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

Judging A Family Tree By Its Cover



Out of my blog hiatus I come to tackle an important topic that I’ve seen on many message boards. My hiatus and this topic are closely entwined. Hopefully this reaches many people and changes their hearts about why people do DNA testing on and then either don’t connect their results to a family tree, have very few people on their tree, or keep their trees private.

My hiatus was the outcome of getting a DNA test back on a family member that turned out to be half related to me. The detective in me focused every bit of spare time and effort to figuring out this mystery; I’m still in the midst of it.

I began with a shared DNA match to this family member and then viewed that person’s tree, created a mirror tree from that info, and made it a private tree. Then I found another match, added that branch to the mirror tree, and so on…. I currently have about 10 matches and their direct ancestor line created on this huge 1000+-person tree now. I’ve compared centimorgans across these matches and determined how people relate to each other. I’ve scoured obituaries to add as many living descendants as possible. This is in part, an effort to place my family member on the right leaf of this tree. Due to the highly sensitive nature of my work, I made the tree private and access by invitation only.

Of course as I found close matches, I was hungry to see their tree to confirm theories of shared common ancestors. More often than not, I was met with no tree attached to the DNA match result, a tree of just a few folks and they were showing as “Private”, and trees that were entirely made private. I’ve shared the frustration like most people on the message boards and Facebook pages. Why do the DNA test if you’re not willing to attach a tree or make it public so you can connect to relatives?

What I’ve learned throughout this 4-month hiatus is that people are taking the Ancestry DNA test for many reasons. Some have learned they were adopted and want to know who their long lost family members are. Some were never told the correct birth parent and their birth parent never knew they existed. Some people simply want to know their ethnicity and aren’t interested in their family tree. Some have taken the DNA test to help others who are on the hunt for family and either they relate to them or sadly they don’t; the result just sits there on Ancestry. Some don’t know how to connect their results to their tree yet, plain and simple. Some people want to have zero of their personal information floating in cyberspace. There are many reasons, both profound and simple, given the intricate nature of families.

I didn’t realize this blogging hiatus would become one of my greatest purposes as a professional genealogist. Because of this personal family pursuit, I’m getting close to finding a birth mother for one person, and on the trail to find two other birth fathers for matches. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing when we can collaborate and share what we know, but it’s important to realize and respect those who don’t share the same purpose. I encourage everyone when they see that lock on the tree or no tree at all, to contact that person in a gracious way and see what happens; try not to judge a family tree by its cover.

Have State Archives, Will Not Travel


Most of us into genealogy, religiously watch TV episodes like Who Do You Think You Are and Following Your Roots. We all get a charge when {insert celebrity name here} walks triumphantly up the stairs to a state archives building with hopes of uncovering new information in their ancestral quest. These buildings themselves are often quite majestic and full of rich history.

But when you’re immersed in assisting a client with their family research, it all seems so grandiose to propose going to the state archives to research and hopefully retrieve juicy documents relevant to the research. If you’ve got all of the time and money in the world and love to visit on your own, fantastic! But as an efficient genealogist and steward of my client’s funds, I approach the work strategically.

I am an hour away from my state archives building so there’s mileage, my hourly rate, parking fees, research time there locating records, copying records (as permissible) or taking copious notes. It just doesn’t make sense to me to do all of that without a strong sense that the records will produce what clues I am looking for. Granted, some records are only available if you visit, as photocopying might be prohibited but I consider it one of my last resorts after exhausting other research paths.

My latest client would most likely agree that this approach was well worth the time and money, as I have ordered what will amount to roughly 400 photocopies, through the state archives online portal from the comfort of my home office. They will be shipped to me and I didn’t have to look up, look for, or photocopy all of these documents. Delegation! Price tag, $98.20.

Time that my clients pay preciously for, should provide a return on research investment from using resources effectively, and give the most bang for the buck.

Only drawback so far is waiting up to 10 business days for the near ream of paper to arrive. Ah, the life of the impatient genealogist.