The Lovely Exceptions

I recently realized while reading a few insightful blog articles that I’ve seen the changes in attitude toward social politics unfold before me just by logging onto my genealogy website.

When I first started researching on Ancestry.com, there was no way for me to enter my spouse as a man and there was no way to enter my father and his siblings into the database without falsely implying that my grandparents were married.

I get it; the family tree is all about procreation. And for a very long time that meant filling out generation after generation of pink and blue boxes. As humans, it’s natural for us to want (need?) that kind of order. For genealogists it’s especially true. There are to-date 2,679 people residing in my family tree. If I’m going to make any headway learning about all of them I need to have some systematized way to organize and research them. I admit in order to jimmy people into my family tree I’ve had to pigeonhole them.

But I realize the danger in that. Genealogists must stay open minded because they “encounter” a huge variety of people. It’s impossible to plug every person into your tree– let alone in the world– into the same set of 10 categories and expect them all to fit perfectly. The genealogy databases must have realized the error in that as well. Most databases have since widened their nets, so to speak, on their categories.

Plus, complying to those given categories cuts off the good stories for which we genealogists are searching. For instance, in the case of omitting my partner from my family tree due to a lack of options, I would be slicing off a loving and enduring relationship to future generations. They also wouldn’t see that they had a gay relative (which I can tell you is important, especially for younger gay relatives). In the case of my grandparents, if I left the “Married” box checked I would be leaving out a whole rich (and long) story to tell of why they never married. Which is a story for another time.

Here’s an every-day example: I had to fill out insurance forms recently. When I got to the marital status part I was at a loss. My marital status was not listed as an option. But filling in the circle next to ‘Single’ felt like an insult to my partner of 13 years. And filling out ‘Married’ felt wrong too. I was an exception.

Let’s face it, sometimes the answers to those form questions are complicated. Race, occupation, religion? And the exceptions we take when answering them are some of what makes us interesting and defines who we are. These personal, lovely exceptions should not be disqualified or marginalized simply because they’re not listed as someone else’s set of options.

This point was reinforced to me when I read Kat’s tender piece Tips for Dealing with My Child (and Me). Obviously, I knew transgendered and intersex folks had parents and siblings and grandparents who loved them and wanted to include them on their family trees. But Kat’s piece drove home the fact that there is no option in most family tree databases for people who do not consider themselves either male or female . The data field requires a check in either box Male or Female.

Not long after I read Kat’s post, another Kat posted a narrative of the day she changed her name: What’s In A Name? I can imagine it’s possible that, for whatever reason, she is entered into her family’s tree with her dead name. But she gives a thoughtful and incisive argument as to why she shouldn’t be. (Note: Some transgendered people prefer she or he. Some opt for the pronoun see, or they. When in doubt, politely ask.)

Having volunteered for years at a GLBTQ Youth Group in the past, I had thought myself well informed on the subject. But after reading these pieces, I realized that I really didn’t know much about the Transgender and Intersex issues of today, such as the vocabulary I’d never heard: cisgendered, cissexism, genderqueer, transphobia.  But these posts made me want to dig deeper into the topic. I watched this informative movie at transjersey.org’s blog to get me up to speed: Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She.

I’m very grateful to all of the bloggers for the reminder that categorizing comes at a cost, and that our exceptions add beauty and truth to our lives.

Advertisements

17 Replies to “The Lovely Exceptions”

  1. Great Post, hitting the spot exactly. Titles are my current bugs in life, why do we have to be defined by them, why do we have to have them, why are there no options to opt out. Loved this thoughtful writing.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this. I loathe labelling and categories. My oldest son has a birth certificate that says ‘Father Unknown’ which makes me want to scream, the insinuation being that I had no idea who his father was, and not that he abandoned me when I was nearly six months pregnant!!
    While I was enjoying this post, I suddenly noticed you had a link to a mad gibraltarian!! I LOVE you!!! You’re so FLUFFY!!! That’s me at my intellectual best!! 😀

  3. I have really enjoyed taking the Blogging 101 with you and have appreciated learning from you. Now that the course is almost over, I will have time to pay more attention to the reader so I can follow more closely!

  4. I read this a couple of days ago and have been wanting to respond. When working on my family’s tree, it never occurred to me to list my sister’s partner as her spouse and I feel ashamed by that oversight. I was always supportive of her being gay (she passed away a couple of years ago), have advocated for gay rights, especially marriage rights, and yet this totally escaped me. I’m amazed at how easy it is to be unthinking and insensitive about another’s feelings and tenets. Thanks so much for writing about it.

  5. Such a thoughtful post. I like to be as accurate and detailed as possible when recording what I learn about my family members. Often the standard boxes for information can’t accurately represent a person and their life. I find in these cases I rely on the note section but even then there are times when I wish I had a little more control. I find it interesting that some genealogists shy away from accurately and honestly documenting a person when that person lived a life contrary to the researcher’s personal values. That attitude makes research so much less interesting. I have my own personal values and beliefs that guide my own personal life but I have a deep love for my family – those I’ve met and those I haven’t – that is completely independent of my own principles. I know that your post is geared more toward gender, sexual orientation, and marital status but I think there are other situations that require thoughtful sensitivity as well. There is such a richness that comes to our tree when we can tell the truth – the whole truth in a thoughtful way without judgement or imposing our own values on others.

  6. A great post, Nate. Thankfully, here in the UK, forms now include ‘civil partnership’ as an option. Before then, I’d always tick the ‘other’ box which made me feel like I’d come from another planet! The story you are telling about looking back at your family tree is fascinating. I’d love to start looking at my family tree one day, maybe once the work on the blogging 101 course comes to an end.

    1. THanks, Hugh! I haven’t noticed an Other option. My state has passed Civil Union laws, so that option is on the forms now. But we’re in this limbo zone called “Domestically Partnered” – a forefather of civil union that existed in 2004. Not exactly married, definitely not single.

  7. Hi! I was surprised (and pleased as punch) to see my post mentioned. Thank you! Filling out forms in any manner is a difficult process for transgender people. And yes, in the case of genealogy, there’s no option for “assigned female at birth, actual gender male.”

    An additional thanks for giving me inspiration for another post!

Tell me about it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s