One of the more amusing family stories I sometimes tell is about a relative of mine, a few generations back, who moved in with another man after his wife died.

Ooh, everybody goes. Salacious family gossip!

Except the little town they moved to was actually Lily Dale Assembly, in upstate New York, which so far as I know is still one of the oldest continually running Spiritualist communes in the United States. Harry and Edward moved up there so that Edward, ex-model and former elder in the Presbyterian church, could start on what I think was his third career as a spirit medium. He channeled the spirit of an Edwardian actress named Lillie Langtry, also known as "the Jersey Rose".

At this point, the whole 'shacked up with his boyfriend' thing has become the least interesting part of the story, and people begin to look at me funny.

My parents fucked things up in many respects, several of them so egregious that I haven't spoken to them in years, but I want to give credit where credit is due. They never sat us down to have a talk about how some boys like boys and some girls like girls, and they were all people just like anyone else. It was stupidly obvious. My mother talked about "Harry and Edward" in the same tone she used for "Aunt Helen and Uncle Bob". Except friendlier, as Uncle Bob was known to be a lecher who eyeballed the teenage cousins, and we mysteriously saw a lot less of him after I was about twelve.

I was probably in college -- so, old enough for my own friends to start coming out -- before I thought about it long enough to realize how unusual this was. There are a lot of families where I never would have heard about Harry, because they would have disavowed any knowledge of his existence as soon as they found out about his "friend".

Tracing LGBT+ relatives can be tricky. They tend to lack a lot of paperwork that straight couples would have. Not just legit marriage certificates -- which don't always exist -- but a lot of other records that are predicated on the assumption that there is a marriage certificate, somewhere. Fifty years ago, John Doe and Roberta Roe could move halfway across the country together and apply for an apartment as "Mr. and Mrs. John Doe", and nobody would ever check. The only way to get that information, pre-internet, was to find out where the marriage would have been officiated, write to the appropriate county clerk (with a processing fee enclosed), and wait 4-6 weeks to see if you got an illegible photocopy or a 'no such file exists' form letter back. No landlord was going to do that. They'd look at you, make a snap judgement on whether you were likely to grow forty tons of weed in their rental property, and ask if you had first, last, and deposit. After you have a lease as "John and Roberta Doe", you can start getting utility bills, phone lines, library cards, checking accounts, even state IDs, depending on where (and when) you were.

My own parents are a good example of how this works. My mother used her maiden name right up until she was lying in a hospital bed with a newborn (me), and the nuns filing the paperwork were confused by the concept of putting a different surname down for mother and child. My mother, who was understandably short on patience, finally relented and told them to use Dad's name for everybody. (In her words, "I was afraid they were gonna lose you.") They weren't legally married until I was three, and they only did it because we had moved from Little Canada to a state that even today spits in the face of social progress, and Dad's new health insurance wouldn't otherwise have covered anybody else.

Mind you, my college FAFSA papers said they'd been filing taxes as married since 1978. My mother was never one to let a little thing like federal tax law prevent her from doing as she damn well pleased.

In Harry and Edward's case, we do have some documentation: Harry wrote memoirs. My mother had a copy, and I've read it. They're mostly about the spirit medium stuff, but there's a fair bit about life as well, and they were hilariously domestic. You would have to engage in mental gymnastics of a phenomenal order to read the two of them as anything but a couple. I seem to recall Harry's daughter either writing to or visiting them in Lily Dale; according to the family, she was mainly just happy her father had settled down with someone who could cook, so he'd stop living on scrambled eggs and spaghetti.

I've had no luck so far finding a copy of my own. Partly because it was privately published by someone who evidently went out of business 30+ years ago, but mostly because I didn't have any full names for anybody. The family has only ever referred to Harry as "Uncle Doc Harry". He wasn't a doctor of anything, but he did have an MSW, and for that time and that branch of the family, that was a pretty high-falutin' education. I'm still not sure if he was my great-uncle or my great-great-uncle. My grandfather was from a gigantic Irish Catholic farm family, where there were so many kids with such a range of ages that the eldest grandkids used to babysit their youngest aunts and uncles.

It was without a great deal of hope that I prodded the Lily Dale Assembly at about 2 am one night, via their Facebook page. Yes, they have a Facebook page. Of course they have a Facebook page.

Another thing you have to consider when nosing around after your queer kin is how to frame it. Somewhere conservative, I probably would have inquired after Harry, mentioning at some point that he used to share a house with someone named Edward. The Assembly, though? The Spiritualists are justifiably proud of their history of being early adopters of things like women's suffrage, feminism, and universal civil rights. They attract a lot of weirdos because they treat the weirdos like valid human beings. I was asking after people who would still be in the living memory of older residents, and a town like Lily Dale would have remembered them as the boring middle-aged married couple. So I just asked about my relatives, plural, Harry and Edward, and mentioned the ghost actress, figuring it would have been pretty unique even for a place like that.

I expected to get a teenage intern, who had no idea what I was talking about, but could at least give me some way to get in contact with the town registrar or whatever a Spiritualist commune has. No. Oh, no. Whoever was answering their messages knew exactly who I was talking about, because they used to live across the street. Not only told me where the two of them went, but described the house they bought when they moved out of town in the early '90s. What the actual fuck.

Thus armed with useful things like surnames, I went off to Google some more. I still haven't had any luck finding the book; when I first read it, online shopping was already a thing, and I found it eerie as hell to be physically holding a book that had no listing on Amazon. It has an AISN now, as someone evidently sold a signed copy on Amazon once, but no ISBN, and therefore no WorldCat entry. If it exists in any library I can get to, I'm not sure I have any way to ask for it. I can't find their obituaries, either -- my guess is they ran in the newspaper of the small town they lived in after Lily Dale, but the online archives have a big gap between 1989, when their microfiche scans end, and the 2000s, when someone bothered building them a website. If they have headstones, nobody's taken pictures of them for FindAGrave.com.

I threw their names at Spokeo and WhitePages and the like, to see if whoever survived longest had moved elsewhere to be with other family, and made an interesting discovery. Directories like that scrape data from other places. Mailing lists, public records, that sort of thing. Most people have at least one "AKA" listing, where they did or didn't use their middle initial for something, or went by Kathy instead of Katherine. Harry seems to have really been Harry, never Harold, which fits with the family naming habits. I did dig up a middle name, and it does tally with the one on the picture of the book cover on Amazon out-of-stock listing, so at least I know I'm tracking the right guy.

So far as I can tell from his AKAs, Edward never went by Ed or Eddie -- but he did, at some point in his life, go by Harry's surname. It's exactly the sort of middle finger to convention I would expect from any relative of mine, really. Fuck you, mainstream society, we're married. One of the places it's noted is on a profile for one of the ancestry services that says it was created and maintained by his brother, so at least some of his family seems to have treated them the same way Harry's did.

It actually makes me wonder if they had some sort of commitment ceremony at some point. (Beyond signing a joint mortgage on at least one house, I mean. Those are way harder to get out of than a marriage.) There wouldn't be any records filed with the State of New York -- although there's always the chance they were smart enough to file legal papers giving power of attorney and leaving their estate to the other one -- but if it happened in Lily Dale, the Assembly might have noted it.

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