The Name Game

Choosing a last name as an LGBTQ couple

CSJ_9450-2-X3by Aurora

I was fifteen when I decided that, come hell or high water, I was keeping my last name when I got married, and that my kids would also have my last name. I was vacationing at our family cottages in Maine, and my uncle was showing my younger brother how to dig for clams. My uncle mentioned that when my brother had kids, the two of them would have to pass down the tradition of clam digging to them. “What about my kids?” I asked. “Oh, well, your kids won’t have the same last name, so they won’t really be a part of the family,” was my uncle’s response. I was devastated. My family meant everything to me, even during my tumultuous teenage years, and I couldn’t stand the thought that I’d bring my kids to the family cottages and they’d be considered different because they didn’t have that super special last name that my brother’s kids would have. I told my mother about my plan and she laughed. “The best laid plans of mice and men,” she said. “I was going to keep my last name too, and look what happened.”

Years passed, and I figured out that I was gay. In some ways, this helped my master plan; in other ways, it hindered it. I was no longer faced with a cultural narrative that demanded I take my husband’s last name because there would be no husband. At the same time, I was faced with a new set of problems. What if I fell in love with a woman who was as headstrong as I was? What if I fell in love with a woman who had built her career on her last name? What if I fell in love with a woman who had strong cultural ties to her last name—a name like Kills the Enemy, a Sioux surname that popped up in the news a few years ago? While I was aware that any rule needed properly thought out exceptions, overall I decided that this issue was so important to me that, should it be brought up at the beginning of a relationship and my partner disagreed with me, I would end the relationship.

I can’t quite place why this particular tradition has so much meaning for me. I’ve always felt very close to my father, and one of the only names I ever realistically considered changing mine to was his mother’s maiden name—the name originally associated with the family cottages in Maine. I don’t want to keep my last name because I’m a feminist—it doesn’t make sense to me to associate feminism with a name that’s been paternally passed down for centuries, although I suppose you have to start somewhere. No, the reason I want to keep my last name is more complex than that. For starters, it’s a beautiful name—in Gaelic, it means “spirit of the sea waves,” and in that way, it’s much more suited to our family’s coastal cottages than my grandmother’s maiden name ever was. It’s my tie to my clan. Our clan motto, “This I’ll Defend (Loch Sloy),” is a phrase I’ve always felt particularly close to because my family—my biological family and my friends, my chosen family—have always meant so much to me and I would do anything to defend and protect them, to care for them. It’s my tie to my family history—a history of Maine and Massachusetts, of pastors and horse thieves, of nine-year-old kings who lost their heads and strong-willed women who took scalps to prove that they had been kidnapped. A history of beaches and poorly built cottages that somehow have stood for seven generations, of lobster bakes and family reunions and swimming in cold water and fishing Oreo cookies from the ocean. It’s my tie to myself. I’ve always had this last name, and it’s a part of me. Of all the things I could pass down to my children, biological links are the least important and this name is by far the most important. I may not be biologically related to any of my children, and that’s fine with me. But they’ll have this name and that means more to me than I can describe.

Luckily for me, my fiancée has decided that she is more than comfortable taking my last name and giving my last name to our children. My spouse taking my last name was never a requirement, but I’m glad that she decided to. When I asked her why—why she felt comfortable giving up her last name, changing a part of her identity, why she was willing to do something I wasn’t—her response was simple: because it was so important to me.

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  • Marie

    This is very eloquent. The fact that a woman must put forth such energy and passion into the justification of a choice that men are simply granted without question says volumes about how far we have yet to go in our feminist battles.

    I once confronted a fellow at a cocktail party for calling another man a pussy for taking his wife’s last name. “I can understand wanting to share a last name with your spouse,” I said, “but give me one good reason other than patriarchal historical tradition why it has to be the woman who gives up her name, and not he man.” And he thought, and thought, and then proclaimed, “Damn it, I can’t! ” :)

    • M.

      Good for you! A simple question can really have a ripple effect.

  • Christina McPants

    We chose to hyphenate because both of us were very attached to our last names and the identities from them. I still go by my maiden name professionally, simply because having 2 3 syllable last names is pretty insurmountable when it comes to email addresses and the like. Our kids will end up having my wife’s last name, because she’s an only child and my two brothers will be able to create more little ones on that side.

    I have to admit, I was worried about legally changing my name with Social Security and the like, but even during DOMA, I didn’t have an issue (probably because I’m female). The Social Security office didn’t blink and neither did the Maryland MVA (pre-Maryland gay marriage) because we had a marriage certificate. Just make sure your name is correct at the Social Security office. A friend had to go through the whole process twice because the initial name change had a typo.

  • M.

    I too was raised near the water and my last name also has topographical meaning of “by the river” or “on an island.” I really love that part of your story :) I also appreciate the perspective of someone who is having their name adopted by another, and hearing why it means so much to them. That’s something we don’t see as much in the wedding blog world — and often, like Marie’s comment, the person having their name adopted (my fiance included) is a man who wants it to happen “just because that’s how it is”. Your piece was so refreshing and thoughtful!

