Monday, May 25, 2015

Reflecting gender in a family tree

Gender is an important part of life stories. An individual’s gender history can impact their relationships with their parents and siblings. It can also affect the person (or people) they marry and whether and how they come to be parents. This information is not always private; it can become part of family history.

As the amount of online genealogical data grows and as technology improves for creating family trees, new and more flexible ways of representing gender may arise.

Deciding what story to tell

Some genealogists maintain a “purist” position that a family tree should properly dedicate itself to outlining biological relationships. Within this approach, each individual on the tree will have one mother and one father – the people who contributed their DNA to form that person.

This approach poses problems for many people’s family stories. First of all, it does not reflect the reality and significance of adoption. One solution is to draw both family trees for the adoptee: the birth family and the adoptive family. If space permits, both trees can be drawn on the same page using different colors or backgrounds. This is often presented as a “roots and branches” visual design for young adopted children who are drawing their own family tree. With the child in the heart of the tree trunk, the birth family members are the “roots” of the tree and the adoptive family members are the “branches.”

A different problem (or, perhaps, opportunity) exists for people who claim more than one gender role over their lifetimes, and especially for those who have children, whether biologically or through adoption. How does one decide whether the indicate the person’s role as “daughter” or “son,” “wife” or “husband,” and especially as “mother” or “father,” where the person may have filled multiple roles at different times?

A blanket rule always to label a person’s sex in some particular way – whether based upon their birth sex, their surgically reassigned sex, the gender in which they spent the majority of their life, the gender on their marriage certificate(s), the way in which they contributed DNA to one or more children, or the “Mama” or “Papa” name by which their children called them – is a kind of stereotype and assumption that is no more proper or accurate within a family tree than it is in any other sphere of life. What is most relevant for one person may not be as important for another. The information in all of these spheres together may not present the individual consistently as one sex or the other, and even if it does, the person may have a different story to tell.

If the person is alive, they can, of course, be asked for their preference about the name and gender they want to use in the family tree. The document may be shared within the family or eventually stored as a publicly accessible record, so it is important to honor the lives of the people mentioned within it, which most likely means representing their gender as they would choose to represent it themselves.

Go back enough generations, on the other hand, and all of the ancestors are deceased. These people cannot be asked for their opinion, so the researcher must make a determination about how to present them.

One person whose life story poses such a question about gender representation is Deborah Samson, an American female who disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtliff to fight in the Revolutionary War, and later returned to live as a woman, marrying a man and bearing children. (Her story is told in the recent novel Revolutionary by Alex Myers.) When faced with a real-life character like this, one must determine how to present their story. Other genealogists might find a relationship to a castrated man who may have held third-gender social status (whether he appreciated it or not) in places like China, India, Turkey or Italy. Again, there is a challenge in deciding how to present the family story.

Online tools

Once the researcher is ready to make a declaration about an individual’s gender, whether it is provisional or final, the next steps will be limited by what the medium allows. Most people today who draw up their family trees will do so on a computer. Each program has a different way of capturing and displaying gender.


One of the largest genealogy sites on the Internet today is Ancestry ( Users can make multiple family trees and optionally make the information available to share with other users. Their trees may be for their own families or for unrelated people in whom they have a research interest. Within the family tree, each individual has a profile that can contain multiple photographs or portraits and other media files. People without photographs are represented as white silhouettes. There are three gender options, which control the default silhouette: “male,” side-facing with short hair on a light blue background; “female,” side-facing with slightly longer, wavy hair on a light pink background; and “unknown,” facing straight ahead, bald in appearance, on a light gray background. The system asks for “Last name” before the gender is assigned. After it is assigned, the same field is called “Surname” for males and people of unknown gender, and “Maiden name” for females.

While Ancestry requires that one of these three gender options be selected for each person in a family tree, it does not restrict marriage or parent-child relationships based on the gender of the individuals involved. Users can also make a “custom” event on the individual’s timeline and label it however they please. This has the potential to be used for gender transition markers, as one example.

Find a Grave

Another large website is Find a Grave ( which allows users to create “memorial pages” devoted to individual graves, organized by cemetery. Find a Grave is technologically much simpler than, but it has become a large resource because of the sheer amount of information that volunteer users have placed on the site for over 120 million graves as of 2015.

On a memorial page, the deceased individual may be assigned a first, middle, and last name, along with a nickname (which will appear in quotation marks) and a maiden name (which will display in italics), plus a prefix (Mrs., Sir, etc.) and a suffix (Jr., Sr., etc.). The nickname and maiden name fields may be co-opted for a person who had multiple names in multiple gender roles, if those names are relevant to that person’s life story, of course. Multiple images can be uploaded. These are usually photographs of the gravestone but can be photographs of the individual during life.

A optional section called “Family links” connects the memorial pages of immediate family members. The options are “Father,” “Mother,” and “Spouse” (along with “Year Married”). Multiple spouses can be added. It is only in the designation of “Father” and “Mother” that binary gender is relevant on Find a Grave. There is no pink and blue color-coding as on Ancestry, and Find a Grave can display a biographical text paragraph on the front of the memorial page without making the user “drill down” into sub-pages for that information.

What will users imagine next?

Some users’ ideas may be more creative – or simply more accurate – than existing software will allow them to input into the system. Genealogical work is highly collaborative, so it is likely that new conventions will emerge and that new technologies will be introduced to accommodate them.

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