What’s In A Name?

18 Jul

In which Adam and Chris are confronted with an unexpected decision.

Things were going well. We found a venue, we made a budget, and we set a date. I even started to feel a little smug thinking through all the ways that being two men would save us money on wedding costs. I felt the thrill of crossing off items of the knot’s wedding budget list and seeing the total amount left to spend go up. No dress you say? Cha-CHING hundreds of dollars saved. Why, we don’t need expensive bridal bouquets? Well then I WILL take back that wad of dough. I thought, “Hey! we’ve got a leg up on the system. We shall not be defeated by the bridal industrial complex, we are two men planning our fabulous illegal wedding in Alabama and we shall not be thwarted by the cost increasing trappings of heteronormativity!”

Pride comes before the fall.

As with most things, the revelation came whilst filling out paper work. In our post engaygment frenzy I began to fill out requests for information at various wedding venues in an effort give myself a full-blown anxiety attack. A simple part of this process is to put down your name. With Chris standing over my shoulder. I typed my first and last name, and then his first and last name, to which he said, “Shouldn’t we put the name we’ll be once we get married?”

I thought he was kidding. He continued.

“I mean don’t you think we should put down our last name once we’re married. I mean I always thought you’d take my last name.”

Somehow in all my contemplations of what it would mean for two men to get married I had not even given it second glance that we would have that discussion. Yet, here was my beautiful oddly traditional fiancé who I loved very much presenting the idea that I take his last name. I was dumbstruck.

As a CIS privileged male living in the 21st century I had somehow failed to envision that I would one day have to decide if I would take my husband’s name. Chris’ logic  is to avoid confusion in the future when we adopt a child (yes, the unborn child is also a trump card in gay discussions). His concern is that we be able to show the world we are one family.

So I started thinking, what if I said yes? Sure, Chris’ last name sounds pretty with my first name, in the sense that it is a good old boy all-American type of last name. It is the type of European last name people assume is non-ethnic. It evokes a kind of person who was good at sports in high school, not the boy who sang alto his freshman year of choir.

Further, my last name has always been more of an extension of myself than a surname chosen for me before birth. My first name is boring, I used to joke that my parents wanted a biblical name but got bored after the first few pages and went with Adam. My last name, by contrast, was unique, and downright fun to say out loud. Nearly everyone I love refers to me by last name only; every nickname I have ever had is some derivative of it.  My name is memorable, so much so that after meeting me once at a speech tournament a woman in Illinois named her dog after me.

On a professional level, I’ve been heavily involved in a close community of public speakers for the last 13 years. If I changed my name would I start from square one? As I work to complete my graduate education I’ve presented at conferences and finished a thesis under my name. My name is tied to my identity. Without my name who would I become?

In all my existential anguish I was even more disturbed by the thought that when this happens to women we are completely ok with it. There are few who balk at the young girl in the throes of adolescent infatuation tracing her crush’s last name. I’ve heard girl-friends of mine analyze how her new boyfriend’s last name would sound with hers, just to make sure it sounded right. We even refer to women’s former last names as “maiden” to validate that changing a woman’s last name is an act of maturity, a way of moving on in the world.

For years I’ve watched my close female friends gladly discard their most basic forms of identity and become new people. These women are proud of the change and enjoy the process as a symbol of creating a new family. When my sister got married I was floored to discover that she had to file paperwork to change her name with the social security administration. In essence, who she was before she got married technically no longer exists. Now she was a new person, with a new identity along with a new name.

What happens to the discarded names our women leave behind? Do the people these names once reflected still exist somewhere in an alternative string theory universe? Do they go off and live fabulous sliding door lives filled with adventure and fulfillment never aware that they were set aside and cast off as the cost of becoming whole.  Or do they stay the same selves they were before they were left behind, caught forever in the limbo of forgotten surnames. 

Historically the practice of changing names stems from the judicial interpretation of marriage as the act of becoming one under the law, and given the patriarchal assumptions of judicial systems, the woman’s name is simply assimilated unto the man’s.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and other early feminists engaged in a strong critique of this practice of equivocating females as a form of property (Kline, Stafford & Mikosovic, 1996). Outside the U.S. things are a little clearer for instance in some Hispanic cultures the child is given the surname of both father and mother as a means of acknowledging the maternal and paternal line. Yet despite the various waves of feminist individuality, as recently as 2003 up to 90% of women took their husband’s name in the U.S. with nearly 65% of respondents stating that not taking your husband’s name is tantamount to not committing to the relationship (Sutter & Oswald, 2003).

