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How Marriage Equality Changes Your Genealogy

wedding rings

wedding rings

The short answer: The same way it changes your marriage, if you already have one. It doesn’t.

The long answer:  With today’s historic ruling by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, there will indeed be some changes in the social fabric of this country. Some would say the changes are overdue and long-awaited improvements while others say such changes will lead to the demise and destruction of everything from day to day activities, to religious institutions, and to one’s personal freedoms.

The reality is that the changes occurred long ago, just like the changes in genealogy.  You just may not have noticed them. And rather than being changes instituted through practice and custom, some changes will now be mandated by law.

The Quick and Dirty Impact on Genealogy

So what do I mean when I say there’s no change in genealogy? The truth is that for the past several years, most genealogy software has allowed you, the user, the freedom of designating same-sex marriages, partnerships, etc. as you see fit. Or you could even display opposite sex relationships formed without the sanctity of a ceremony or legalized through a license.  This capability is not new.

What also isn’t new is that men and women have been forming different types of relationships “outside the norm” for centuries.  If you are willing to dig deep enough, as I’ve written before, you might be surprised by what you find in your own family try.

For some of us, when we research our families, we formulate what we know to be true already and won’t even accept any aberration outside of those expectations. We limit ourselves and our research in doing so. Your opinions on marriage equality (or any past or present practice such as polygamy, bigamy, murder, slavery, incest, etc.) really don’t matter.  Your task is to find the facts, prove them and then determine how they figure into your family history.  No one said anything about “liking” what your ancestors did or agreeing with those practices.  It simply is what it is.

What Will Change: Marriage Records and Other Records

But again, for some states in the United States, this is not a new change.  Going forward for some states, future researchers (100+ years from now and depending upon the records access laws in the future) will encounter marriage licenses and yes, divorce records, listing two men or two women.  Some Federal tax records filed after 2014 will list same-sex couples.

Will church records change? That depends upon the denomination and whether they allow ceremonies that sanctify a legal same-sex marriage. Contrary to a wide array of misinformation currently being shared, no religious institution will be “forced” to perform any type of marriage ceremony against their will.  As it is in many European countries, there will be a civil procedure and form for marriage and others designated by religious institutions that sanctify marriage.

Keep Calm and Just Research

What will future generations think of all of this attention to marriage 100 or 200 years from now? What records will they be able to access and will the records tell the real story about the changes to marriage laws in the early 21st century?

One way you can contribute to the story is to document what has transpired today, even if you don’t agree with the Supreme Court’s rulings. Write down your thoughts and preserve them for posterity.

And while you are at it, realize that genealogy hasn’t changed nor has the way we research our ancestors. We still seek the true facts of the generations before us, just like our great-great grandchildren will do years from now.

* * *

If you haven’t already read between the lines, and genealogists are good at that, I’m a self-identified gay man and I welcome this new mantle of equality (when it is available here in Illinois).  I may or may not exercise my right to marry whom I choose, but I’m glad the option is there.

And as for comments, I’m a pretty fearless guy: they are open and I ask that you keep them civil.  I’m an adult and I expect you to be one as well.  If you follow me in the genealogy world, you already know that open and honest dialog means the world to me and I am willing to take the time to not only dig your comment out of the 200+ spam comments I get here each day (if your comment winds up there), but I may even answer back.

 ©2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee


7 thoughts on “How Marriage Equality Changes Your Genealogy

  1. To be honest, I’m just happy about today’s decisions and could care less about their intersection with genealogy. (I don’t mean that as a slam on your post…just that I’m happy)

  2. Thank you for the excellent commentary and insight,Thomas. Whatever our personal thoughts and reactions might be, as genealogists I hope we all rejoice about the number of official records that will be created.

  3. Thomas, it is always a pleasure to read your excellent “take” on important issues that may impact genealogy – and society – today and in the future.

  4. First off, I’m also quite pleased with the ruling, so congratulations. 🙂

    Second, I admit I had wondered how this would impact current genealogy software, especially since much of it is church-based through the LDS. I use their free site FamilySearch instead of Ancestry (I’m cheap), and I don’t believe it permits the creation of same-sex couples. I imagine it will have to if they wish for their database to remain as extensive as possible for their own uses through making it freely available to others. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.

  5. Thomas: This is an EXCELLENT post eloquently and elegantly stated. I especially like this quote from your post and absolutely agree with it! “Your opinions on marriage equality (or any past or present practice such as polygamy, bigamy, murder, slavery, incest, etc.) really don’t matter. Your task is to find the facts, prove them and then determine how they figure into your family history. No one said anything about ‘liking’ what your ancestors did or agreeing with those practices. It simply is what it is.”

    This having been said, I also want to note that I think yesterday’s decision was positively historic. Five Justices did the right thing and demonstrated profiles in courage; but then again, if they did anything else other than go all the way instead of just these major steps forward, they would have created a 21st Century “Dred Scott Court” that would be viewed very shortly in the same way as the Court that decided Dred Scott in 1857 (finding African Americans were NOT citizens and that the federal government could not regulate slavery!).

    Judy Russell had a nice post on this at The Legal Genealogist. All I could do at Filiopietism Prism was post her Red, White and Blue equality image and link to her post. My single contribution was the post title that ran into the image caption — “We Begin Today To Make These Truths Self-Evident, That All Men and Women Are Created Equal . . . And That They Are Endowed By Their Creator With Certain Unalienable Rights, That Among These Are Life, Liberty, and THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS!”

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