: If you're not reading between the lines, if you're not letting yourself be aware that there are same-sex couples throughout history, then you're going to miss that clue.
Again, without a legal marriage, sometimes you look at probate records and who did they leave all of their property to? That could have been their spouse, their same-sex spouse. You look at gravestones and who are they buried with? If there are two men buried together, two women buried together. You know, they could have been siblings, they could have been related in some way, or they could have been spouses.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: And one of the biggest examples is Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who were buried together in Paris. And they are famous lesbians who were both born and raised in Oakland, but they met and fell in love in Avant-garde Paris. And they're kind of famous. You're gonna look at census records and you're gonna see that they were living together in 1910, they were living together again in 1920, they were living together again in 1930. Wow. This is a long-term roommate that they have. It's like, "Oh, really? You think it's just a roommate?" No, this is a relationship that you're looking at. This is a same-sex relationship, and you can track them over time.
So it's all of those clues that you're gonna find in doing just basic genealogy by looking at census records, looking at obituaries, looking at everything else that is available to us in the genealogical record. But then being open to asking the question, " Hmm, this relationship seems a little different, is this LGBTQ?" And then start building a case from all of the available things that you can find that "Yes, they were very likely LGBTQ."
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
Yeah. Those are really great places to start and to look. It seems like some of the challenges of not having formal documentation I think can definitely dissuade people from looking into it.
But, it does seem like with a little bit of digging, you can put those clues together and figure out like, you know, that is not a roommate.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Right. And it's unfortunate that some people feel/think that "No, there aren't any LGBTQ people in my family tree."
Yeah, there are, you're just not asking the question. You're not being perceptive. You're not being open to that possibility. You know that Uncle Billy who never married, but you do see him in the census living with the same man, you've never stopped to think, " Who is that man in relationship to your Uncle Billy?"
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It's funny you say Uncle Billy. I have an Uncle Billy.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: It's trying to be generic.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. It's not generic in this context, but yeah that's great. I am curious, once you've done this research, what are your general recommendations for preserving these incredible stories and making sure that they are no longer lost?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: All right, well, like with anyone else in your tree, you're gonna put together their story as best as you can. Find the birth record. Find the marriage record. Find an occupation. Did they go to war? Were they a soldier? Did they get a pension? You know, find everything that you can on a person to put together their family story.
Same thing for an LGBTQ person. There's no difference whatsoever. Find their birth record. Find out if they had a spouse or a long-term partner, who were they living with? Who else is at that address that they're at? Are they in a newspaper article? Were they ever picked up in a gay raid and their name might appear in a newspaper?
Get everything that you possibly can and then put them together, their story from all of the facts that you can collect, all of the evidence that you can find. You want to write everyone's story as honestly, as openly without your own personal bias or filters on it, and add that to your family history specifically for LGBTQ people as you find them, you want to give them a voice that they may not have had at the time that they were living. They may not have been able to be out. They may have had to live in hiding, but now you can shed some light on how they lived by writing their story in a way that honors who they were.
Amanda Meeks: Absolutely. That honoring who they were is I think the most critical part of that for sure.
Do you have any other specific tips or guidance for folks who are interested in the LGBTQ history within their family tree?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Always think about looking at an archive as well. There are lots of LGBTQ archives all over the world. There's dozens in the United States and there's dozens around the world.
But say the person that you're interested in was living in Boston or Massachusetts. See if there's an LGBTQ archive in Boston. And do they have preserved letters, diaries, other personal effects for LGBTQ people who lived in the area? Your ancestor or the person in your family tree that you're interested in might have left something behind. You know, those love letters, that would be the smoking gun that they were LGBTQ might still be preserved somewhere.
My great-grandfather's little black book, I'm pretty sure is not in an archive in Nicaragua, but if it does exist somewhere, I'd love to find it.
Anyway, looking everywhere that you can, there's certainly all of the obvious genealogical records that we use every single day as genealogists, but then also think outside of that to what else is out there? What is in the LGBTQ world that I could look at?
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, there's definitely a bit of a subculture to being part of the LGBTQ communities and so often our stories have been pushed out and into other spaces outside of the mainstream types of archives and collections and publications and whatnot. So it does take some digging.
