Monday, January 15, 2018

I am President of the California Genealogical Society

This past Saturday (January 13), I was elected President of the California Genealogical Society, now it its 120th year. 

This is both amazing, and unremarkable, at the same time.

During our annual meeting, we focused on the "great 8s": founded in 1898, focusing on our eight great-grandparents, here in 2018.

When CGS was founded, genealogy was largely a hobby of the affluent, who wanted to prove their noble bloodlines. Charlatans arose to swindle the nouveaux riches with bogus pedigrees. Those who took genealogy seriously saw the need to maintain rigorous standards based upon verified research, and created genealogical societies to support these efforts.

Genealogy has changed so much over the past 120 years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) made resources freely (or inexpensively) available to people around the world to trace their ancestors lives. Television shows like Roots popularized the notion that our family history could be important for ordinary folk - even the most marginalized, even people who weren't white. Inexpensive computer tools, websites, and eventually genetic tests helped people who wanted to ground themselves in a past and a place in a society where people moved frequently, were often rootless, and didn't feel like a part of something greater. Genealogy became one of the most popular "hobbies" in the U.S.

I am representative of these newer genealogists, and so unlike the traditional ones.

My own great-grandparents back in 1898 were nowhere near California, nor where they the class of people from whom the original members descended.

In 1898, my father's grandparents had not yet emigrated to the U.S., but were living in what is now Poland but was then the Russian Empire. His fathers people were skilled craftsmen, and his mother's family were farmers.

My mother's paternal grandfather, James Brady, who came to the U.S. from England as a child, was serving in the Spanish-American war. He would later be wounded, be denied a disability pension due to a pre-existing condition, and would die during the great Influenza epidemic in 1918. His future wife, Alice Waters, was still a teenager living with her parents in Manhattan. 

My mother's maternal grandparents were new U.S. citizens, having emigrated from what is now Poland in the 1890s, but then was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, living in a small coal mining village in Pennsylvania.

There is no affluence in my background - I am descended from hard working laborers, craftsmen and engineers who designed machines and built cities, both with their own hands and with the tools they mastered.

In that sense, I am not the sort of person who traditionally leads genealogical organizations. Blue collar, not blue blood.

Furthermore, I am a post-operative transsexual woman legally married to a woman - it is likely that I am the first openly transgender head of a major genealogical organization. 

My first (ex) spouse now legally identifies as "non-binary": neither male nor female. This wasn't even a legal option when I joined CGS.

The founders of CGS would not recognize my family history. Indeed, the software that exists on the market today doesn't recognize my family. And I am not alone.

We now increasingly realize that in the past, families and relationships were far more complex than we dared speak in public. Today, we live very different lives. 

CGS stands on the bridge between the past and the future of something we have taken for granted: how we view and report the past, and the histories, the realities, of our families. And CGS is and shall remain a leader in moving us into that new future, with a diverse, inclusive leadership dedicated to the highest quality genealogy.

I have been a leader in CGS pushing for strategic planning because of this evolution, and thus it is natural that I become President. In that sense, my election is unremarkable.

In another 120 years, people will look back on us today so very differently than we view ourselves. Perhaps they will find us rigid and old-fashioned, or they will have moved in some direction that we cannot imagine.

I believe that knowing where we came from is important to understanding who we are, and where we are going. It grounds us in the past, and places us in the present. We can embrace with pride the good of our roots, and repudiate the bad. We can recognize how blessed and cursed we all are by those who came before us, which I think is important to coming to peace with it. 

One thing I do know - times will change. I am dedicated to helping CGS keep up with that change. And I am so glad that I am not alone moving forward, but with an amazing team of dedicated leaders of a talented organization of dedicated seekers of their roots.

We are grounded in the past and spreading upwards to the future.