The Gay Genealogist: Creating a Modern Family Tree

Filed under: Adoption, Gay Parenting, Opinions

As hobbies go, genealogical research is not exactly on par with snowboarding -- it ranks right up there with stamp collecting in its total lack of "cool" factor. Does anything really say "geek" more than an obsession with family trees?

But that's me -- genealogy freak (and geek). Even as a kid, I was fascinated by charts that showed relationships and family lineage and my great sea of cousins and second cousins, most of whom I would never meet.

I was obsessed with the grandparents who'd come from Ireland as very young adults (some still teenagers), never to see their own parents again. I felt their loss as my own, in that my family history seemed to begin with their immigration. Somewhere between Ireland and New York I found a hard line of mystery: I knew nothing of my great-grandparents, and I felt cut off from my own ancestry.

As an adult, my obsession became more intense -– and more professional -- as hand-drawn trees were replaced by a full binder of documents culled from my research. Real, primary sources replaced family lore, and the Internet made a new wealth of documents available to me. I now have copies of Ellis Island ship manifests, U.S. and Irish census forms, draft registration cards, marriage certificates and all sorts of other material that have helped me create life stories for ancestors I've never met.

Looking at any of those documents, I can't help but think of the young immigrants, brides and grooms and prospective soldiers who filled them out. Did their nervous hands shake a little as they signed their names, or did they dash off their signatures with the rash confidence of youth? One thing I'm pretty sure of is that they weren't thinking about me, the 21st century genealogical researcher. I'm sure they never imagined someone using a laptop in 2011 to look at those signatures, tracing a family's path back to 1920s New York tenements and 1880s Irish farms.

But I spend a lot of time thinking about that 22nd century researcher who may someday be looking for me. 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?

I also recognize what an odd hobby this is for any adoptive parent. After all, I've created my little clan based on the absolute belief that your family is what you say it is, not what biology mandates for you. How do I reconcile that with my obsession with finding my own biological lineage?

As a child, I was fascinated by my dad's mother. He'd only been 12 years old when she died, so he had a limited number of childhood stories that included her. Since I was only 17 when he died, I never got the chance to press him for more memories of his mother. I felt a real affinity to her, since I had her name, but she was always the mystery grandmother to me. What was she like? Did I have her hair, her eyes, her sense of humor? It frustrated me that I could never know those answers.

My kids often ask about their own grandparents, none of whom they'll ever really know. Both Em* and I had lost our dads before we became parents, and Em's mother died just a few years ago. Ann* will remember her, vaguely, but Mary* probably won't. My own mother is lost in the fog of Alzheimer's, so she is also "gone" to her grandchildren. But are any of these even the "right" grandparents to talk about with our girls?

In the largest sense, of course, they are. They made Em and me who we are today, and, like all parents, we want to tell our kids stories from our own childhoods -– and the kids want to hear them. They want to know what we were like as little girls, what we wore, what games we played, what tricks we played on our moms, what kinds of things got us into hot water. Those tales are filled with stories of our parents and grandparents, and our kids eat them up.

But our girls also ask about their birth parents, and those questions are just as important, although they're different. Where did my blond hair come from? How tall will I be? Why do I have brown eyes? We can't answer all of them as completely as we'd like, since we just don't know. (We tried an international birth parent search for both girls, but came up empty.)

I can trace my family's trademark ski nose back three generations –- I've actually seen it on Irish cousins -– but I can't tell my daughter where she got her cute little button nose. That hurts me now, and I'm pretty sure it will hurt her later.

We're at least a year away from the inevitable family tree project at school, but 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. We've read articles about how to help, like creating a fluffy family "shrub" showing the complicated bunch we are instead of the traditional straight-line tree with roots and branches. That's one approach, I guess, but I know I would have found it unsatisfying as the geeky kid I was. I drew my tree to help me understand where I came from, and find my place in the family –- will a shrub do the same for my kids?

I worry that my children will come to see their adoption by American parents as the same mysterious hard line I found with my grandparents' immigration. Will they end up feeling like pioneers, first-generation Americans with no connection to the country and lineage they left behind? Or will they embrace Em's and my family trees as their own, and find satisfaction in knowing their place in their adoptive family?

I hope they come to understand that they have two separate trees, one born of biology and the other from love, now forever entwined. I hope they learn to appreciate both for what they have to offer, and I hope they someday have the tools to find out more about their own biology if they want to. Just as the Internet opened up vast treasures that weren't available to me as a child, maybe someday another new technology, undreamed of today, will help them find the genetic histories that are currently out of their reach.

Or maybe I'll get lucky and they'll both just take up snowboarding instead.

*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy

Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name; read her blog on RedRoom. She and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.