5 Tips for Finding Your LGBTQIA+ Ancestors

Family History
1 October 2023
by Michael J. Leclerc

Genealogy expert Michael J. Leclerc, CG shares some of his top tips for finding your LGBTQIA+ Ancestors.

Have you ever been curious about whether there could be LGBTQIA+ ancestors in your family tree?

People from past generations would not have identified themselves using terms like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, as they are relatively recent terms. Even the word homosexual dates back to 1859 but wasn’t in common use until the start of the twentieth century.

And they often weren’t as free to live their lives openly like LGBTQIA+ people can today. This means that sometimes you have to look harder for them. But you can still find them.

When searching for LGBTQIA+ ancestors, look for terms from the past that might have been in circulation like cross dresser, Sapphist, sodomite, tribade, or Uranian. Here are some more places you can look:

Check the Occupations

LGBTQIA+ people often had to hide who they were to avoid persecution. To that end, working in occupations where being single was either expected or unsurprising was an easier place to be.

There were professions like teaching, the clergy, and the arts, which were conducive to living more or less independently,  so you may find that your relative was able to live more comfortably working in one of these professions.

Priests and members of some religious orders (like Catholic nuns and brothers) were required to be single. And being single was very unsurprising for those involved in the arts (actors, musicians, playwrights,etc.).

As an example, actress Maude Adams (born Maude Adams Kiskadden) had two long-term relationships, both with women. In the 1930 Census she was living with her partner Louise Boynton in the St. Regis Convent of the Cenacle order of Roman Catholic nuns.

Maude Adams Kiskadden and Louise Boynton in 1930 U.S. Census
Maude A Kiskadden, one of her day’s highest-paid performers, appears with Louise Boynton in the 1930 Census

Look for Patterns in the Family

Where there is one LGBTQIA+ person in the family, there are frequently others. Growing up I thought I was the only one in my family. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve discovered them in multiple generations of my family, including a great-grandfather’s brother, a grandmother’s brother, and multiple children of first cousins.

Possible signs of LGBTQIA+ people in your family tree are those who never married, had few or no public romantic partnerships, or decided to not have children. But these facts alone are not proof. Additional signs can help.

For example, when I mentioned to my grandmother that her brother never married, moved away from the family with only occasional visits, was never known to date a woman, had a drinking problem, and lived in the gay neighborhood of Boston, she gave me indirect confirmation that he was gay.

Read through Newspapers

Newspapers in the past were very gossipy. Gay establishments were frequently raided, and the names of those arrested would frequently be published in the paper. Gay males were targeted more than women, so it is more common to find males’ names in print.

Christine Jorgensen, who was what we today call transgender, was the first person to become widely known in the United States for gender reassignment surgery in the early 1950s. She was a role model for many others.

For decades, however, it was not uncommon for newspapers to include stories of other transgender individuals. For example the surgery of a former GI in New York named Charlotte McLeod made the news in Bridgeport Connecticut in 1955.

Newspaper headline of a transgender individual who was an ex-GI's surgery
Former GI Charlotte McLeod made the news in Bridgeport Connecticut in 1955

Examine Court and Prison Records

Historically, those who were arrested for being gay were often tried on criminal charges. If any of your ancestors were arrested and found guilty, the court records could lead you to prison records.

Depending on when they were incarcerated, you might find their photographs. But don’t stop there.

Prisoners were sometimes granted clemency, especially for non-violent crimes. As an example, Amato Daniells (a.k.a. Amada Daniels), convicted of sodomy, was granted a pardon by Governor Theodore Roosevelt in 1886, restoring him to full citizenship.

A pardon for Amato Daniells from Governor Theodore Roosevelt
A pardon for Amato Daniells from Governor Theodore Roosevelt in 1886

Search the Cemeteries

In times past, LGBTQIA+ partners were sometimes buried together. American business owner and writer Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake lived together as a married couple for forty-four years, until Charity’s death in 1851.

The community knew of their relationship and accepted them. Sylvia continued to live in the town until she died in 1868. They are buried together in the town cemetery under a single stone.

If your ancestor is buried with someone of the same gender that they are not related to, it may be that they were in a same-sex relationship.


Search for Your LGBTQIA+ Ancestors

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Michael J. Leclerc, CG, the Genealogy Professor, has been a professional genealogist for more than 25 years, and gay since the day he was born. He enjoys researching the hidden stories of our ancestors. You can find out more about him at www.genprof.net.