    I love my name, and my dad, and am the last of my name, but as of now, my plan is to change to my name to my fiance’s. Growing up in a divorced family with a mom who went back to her maiden name, I didn’t like when people assumed my mom was Mrs. E (she was Ms. S) or when my dad, who had the same name as me, was questioned on out of country trips if he was really my dad and I was allowed to go with him (different states of residence). I know we are a family no matter what and that so many people have multi-name families, yet based on my experience I find myself really wanting to take his name to present a united front as far as names go, and have things be… easier. I will miss my name though, and I guess things could change in the next 5 months! Children will definitely get my name as a middle.

    Though it is a traditional choice, there has been LOTS of talking at home about why I’m making this choice, and the disparity in who “has” to make the choice. He’s a budding feminist, and I’m really proud that it’s been fodder for discussing for us.

  • april

    Love this – it really speaks to the emotional weight a last name can carry. Taking my husband’s last name was never even really something I considered. I grew up using the last name of my mother’s family, even though it was not the name on my birth certificate or social security card, because they were the ones who raised me and because I never really knew my father or his family. Somehow (I can only explain this by saying it was a pre-9/11 world at that point) my mother’s family name wound up on my driver’s license and passport too – which caused all sorts of problems when I hit college and had to face the federal student aid system…
    Long story short, I had my last name legally changed when I was in my 20s. It was a really powerful moment for me – I felt like I was taking charge of my identity. And there was no way I was changing my name again after doing all that paperwork …

  • What a great story to start the morning!!!

  • This is a great post. I’ve been questioned by a few friends about my decision to take my husband’s last name, to the point where someone told me that I would be denying my Jewish heritage if I did so. I was actually quite hurt by that sentiment, as I didn’t feel like it was something stating I was turning away from my heritage and past, and changing my name was something I actually did think about quite a bit.
    Your spouse sounds like a very lovely and loving person – I am excited for you in your engagement!

    • Shiri

      I had a similar but reversed experience, where my mother told me she thought I’d be willing to take my husband’s name if it was a Jewish name (like my last name). I was shocked, but I also wondered if she knew something about me that I didn’t.

      • I.. don’t know how I would have responded to that comment. I think, I would be both shocked and wondering as well.

        • Shiri

          It really threw me for a loop. I was incredibly affronted at the time, but now… I don’t know. I mean, I’m glad I kept my name for many reasons, and one of them is that its very clear about my heritage (which is ridiculous – given that my first name is a Hebrew word, my heritage is pretty obvious), which is important to me. But I think if Greenberg or Rosenberg or Jewison had been the option, I still would have wanted to keep my name.

          And, for the record, I don’t think making either choice is “denying” your heritage. That’s offensive to even suggest.

          • I agree. My full first name is also a Hebrew word (Deva is a nickname). I’m glad I changed my name for quite a few reasons, but there are times (like when we get our property tax bill and I realize I have one more place to go to change my name) that I wonder if I should have kept it. It was and is a very common last name, and my new last name is less common.
            Off-the-topic, but I love the cat avatar. I have a few cats and volunteer at a cat shelter, so it made me smile.

          • Shiri

            Thanks! He was a rescue (as is our other one) who was brought to us in a box on the subway, because the shelter was putting him down the next day. He wouldn’t come out of the box, but he would roll over so we could rub his belly (in the box), and that was kind of it for us. Love him.

          • Love the tummy rub!

  • Anon

    “oh, well, your kids won’t have the same last name, so they won’t really be a part of the family”

    So upsetting, and so wrong. There is more to a family than sharing a name – and more than sharing blood too, but so sad that your uncle didn’t see blood ties/relationships as important. My cousin doesn’t have the same name as my sister and I, but of course she is part of my family!

    Also, I kept my name when I got married, and so did my husband. There was never any question about either of us changing.

    • Shotgun Shirley

      Yeah dude that uncle’s a jerk!

  • Shiri

    I love the story of your name – it’s so strong! – and how tied to it you are. I’m also very tied to my family history and my name, but the ties are separate from each other, as the history I’m tied to is my mother’s family’s. My husband has actually said that he thought we should consider taking my grandmother’s maiden name as our married name, or my mother’s. We didn’t, but it would have been amazing, and having a partner who recognizes the value of family history is so important to me. I’m glad you have that in yours.

  • Kayjayoh

    “Oh, well, your kids won’t have the same last name, so they won’t really be a part of the family,” was my uncle’s response.”

    What a terrible thing to say to a child!

  • Kendra D

    I was in college when I decided that I couldn’t wait to trade away my maiden name. We had just registered for our second term of classes as freshmen, and being in the latter part of the alphabet meant having next to no options for classes. Then and there I determined to marry up the alphabet. Luckily my husband accommodated me with a last name starting with D.

