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    We in the LGBT Community Have Two Kinds of Family

    zoeLike most people I know, I don’t have a family “tree” per se—it seems like more of a family vine. Lots of grafting, transplanting, dead branches and new shoots. I have half-siblings, a step-grandfather and a recently born half-grandniece.

    I recently subscribed to an online genealogy service and started snooping into my family history. You see, my mother passed away when I was eighteen, and my father came down with Alzheimer’s disease a few years later. I knew a few snippets and had a handful of family photos, but I didn’t know reality vs. rumor. I thought I’d spend just a couple hours looking online for evidence of my family’s origins. I was wrong.

    I’m not sure if you’ve even been sucked in by these websites, but I soon became addicted. You enter whatever tiny crumbs of information you know—“my maternal grandmother’s name was Marie Ihlenfeldt, she lived in Mayville, WI, and died around 1975” and the site searches for possible matches. A little green leaf appears, shaking, to let you know they have a possible match. You click on it and, lo and behold…

    We have a social security death record for a Marie Ihlenfeldt.

    Is it your grandmother, or someone else?

    “Yes, it’s her!”

    You add that record to her profile and another leaf appears.

    We may have the name of her parents!

    “You do? Let me see! Is that them? No, I didn’t think they were born in Germany. Or were they? Tell me more about them!”

    And so it goes.

    Those little shaking leaves are, well, unshakeable. It’s like solving a complex murder mystery. Every hint begets another question, which begets another clue, which prompts more questions. Next thing you know, you’ve spent five hours in your chair without moving. My Fitbit (fitness tracker) made sure I knew that. But you can’t help it.

    Comments your parents made years ago suddenly have context when you start filling in the blanks. For example, my mother wasn’t overly involved in helping me select which courses I should take in high school. She was only adamant about one thing: I had to take a year of typing. Her explanation? “I want you to have a vocational skill so you won’t ever be dependent on a man for an income.” (Little did she know!)

    Now, let’s set aside for the moment her modest expectations for me. It seemed an odd request, but I complied and have to say the advice seems visionary now. She had no idea the humming IBM Selectric I used in class would make way for computer keyboards, but it has certainly proved useful as I touch type away at work and writing this column.

    Back to this whole genealogy obsession. I discovered that my mother’s father was nowhere to be found when the 1930 Census came knocking at her door. Growing up, she told me he had abandoned their family when the stock market crashed in 1929 (my mom was six). I also discovered he and his mother (my great-grandmother) were abandoned by his father (my great grandfather) when he was 2 years old, never to be seen again. This might explain my mom’s distrust of men sticking around, and fueled her need for us daughters to become independent, like her.

    This was just one of many discoveries I made in my hours of genealogy research. Why am I sharing all of this with you? I guess part of it is nostalgia, but it is also a recognition that we in the LGBT community have two kinds of family—the family we are given and the family we choose. They both play an important role. Some in our community are well embraced by their biological family, while others have been completely rejected and disowned. I am fortunate to have a very supportive immediate family and I can’t imagine being who I am without my sisters. They give me a sense of place in the world. But they are not my only family.

    When I served in the Navy, I felt my shipmates were a family to me; we looked out for one another. And when I came out publicly as a lesbian to the military in 1993 and faced discharge—in a way becoming disowned by that family—it was the LGBT community who embraced and supported me.  Several organizations stepped up and helped me in both my legal and personal battle to stay in the service: NGLTF, HRC, SLDN, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), to name a few.

    I vividly remember meeting NCLR’s young, energetic Executive Director, Kate Kendell. She and her staff helped publicize my case and advised on our legal strategy. NCLR is far and away one of the most effective LGBT non-profits, with a winning combination of front line legal services, class action litigation, and cutting edge policy work. As the NCLR Anniversary Celebration takes place this weekend in San Francisco, I want to acknowledge how proud I am to be a member of their family. They may not show up in my ancestral vineyard, or generate a shaking leaf, but they were there for me and are family to me. I can’t wait to celebrate with all my distant cousins this weekend. I hope to see you there!

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She currently serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and is Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club.