Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Unearthing Hidden LGBTQ Stories in Family History Research: The Mirror That Reflects Nothing Back

A warning before you dive in: this is one of those postings about one of my particular interests, tracking family history. And so it may not be of interest to all readers. It's also, however, about the challenge of unearthing buried stories about LGBT relatives, in particular, as we pore over historical records.

A few days ago, I reported on Facebook that, as I was entering data in my family tree about a certain branch of my family, I noticed that a distant cousin of mine who was born in Texas in 1895 and grew up there in a small town, had spent her adult life living in Seattle — and never married. Her body was brought back to Texas to be buried with her family after she died in 1977. Something about the bare facts of this story, as I entered data into my Family Tree Maker files, piqued my curiosity, and I went to the 1940 federal census to see if I could find her there.

I did. I found her living with another woman of her own age, and the other woman listed as her partner. On the same census page, I then saw several similar households of women listed as single, most of them young women, but not all of them, with one woman listed as partner. In one household, there was a woman who was listed as head of the household, with two other women listed as partners.

As I perused these census entries, it struck me as unlikely that the "partner" designation referred to a business arrangement, since my distant cousin and her partner were both stenographers and wouldn't have had any kind of corporation or business related to their work. This finding made me wonder whether, as early as 1940, the federal census — in some parts of the country — was at least unofficially recognizing same-sex couples. 

When I reported this finding to my Facebook friends, several of them made great suggestions for further research about this. I have been following through on their suggestions, thinking, as I do so, As I work on this project, the words of Adrienne Rich, lesbian poet and essayist, have been ringing in my ears. Rich was quoted by Colm Tóibín in a recent essay about how marriage equality supporters in Ireland won their referendum there. Tóibín is also an openly gay novelist. 

Adrienne Rich says that, unlike many minority groups, gay people have often had no history to draw on as we discover who we are and learn to be proud of ourselves and our heritage. This is because, throughout history, there has been such pressure to hide, blend in, disguise ourselves. And so Rich says when we search for our history as gay people, we often find we're looking into a mirror where nothing at all shows back to us — just the empty mirror.

Several of my Facebook friends suggested I look for information about the census enumerator. I've done that, have identified her, a young (25 in 1940) Seattle woman. I also got the idea of using the search engine for the 1940 census in Seattle at Ancestry, and simply entering the location — Seattle, King Co., Washington — and, in the box for "relationship to head of household," the word "partner."

This returns 12 pages of hits, and I find that this term was used by other census enumerators in Seattle in 1940, too — and so perhaps it has some technical meaning that does not imply that the two people listed in this way in a census entry are in a same-sex relationship. If so, I haven't yet discovered that technical meaning.

This I can say, however: the households in which I find this designation used in 1940 in Seattle are always households of people of the same sex living together and both listed as single. It's used for both male households and female households.

In the case of my distant cousin, I've done further sleuthing. I've combed the city directories for Seattle, to the extent they're available at Ancestry, for her name and the name of the other woman listed in 1940 as her partner. Ancestry seems to have Seattle city directories up to 1960.

I find that these two women began living together in the same apartment about 1936, and continue to be together in the same apartment for as long as I can track them using the city directories, up to about 1957. Neither ever married. Both died in Seattle. Sallie's body went back to Texas for burial when she died. I cannot find burial information for Alta.

And that's what I have discovered up to now. It would be very interesting to do a sampling of the other households in which this partner designation occurs in 1940, to see just how many of them continued living together into the future, with neither partner marrying.

As many of you probably know, in the period after WWII, a lot of gay and lesbian folks from the heartland U.S., from small towns and rural communities, did flock to the west coast in order to lead more open lives as gay/lesbian people. In the case of some military people, they had seen for the first time in their lives thriving gay/lesbian communities in San Francisco, as they were sent through there on their way to the eastern front in the war, and they returned to San Francisco after their military service to find a freedom there that they could not find back home.

In researching Steve's family tree, we have already found one such person, who did not make it back from the war, but was killed in Italy during WWII. He had gone from rural Minnesota to California prior to the war, and his niece, who is Steve's cousin and has kindly shared photos and other family documents with him, has given Steve pictures of her uncle and the man with whom he lived for some years prior to his being drafted in wartime, a man whose name they don't recall, except as "the Virginian," the name Steve's cousin's mother wrote on these photos of her handsome, smiling, highly artistic brother and the handsome man with whom he lived in California.

One of the photos shows her brother sitting proudly beside the Virginian in a car with its top down, the brother smartly dressed in a demure navy blue dress, with a fetching scarf tied around his head, and very proper white gloves on. He's waving and smiling to the camera.

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