Ancestry.com Evolves with the Definition of Family
Murmurs of an ancestry.com boycott have been breezing through the LGBT blogosphere and community since late last week when an ancestry.com user, James Helms, attempted to add his same-sex partner, Devon, to his family tree using the online version of ancestry.com’s Family Tree Maker. After unsuccessfully attempting to add Devon to his family tree without labeling Devon as his “wife”, James emailed ancestry.com’s member support department. The response from Spencer at Member Services added fuel to the already raging fire in the LGBT community:
Please note that same-gender relationships are unable to be entered in our genealogy software (either the Online Family Tree of [sic] the Ancestry Family Tree). This is because genealogy trees are intended to trace biological relationships or bloodlines. As two persons of the same gender are unable to have biological children, they cannot be entered as spouses or partners.
James later posted the text of the emails on the forum at gaywallet.com and the blogosphere responded noting, accurately, that adoptive children are not biological relatives and can be added to the family tree and spouses with no children can be added in spite of a lack of biological relationships.
Tim Sullivan, CEO of The Generations Network (the parent company of ancestry.com) stepped forward in a telephone conference with jaysays.com to clarify the company’s position on representing same-sex relationships in the family unit. When asked whether the company intends to release an update to ancestry.com so that same-sex relationships can be recognized, Mr. Sullivan stated,
Our desktop software application called Family Tree Maker, which [in addition] to ancestry is one of our key businesses, is built in a way that permits this, and we’ve recognized for some time that we absolutely want the service to reflect how anyone defines spousal relationship or how anyone defines a family.
He added that they expect ancestry.com to support same-gender relationships and all family stories by the end of the first quarter of 2009.
Mr. Sullivan acknowledged that there has been a healthy debate within the genealogical community as to whether a family tree should be representative of the biological lineage of a family, or the family’s story and attributed the response from member support to this debate. He further stated that ancestry.com is attempting to “evolve” their service to allow people to build their family story online.
Mr. Sullivan wanted the record to be clear with respect to the ownership of ancestry.com,
We [The Generations Network] have absolutely no ownership affiliation with the LDS Church. We have a very diverse management team. We are owned primarily by a private equity investment group in the bay area called Spectrum Equity Investors and they, sort of partnering with the management team about a year ago, did a buy-out of the company.
He went on to state,
[This company and I] are absolutely committed, absolutely committed, to having our service be a welcoming and appropriate venue for anyone to define their family the way they choose to define it without bias. I would view any call to boycott ancestry as based in misunderstanding, miscommunication and misinformation. And we are absolutely committed to supporting same-gender relationships full stop, period.
The San Francisco Chronicle has provided a searchable database of all contributors to the Proposition 8 campaign. A search of the top executives for The Generations Network revealed that no executive individually made contributions to the Yes on 8 Campaign.
Author’s Note and Commentary:
There are many lessons to be learned from the call to arms against ancestry.com. The most pressing of which is that Customer Service Representative’s personal ideology and not necessarily corporate policy may influence their response to questions involving the LGBT community. Like most, I was infuriated by the response from the member services department and was ready with my figurative pen to fight the battle for equal recognition. I almost allowed my fury to negate my reason.
In doing research for this story, I expected that I would be writing a piece about the evil corporation who defines the family unit as a biological unit with no consideration for same-gender relationships. I expected another notch to be placed in the column for “hate institution.” Instead, I found a company that is evolving in such a way that we can all share our family story.