Things get even more complicated when we deal with a same-sex couple. In their study of 30 soon-to-be married lesbian couples in the UK Clarke and Burgoyne (2008) found that 20 couples had no intention of changing their names. Further, only nine reported having any kind of conversation about the issue. I’ve spent years becoming dependent on external scholarship to validate my individual experience and now I find we’re not even TALKING about this?

Perhaps this experience lends credence to the queer critique that pushing for the civil right of marriage equality ultimately reinforces heteronormative practices, thus making it harder to disrupt the harmful binary of hetero/homo sexual dynamics. While theoretically I can see the merits of this argument, the theory doesn’t do a whole lot to guide me in the  direction of what makes the most sense for my soon-to-be formed family.

Aside from the philosophical and emotional connections another question arises, would we even be allowed to do this? In Alabama in order to change your  last name you must have the following items:

  • Your birth certificate – we’re good.
  • Your Social Security Card – no problem.
  • A certified state marriage license – we’re screwed.

Given that we are getting married in a state that does not recognize our marriage the name change issue may not even be possible if we decided that way.

So, I went with my classic move when I have a big decision: I stalled. In the end, we’ll probably go with some kind of hyphen for personal and still retain our professional identities using our current last  names. Chris, who loves the idea that he’ll one day be married to a doctor, even if it’s not an M.D., enjoys saying “you can practice under your last name.” Still I’m curious if any other same-sex couples have experienced this conversation the various considerations that follow.

Referenced Articles

 Clarke, V., Burns, M., & Burgoyne, C. (2008). ‘Who would take whose name?’ Accounts of naming practices in same-sex relationships. Journal Of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 18(5), 420-439. doi:10.1002/casp.936 

Kline, S. L., Stafford, L., & Miklosovic, J. C. (1996). Women’s last names: Decisions, interpretations and associations with relational qualities. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 13, 593–617.

Suter, E. A., & Oswald, R. F. (2003). Do lesbians change their last names in the context of a committed relationship? Journal of Lesbian Studies, 7, 71–83.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/22789525@N00/3455428254/”>sajbrfem</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;


2 Responses to “What’s In A Name?”

  1. Tyler July 18, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Dennis and I have discussed this in great detail. We are both rather attached to our last names: me because, like you, it is unique and is greatly tied to who I am as a person; him because he is the only male son in his father’s line – erasing the name from recorded history if he changes his name.

    However, we are both committed to growing our family in the future and are both rather concerned about the idea of everyone having the same family name. I’m quite opposed to hyphenation because something’s got to give. I can’t wait for the first couple to hyphenate two hyphenated names. Also, as an elementary teacher, I’ve seen many hyphenated kids lose one of their names for a plethora of reasons: easier to spell, shorter, was listed first etc. We’ve also considered joining our names…Komino…Doster…but the thought of those sickens me really. A third option is to create a new one together, which doesn’t necessarily solve any of the personal problems of my being attached to my name and his family line.

    Our plan, for now, is to keep our names and reenter the discussion when we start family planning in a few years. One plan, that I rather like actually, is to name the kid with both of our last names. As in first name – Domino; last name – Koster. But what happens if we have two?

    And then I think, “Who cares what the world thinks?” We want the whole family to have the same last name so that we will be recognized as a family. I don’t necessarily need my family to be validated by people who won’t support us without the same name. Those who I care about will recognize and affirm my family no matter our name.

    All in all, great article Adam! Completely stolen out of my head. As some one who reads Gloria Steinem every chance I get and played Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s brother in an 8th grade History Fair self-written play, I feel you.

    • Tales of the Engayged July 18, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

      Tyler, thank you so much for sharing your experience on this issue, it is something I don’t hear a lot of other LGBT couples discuss and I thought it was important to open up the dialogue. I LOVE the concept of incorporating the last names into the names of the child. Also, I feel you on childhood self-written plays.

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