I love that idea of walking into a queer archive somewhere and being able to find something. And I will say like queer archives haven't been around all that long either. They're still fairly new in concept but they are really useful resources for tracking down more recent generations of folks. But I wonder, dating back to the Mayflower, how we would identify those folks who were also LGBTQ and potentially escaping some sort of religious persecution or something.
But I imagine that those stories are even trickier to locate and this is also just a shout-out to any archivists out there who are listening, if you have a little black book it belongs with Stewart.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Yes.
Amanda Meeks: And we would like it back.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Yes. Well, thinking about historic stuff as well, yes, archives can be more late 20th century and looking forward for LGBTQ archives. But we also just want to keep in mind history. We know that there are LGBTQ people throughout history.
Amanda Meeks: Yes.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: And we want to find as much information about them as well.
One of the people that I have in mind is von Steuben. I don't remember his full name right now, but von Steuben was the person hired by George Washington, he was a German soldier, and he was recruited by Ben Franklin in Paris and brought over during the American Revolution.
And as a soldier, in his training, he trained the Continental Army. von Steuben is a known homosexual at that time, and he had several relations with different men, two of which he adopted as the only way of forming a legal connection between them and left his property to them in his will.
So, it's those kinds of historic figures that you want to delve into more as well. It's like, "Well, how did you live your life? We know you were queer. How did you survive? How did you manage relationships, manage just to exist?"
There's another story about Charity and Sylvia, they met in Weybridge, Virginia (actually Vermont) in 1807, and they were together for 45 years. And there's an entire book written about them, Charity and Sylvia, that they lived openly in their community.
They were not in hiding. The entire community knew them as Auntie Charity and Auntie Sylvia and they ran a tailor shop. They participated in Sunday school and they were an open lesbian couple in the early 1800s, so LGBTQ people have always existed and there are examples in written histories about them. Studying them and how they lived informs us on how to find other people that might be in our trees.
Amanda Meeks: Definitely such good advice. Thank you.
When it comes to LGBTQ histories, legacy, and preserving our family stories, what is your biggest wish for the future and how do you envision us getting there?
Stewart Blandón Traiman: My biggest wish for the future is a raising of consciousness that LGBTQ people have always been here and they are part of my family tree. And I want to identify those people in my family tree and bring them back into our family story.
I want to just get away from this stupid notion that homosexuality tarnishes a person's character and therefore we don't talk about it. We have to keep it secret. We have to just rationalize it away. We have to come up with other reasons why they were living together with another man for 30 years.
Just accept it. Be open to it. Let it into your family story that you too have had LGBTQ people in your family tree.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
I think that's a really beautiful message and wish for the future, so thank you.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: Yeah, hopefully. We live with all of these labels of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and such, and they are important labels, but hopefully, in the future, we won't need them. It's just people have sex and some people don't have sex, there's also asexual people. But people are just people. And people have sex with who they have sex with.
Get over it. It doesn't need a label, it just is.
Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.
And with Permanent, we are definitely focused on preserving all people's legacies for the future, and that definitely includes LGBTQ people and other folks who have historically been erased and disappeared from both their family histories and the cultural societal histories and textbooks and everything.
So, I really appreciate this conversation. Thank you, Stewart.
Stewart Blandón Traiman: You're very welcome. Thank you, Amanda.
Amanda Meeks: Thank you to our listeners, thank you to Stewart for being here. We hope you enjoyed this episode on LGBTQ Genealogy and Family History.
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Stewart Traiman is a professional genealogist, a graduate of ProGen #49, a public speaker, and blogger. He began building his genealogy skills as a teenager by interviewing his great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother about their Nicaraguan roots. He has maintained the oral history of his family for decades. When he married, he took on the new adventure of researching his husband’s Ukrainian and Polish Jewish immigrant ancestors. He’s researched both of his children’s biological origins back to Colonial America and Western Europe. He’s also accomplished client research with Irish, Swedish, German, and other records covering the 17th to 21st centuries.
Stewart has been a volunteer with the California Genealogical Society since 2014, serving six years on the Board of Directors, with five years as recording secretary. He published the monthly CGS eNews for eight years. He continues to volunteer with CGS on the Digital Archive Committee.
Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.