May 29, 2014

My Gay Family Tree

When I was in grad school in Bloomington, I became interested in family history -- not just my grandparents and uncles and aunts, but generations of Jacksons, Howards, Hicks, Allens, Praters, and Youngs.  Thanks to the internet and my Cousin Eva, I now have a list of over 2000 ancestors from England, Ireland, France, Prussia, Switzerland, and the Cherokee Nation, extending back to the Middle Ages.

2000 people were born, married, had children, and died.

2000 people are remembered for their heterosexual acts.

My  great-great-great-great grandfather William Allen (1783-1854) grew up in Virginia, then settled on the "frontier" of eastern Kentucky, where he married Caty Gearheart and had fifteen children.

Another  great-great-great-great grandfather, Robert Hicks (1680-1718), was born in Dutch New York, moved to the Chowan River of North Carolina, settled among the Cherokees, married, and had a son, all before his nineteenth birthday.

My  great-great-great-great-etc. grandmother Margaret de Umfreville (1397-1444), was born in Castle Harbottle, Northumberland, England. While still a teenager, she married William Lodington, an elderly judge. He died a few years later, and she immediately married a younger man, Sir John Constable.

But were my ancestors necessarily heterosexual, simply because they engaged in heterosexual acts?

Maybe William Allen had many children due to prudence, not passion: you need a lot of kids to help you on a frontier farm.

Maybe Robert Hicks got married to ensure the goodwill of his adopted tribe, not because he was in love, or attracted to women at all.

Maybe Margaret de Umfreville married her second husband so quickly because women in Medieval England could not inherit property, and she needed the financial security.

Did these ancestors seek out same-sex lovers? Or forge intense, passionate bonds with life-long friends? The record  doesn't say.

My great grandfather William Henry Jackson (1839-1910), called "Small Bill" because he was only 5'3", moved from New York to Indiana at the age of 21, accompanied by a young man named Alvin Mooney.

But there is no mention of Alvin Mooney again, through William's long life.  What happened to him? Did he and Small Bill share a friendship, a romance, or something in between, a “romantic friendship”?  Did they ever hold hands, or kiss?  In the early years of the new century, did they sit side-by-side on rocking chairs on the porch of Small Bill’s farmhouse, and talk about old times, and smile?

I don't know. Whatever bond they had is lost.

What of those great-uncles and great-aunts, the brothers and sisters of my ancestors, who never married in spite of the social pressure and economic necessity?

Like Nicholas Prater (1553-1589), who was born at Latton Manor, Wiltshire, England, but moved to London during his teens. He never married.  In 1588, he suddenly moved back to Wiltshire, where he died at his brother's house.

As an aristocratic man-about-town, he certainly attended the theater, so he might have known gay playwright Christopher Marlowe, a bisexual actor named William Shakespeare, and many other actors, poets, and ordinary people who sought out same sex loves in the relatively open Elizabethan society.

Was he gay?

Or did he spend his entire 36 years on Earth bedding ladies?

There is no way to know.

See also: Was My Grandfather Gay?

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