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Why Taking My Wife’s Last Name Was One of the Easiest Decisions Ever

bride and groom holding hands

Erika and I, like many readers of APW, slid gently into engagement rather than in one momentous display. First came discussions about whether either of us was even in favor of marriage (previously, we were both firmly opposed—funny how finding the right person changes your mind on that subject). We discussed conceptual children and what became very real plans to move across the country. There is still some disagreement between us whether I asked her to take her name (her contention) or if she beat me to the punch (which is the clear memory that I have) but not long after we decided to get married, before we even announced it to the world, we knew I’d be taking her last name. It wasn’t a very fraught decision. I know it’s supposed to be a big deal for the husband to take the wife’s name, but for us it just wasn’t. We wanted to share a name to symbolize that we were a family together, and since we’d both come of age in pretty strong queer communities, we knew we didn’t have to abide by anyone’s rules but the ones we made for ourselves. We didn’t really get any push back from the people in our lives, and while my parents were a little reticent at first, they recognized that there wasn’t any reason I shouldn’t take Erika’s name other than “tradition.”

The whole process was complicated by neither of us using our birth names in our day-to-day lives. Her “last name” was her professional last name (she’s an actor), which she hadn’t yet gotten around to legally changing. This was another reason for me to take her name; Erika had already established a professional identity under that name. For her, that name was her brand. If that been the only issue, we could have just selected her stage name for both of us when we signed the marriage license. But I had been using a different first name for over twenty years (anyone who learned my legal first name tended to be baffled by how wrong it was for me), so clearly, this was an opportunity for us to get all our names changed in one fell swoop. I would change my entire name, first and last, and when we married she would “take” her own professional name.

In California, at least, changing your name through the courts (which I had to do because I was changing my first name as well as my last) is a fairly involved and somewhat expensive process. I got advice from a transwoman I work with, but she’d done it years ago with assistance from the transgender law center, and so some of her experience was glossed over and out of date. In June I filled out the numerous forms. I paid a lawyer to look them over and was glad I did; as with any legal document there was plenty to get wrong. Another $400 and a month later I had a court date, then two months more, to give time to publish my name change for six weeks in a local weekly (another $100). (As late as 2007, this was the only way a man in California could take his wife’s name; at over $600 dollars vs. $80, one could see why it would get challenged under the equal protection clause). However, as I was changing both my given name and my surname, that victory for equality in the California court system did not, alas, help me.

The court date in October was anticlimactic. “This is your old name? This is your new name? Did I pronounce it right? Great, you’re done.” By now we were solidly into wedding planning; we’d decided on a reception venue and were deciding on menus, preparing to send out invitations. We finalized a date, I got fitted for a fancy suit, and Erika asked, “What do you think will be different when we’re married? How will you feel?”

“Like this,” I said. “I don’t think anything will change.” It came up more in the succeeding weeks. I felt like we had a solid commitment, that the wedding was just a party attached to some legal niceties. What could be different? There was clearly a disconnect over this between us, but I couldn’t understand it.

I don’t remember when, exactly, I figured it out, but it was near the end of December. Everything I’d done to change my name I’d done without Erika. Names have a lot of power, so much of one’s identity is wrapped up in a name, and all those things that a person frets about when they change their name in a marriage, I’d already done. I’d signed papers and had a little ceremony, no matter how prosaic, and had done it without my wife by my side. Erika was still standing on the other side of that divide, and she was there without me.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to come back over. For starters, all the shared anxiety over our impending event was actually a great bond. Moreover, as much as I felt like I’d already changed over, I was wrong. A wedding is different. The ceremony is incredibly powerful, more overwhelming than I could have known. I cried like a baby. I still tear up to think of it now. That party where you cavort around and drink champagne and eat with people who are there to celebrate this impossible leap with you is more than just a party. To come home and hold your new wife in your arms is completely different than holding her the night before. I’d taken Erika’s name, and with it a part of her, a part of her identity, but until I stood up and said my vows I wasn’t truly married, no matter how blasé I’d felt before.

After it’s all done, it doesn’t really make any difference to the world at large. Our rules and promises are still for us, and we don’t care what anyone else thinks; indeed, keeping separate names would be more likely to garner comments, would be more noticeable, now and in the future, than my taking her name. As my best friend pointed out, taking Erika’s name isn’t really any kind of feminist statement, it’s still buying into the normative experience with a minor change. Feminism and a willingness to buck tradition allow for the choice, but one of us is still subsuming some aspect of our identity in the other. Strangers will assume we follow the standard narrative, and anyone we care about will understand.

What would I have done differently? What advice do I have for myself almost a year ago? Take her with you to the courthouse. Yes, it will be inconvenient. It may take longer, since you have to sync up your schedules to choose dates when both of you can put off other commitments. But for pre-wedding Tristan, and anyone else making this kind of change in your life, I say make sure that your spouse-to-be is there with you. Frankly, it’s good advice going forward too. Look out for those important markers, those life changes, and no matter how banal the process is, make your partner a partner. When you change, change together.

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