Trans-forming the Family Tree


You’ve finally gotten your 2nd, 3rd, maybe even 4th generation family tree completed, because everyone is currently living or you’ve been there for someone’s death, and ordered that massive canvas wall print to give as a gift to everyone during the holidays.

Then you get a Facebook friend request from someone who shares a family surname and you figure, oh it’s just a distant cousin by marriage. Then you click on the person’s page. There’s something very recognizable about the person’s picture, although you think she’s a celebrity, so why is she contacting you?

And then, it hits you like a ton of bricks, but oddly at the same time as if those bricks then become light bulbs, and everything made sense… Cousin Brian is now cousin Bree.

This is precisely how I and several other family members were introduced to our transgender (male to female) cousin.

The last time I saw my cousin as Brian, it was almost 2 years ago. Before that, I believe it was 1993 at a family reunion. The time in between was painted like this is my mind: Brian was a successful, intelligent, and dedicated businessman, had a wonderful family with 2 kids, and enjoyed time with friends. I always found him to be off the radar though, which I assumed was because he was tireless in his business as CEO and providing for his family. Our paths sometimes crossed through email and centered on our family’s history. We are second cousins; our grandmothers were sisters. He had started documenting the tree long before I had, and in collaboration with my mom. Once I got the genealogy bug, we stayed in touch on things as they related to our family.

We had such a nice visit 2 years ago when Brian was in my neck of the woods at a conference. My mom traveled up to see him too. It was a warm, fun visit, full of laughter. I remember when we parted; I wished I had known him better as I was growing up because I really enjoyed him as a person.

Today, it’s as if I’ve gained the relationship I had longed for then. Bree is the same sweet soul inside, and is absolutely on the radar now with a very active Facebook page and social life to fuel it. She’s also sold her former company and has more time to spend catching up now as well as documenting her physical transformation from male to female. We had a near 4-hour marathon conversation shortly after I accepted that friend request. I already love my new and improved cousin!

So now that the family has met Bree, either in person or virtually, there’s no difference to her being an important part of our family. This post is not to be filled with the particulars of our family journey or hers, but to create a discussion about how to respectfully address these new members on our trees. We need to because it is so relevant to genealogy, family history, and prevalent in our society.

If you don’t yet know of a transgender relative, it won’t be long before you’ll be making updates to your tree! Some prevalence data might surprise you.

As a genealogist, I want to get this right and respectfully handle the update or entry of a transgender family member on the tree. I’ve seen random bits of input from many in genealogy forums, however it’s from the genealogist’s perspective, not the transgender person.

I’ve never heard that sharing this deeply physiological and emotional information with the world is an easy one. Many transgender people just want to “blend in” and not draw attention. Some are visible advocates for the population. And often when the transition is complete, it’s not a mere name change update on the family tree putting down “aka”, or “formerly known as” and picking the opposite gender silhouette.

This process isn’t frivolous or a trend and there is a wealth of thought and emotion that are entwined with the transition process, which in itself has varying degrees.

Transgender people have to go to great lengths just “to be me”. Birth certificate, social security, drivers license, passports, taxes, all require significant documentation to be changed and some states/countries do not allow it. If you’ve been married and changed your name, you already know the cumbersome process, now multiply it by 100.

Once the name change is complete, it becomes a “dead name” in the transgender mind. Just as families may feel the experience is like death, in losing the person you once knew, it’s also a right of passage for this new and true being to emerge. On public trees, transgender people want to be seen as who they are, not who they were.

This poses great challenges to us genealogists, as future generations won’t have the paper trail to follow while using the new name. It also becomes confusing on a tree as those who were/are married may appear as if in a homosexual relationship which is now commonplace in society. If they had children, it would be as if the children had two moms or dads.

Another challenge to getting this right is the limitations of the major family tree software companies and organizations. There’s no transgender option to choose. I dare say, there may never be. Two major players in this space, and are Mormon-run. To get over this Granite Mountain sized hurdle, they would have to agree to accept transgender as an option.

Without delving further into the religious aspects of this, in the meantime we need to work around this to do our best to leave a breadcrumb trail in history from the person of today to the person who biologically arrived on this earth in the past. I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping we can start the dialogue and gain ideas that truly transform the family tree.

Silhouettes with flag

“God will forgive me, won’t he?”


These were some of the last words spoken by Sister Mary Jude as we said our goodbyes.

This Memorial Day weekend was spent making a pilgrimage of sorts to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary. It was Sister Mary Jude’s 50th Golden Jubilee of her Profession as a cloistered Dominican nun. It’s not often one gets a glimpse of this contemplative and prayerful life behind the monastery walls and when invited to share in this special day, I didn’t think twice. So with my mother and five year old daughter in tow, we flew to Buffalo, NY.

I had been there before, 25 years earlier for the Silver Jubilee and my first time before that was in the early 80s with my mom and grandmother. I wanted to keep with that “tradition” and share the experience with my own daughter. Those that know me well as non-religious found it hard to believe this was such a big deal to me. Why would I be canceling my trip to Vegas in favor of hanging with cloistered nuns in a monastery? What’s the draw?

My answer, Sister Mary Jude is my Great Aunt Terry. She is my maternal grandmother’s sister and in her days on the outside lived life to its fullest. She was known as daring, free-spirited, beautiful and stylish and with the voice of an angel. She sang in her Uncle’s band and always made time to visit the children at each of her sisters’ homes. She was also engaged to be married before she received her calling.

Since 1961 she’s been a different kind of sister, but hasn’t lost her spunk. She still keeps the other nuns on their toes and is still quick to enjoy the finer things in life, situation permitting, or fitting should I say.

When we told her she accepted communion but did not partake of the wine, she seemed disappointed in herself and was sure she would make it up with two sips next time. Our cousin came to the rescue and brought a water bottle filled with remnants of strawberry and mango Arbor Mist. A quick spin of the turnstile and it was in the grateful hands of Sister Mary Jude. Time and prayer has affected her ability to raise her head very well at the ripe age of 86 but damned if she didn’t throw that sip of wine back in a hurry. She joked it was no problem to raise her head when she needed to.

Once during our conversation she had also honed in on my daughter who was sitting at the table quietly coloring in one of the religious coloring books offered there. My daughter was also snacking. “What’s she eating?” my Aunt Terry asked.

In an instant we were also introducing her to Pirate Booty. Enter Sister Mary Emmanuel who has been in just a bit longer than Aunt Terry, having entered when she was 18. She’s the perfect compliment to Aunt Terry and you can tell they enjoy each other’s company. We introduced her to Pirate Booty as well…and then the iPad.

Both were amazed by the technology and ability to see the rest of the family members in an instant. Sister Emmanuel got the finger swipe mastered in all of 2 seconds and I sat there just caught in the emotional moment of my littlest daughter on the other side of the cloister grill work in the loving hand of Great Great Aunt Terry (to her anyway). The joy it brought to both sisters was so heart warming and I started to get the idea that all of the nuns should have their own iPads. But then again, that kinda goes against why they are there in the first place.

At the end of the visit for the day, it was just my mom, my daughter and me and even Aunt Terry was finally alone on the other side. We were all having a hard time letting go. At our urging, we proposed the sneaky idea of her coming out of the cloister door to say a physical goodbye. She had done it only once before that we were aware of. It seemed to take forever to unlock and open the door, but once it opened we all wasted no time in getting huge hugs and kisses with Aunt Terry. Before she hugged us she said with a twinkle in her eye, “God will forgive me, won’t he?”.ImageImageImage

Yes Aunt Terry, I think for you, he will forgive this moment and by the way your huge shipment of Pirate Booty is on the way to the monastery. Love you.