    • BreckW

      Bahahaha, I’ve always thought this, too! It’s really a pain being at the end–bottom cubby and locker 4 lyfe, last to register, occasionally getting left off rosters/lists, etc. Looking forward to life in the middle (BF’s last name starts with an M)!

    • KC

      My grandpa and his brother changed their names for alphabetical (and other) reasons! It’s a pretty hilarious story, actually, of identity and convenience and… things.

    • Kate White

      I’ve been joking for ages that this was the best part of my impending name change: W –> B. But when we got down to it, I didn’t want to change it after all. So I’m still a W. ha

    • Eenie

      I loved being at the end of the alphabet! Your school sucks for being preferential towards beginning of the alphabet names. My school does it by credit hours and then they reverse the alphabet every other semester or something like that.

  • Kayjayoh

    Also, Aurora…while I doubt you are actually related to my fiance (though that would be a hilarious coincidence) the MA childhood with summers spent in family coastal ME cottages, the Gaelic family name, the strong sense of connection sounds very much like what he grew up with. I can understand the drive to keep it. (His mom took his dad’s name, but her last name became his middle name.)

  • Ella

    “…fishing Oreo cookies from the ocean”. This sounds amazing. Can you please explain??

    Excellent post! I loved that you mentioned it wasn’t necessarily a feminist choice. I gave up my last name and while I’m sadder than I thought I would be, I’m happy to give it up for my partner. Also, I really like his last name. :)

  • Leanne M

    Interesting read but my comment is about the image used on this and other posts: Any chance we can not have a “very special lesbian icon” for all your lesbian-centric articles? I find it a little Other-ing and off-putting.

    • Sheila

      I get what you’re saying, but I’m pretty sure this picture isn’t used for all posts about lesbians. It’s more used for posts that touch on issues that often come up in opposite-sex marriages, like who does the chores, where there’s all kinds of gender stuff going on. So “remember the lesbians” means, these issues come up even when it’s not a man/woman thing, and maybe we can learn from people in those situations.

    • Kayjayoh

      (For values of all where all=four.)

  • Elizabeth

    LOVE this post and this thread. When I was younger, I was determined I would never change my last name to match my husband’s. I love my last name. But as life unfolded and I realized I would (hopefully) be marrying another woman someday, my hackles lowered a bit. But I still assumed there would be no name changing for me.

    Fast forward to premarital counseling and getting engaged this summer, and it got REAL.

    I’ve decided to take her last name – to add it onto my last name, so I’ll be MyFirst MyLast HerLast. We’ll be the HerLasts. Trying on her name has been surprisingly…powerful. As I practice life with my new name (in my head, in a new gmail address), I’m noticing how i’m changing and growing to make room for a wife.

    As I’m moving toward lifelong partnership with someone I deeply love and adore, I’m grieving my single self. And that’s more than okay.

    And of course the pragmatic part of me likes the logic behind it: There are no siblings or cousins on her side of the family who will carry on her last name. I have two brothers who will likely give their children our last name, and I’ll probably be the bio mom of our kids. For us, it’s a cool way for both of us to contribute a piece of ourselves to our future kids – genes from me, a name (and its corresponding heritage) from her.

    At the end of the day, there are lots of ways to make family, and names and genes aren’t the half of it. But I’ve been surprised how much richness I’ve found in creating the space to mourn my last name, and to celebrate receiving hers.

  • I’m going to use her last name. I never really loved my real last name, and I don’t even use it in my career- I use my middle name as my last name. It’s also really symbolic for me to get her name because it is the external manifestation of the transition, shedding, and shift going on internally right now. It just suits me. :)

  • Mezza

    I always knew I would be keeping my surname as well. In my father’s family, there’s a tradition that the oldest son of the oldest son is always named James – except my father (James) messed that up by only having me, a girl. It always bugged me that I was the end of the tradition, so I decided my oldest son would be James [father’s last name] and we’d start it again.

    Now I’m married to a woman, and she has also kept her name. Hyphenating didn’t appeal to either of us because the names don’t go well together, and we both have careers built with our names. It doesn’t bother me that we have different last names, but I am wondering what will happen when we have kids. We’ve started discussing the option of giving the kids different last names (one would have mine, the next would have hers, etc), but I’ve never actually seen that in real life and I’m afraid it would cause problems I’ve never even thought of. Fortunately we have some time to figure it out!

    • Caiti_D

      I knew a set of brothers and sisters whose mothers did this (had the last name of their birth mother)… though come to think of it they may have been born of heterosexual relationships. Regardless, it never caused them any trouble that I knew of.

  • BordeauxBeth

    You’re MacFarlane clan! Me too!

  • kyley

    “Oh, well, your kids won’t have the same last name, so they won’t really be a part of the family,”

    Um, excuse me, what?!?!?!?!