How to Trace Your LGBTQIA+ Ancestors

8 June 2023

In celebration of June being Pride Month, this blog will explore how to trace your LGBTQIA+ ancestors and help you uncover their fascinating life stories. It’s our job to discover as much as we can and record their stories. To do that, we cannot make assumptions or add our 21st century ideas to their lives. In the last half-century, the Western world has become a more enlightened place for those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community but we still have further to go. Our ancestors were not met with the same level of open-mindedness or acceptance, leading them to live hidden lives. This makes discovering their stories a little more difficult, but not impossible.

Look for Personal Accounts

Start looking close to home. Personal letters and diaries are the ultimate source for understanding your ancestor’s lives. However, be carful when deciphering the meaning of these letters as they can mean a relationship between two people, but women of the 19th century were known to have passionate friendships and wrote what we would deem today as love letters.

In 2008, a curator from a local museum in Oswestry, Shropshire, bought a series of love letters between two soldiers who were serving in the Second World War. At this time, homosexuality in Britain was criminalised and disclosing their relationship would have resulted in court-martial. One of the letters stated:

“Do one thing for me in deadly seriousness. I want all my letters destroyed. Please darling, do this for me. ‘Til then and forever I worship you”.

Luckily for us, the letters weren’t destroyed and allow us an insight into these men’s lives. One of the most poignant lines in the letters is:

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our letters could be published in the future in a more enlightened time. Then all the world could see how in love we are”.

LGBTQIA+ love letters

Check old Newspapers and Court Records

If you want to understand the life your ancestor led, it is essential to understand the laws and customs in their life. Gay men were criminalised in Britain until 1967. Lesbians did not face the same type of criminalisation but were discriminated against in other ways. For example, in cases of divorce, fathers would often receive full custody of their children since lesbianism was often viewed as a disorder.

Since homosexual acts were criminalised, there is a chance that you may find your ancestor in a court record or in the newspapers. People were arrested for being gay and were often tried on criminal charges. If they were charged, then the court records could lead you to prison records.

Additionally, newspapers in the past were very gossipy. Gay establishments were frequently raided, and the names of those arrested would often be published in the paper. Newspapers would also publish stories for those appearing in court, not specifically for sodomy or gross indecency, but instead for libel or defamation charges.

It was also common for newspapers to include stories of transgender individuals. For example, the surgery of a former GI in New York named Charlotte McLeod made news in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1955.

Check Their Wills

The wills created by LGBTQIA+ people can reveal a lot about their relationships and chosen families. For many of our LGBTQIA+ ancestors, to live an open life, they had to leave home and start a new network of allies, friends, and chosen families. This is often exposed in their wills by who they choose to leave their possessions to.

LGBTQIA+ ancestors census record

Relationship to the Head of the Household

Census records are an amazing source for tracking long-term relationships, but the residents in a household were not always open about their relationship status. However, it is fascinating to look at how they do represent themselves under the watchful eye of the enumerator. If you have further information about your ancestors’ lives, then with some detective work, you may be able to decipher their relationships.

Watch Out For ‘Missing Records’

If your ancestor’s records appear to be missing, that can tell you just as much as finding their records. Throughout history, many families have tried to hide any evidence that their relative was part of the LGBTQIA+ community through a process of denial. This often leads to the destruction of family records and personal effects. If your family was known to keep photos, documents, and heirlooms, but nothing exists for one person, then it’s time to ask questions.

Check Occupations

As LGBTQIA+ people often had to hide who they were to avoid prosecution, working in occupations where being single was either expected or common was an easy place to hide and avoid questions.

Teachers, especially female teachers, were frequently expected to be unmarried. The same was true for female business owners as married women had limited rights. Priests and members of some religious orders (like Catholic nuns and brothers) were required to be single. It was also unsurprising for those involved in the arts, such as actors, musicians, and playwrights, to also be unmarried.


Search the Cemeteries

In the past, LGTBQIA+ partners were sometimes buried together. For example, American business owner and writer, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, lived together as a married couple for 44 years until Charity’s death in 1851. The community knew about 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. So, keep an eye our for your ancestor being buried with someone of the same gender that they are not related to.

Research the Local LGBTQIA+ History

If your LGTBQIA+ ancestor lived in a specific location, research the local history. Look for community organisations, historical societies, or archives that may have information about queer life in that area. Attend local events or connect with LGBTQIA+ individuals in the area to learn more about the community and its history. This can give you a better understanding of the context in which your ancestor lived and may provide additional clues to their experiences.

Pride Flag

The following is a few online resources to aid you in tracing your LGBTQIS+ ancestors:

I will finish off with a few quick tips when tracing your LGBTQIA+ ancestors:

  • Never assume, generalise, or stereotype
  • Use every resource around you
  • Explore local history
  • Sometimes official records can reveal subtle clues
  • Your LGBTQIA+ ancestor may have assumed a new name or used a nickname among their friends
  • Add same-sex relationships to your online family tree

In conclusion, even though your LGBTQIA+ ancestors may not have been accepted by wider society, they may still have experienced lives full of love and have been embraced by their social circles. There is a long history of private clubs, societies, and public houses that offered a safe haven for LGTBQIA+ people. For this reason, it’s so important to understand the local history of the area your ancestor lived. Was it known to be a progressive area? Is there evidence of activism or known clubs or societies in the area? Explore sources outside of the traditional genealogy records to get the fullest, most vibrant picture.

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