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Name Changing as a Gay Lady

A shift in identity

When my mom married my dad in 1972, her last name changed but her initials did not. She stayed a KJH. Funnily enough, my pops’ initials were also KJH before and after their wedding. They loved this coincidence so much, they thought the whole family should match, and so we do—we are a clan of KJH’s, much to my name-challenged grandmother’s consternation. It has always been one of our rallying points as a family. We often sign notes or gift tags to each other with KJH and our place in the sequence. Cards from our family were often accompanied by a card my mom would sign KJH x 4 or the KJH’s. It’s our thing.

Before we ever got engaged, Julie and I had plenty of opportunities to talk about what we’d do with our names if we ever got married. Both of us were pretty clear that if we were entering a heterosexual marriages, we wouldn’t change our names. But in the context of marrying another women, things felt different. Our marriage might always face some legal and social scrutiny, depending on where we were and who was making the laws. Also, we would never both be biologically tied to our children (at least not simultaneously), which meant that at least one of us would face that same legal and social uncertainty as a parent as well. While neither of us feels like a name is what makes a family, and we know many other gay couples have approached things differently, we felt like having a unified last name would be the best way for our particular family to manage all of that ambiguity.

Easy, right? Ha. Though we were both behind the single last name concept, neither of us was willing to give up her own last name. But we didn’t hate the symbolism around adding another name on. So after several angsty discussions about rhythm and flow, and some waffling right up until a month or two before the wedding, we decided to become the Hopson-Shillers.

At first, it was seven days of new name perfection. We were announced “for the first time!” as The Hopson-Shillers at our reception, and we used our new names at every possible opportunity on our honeymoon. When we returned to Colorado, I was annoyed that I would have to wait until my schedule would allow me to go to the Social Security office during the strange window of time the office was open, to start the process of making my new name official. Finally, a month after our wedding, I took a half day off and made the big change. I felt so proud walking into the building, and the nicest clerk processed my paperwork and handed me back my completed forms, and there I was. Kelsey Jean Hopson-Shiller. I had written my new name several times, so I don’t know if it was seeing it typed out so officially, or if I really hadn’t seen my middle name in there yet, but suddenly I wanted to cry. My initials were gone. I liked my original last name, but those initials were my identity. My place in the tribe. I walked out of the building and called my mom.

“I have some concerns,” I said.

“Okay,” my mom replied, somewhat warily, probably hoping that I was kidding. “Tell me your concerns.”

“I have concerns about what you’re going to write on my Christmas present,” I said. “Is my gift going to be for KJH #3 still? Or am I KJH-S#1?”

“I’m not really prepared to think abut Christmas wrapping right now, Kelsey,” my mom explained mostly patiently, again, I think, hoping that I was mostly joking. So we laughed a little, talked about some other things.

But I stayed melancholy; changing our names was a decision Julie and I made together as the right one for our family, and no one else seemed to think it was an issue—but it suddenly felt like a huge loss to me. I had convinced myself that since no one demanded I change my name, since no one had any expectations for me around it, since this was a big step we took together as spouses, that it wouldn’t be an issue. Since I’m secure in my family of origin, and Julie fits in so well with them, I had blithely decided that getting married didn’t really change a thing that I didn’t want it to. Right until my new social security card informed me otherwise.

I’ve had a couple weeks to think about it, and I haven’t figured out all my feelings about losing, or gaining, my last name yet. Maybe my next step is giving myself some time to feel ambivalent about it, without freaking out that mixed feelings about my name indicate mixed feelings about my marriage. I still know we made the right decision for our family’s future, which is one of the major points of this whole marriage shebang. For now, I’m pretty good about remembering to write it out, although introducing myself is… awkward. I smile. I extend my hand. “Our students call me Ms. Kelsey. I’m Kelsey Hopson.” Existential crisis ensues, resulting in a pause one beat too long before I say “Shiller.”

My sister named her only child Holden. With an H. His last name isn’t Hopson either. His initials aren’t KJH, but he is absolutely, unequivocally ours. A common name doesn’t make a family. But there are going to be a lot of noisy people out there saying that my family isn’t worth as much as other people’s, and it feels important to claim ground where we can.

Is it making a feminist statement? A comment on the gay agenda? Burdening others unnecessarily with more to remember, and spell, and write? It might be. I’m sure someone (maybe lots of someones) has an opinion. What I know is that our name gives Julie and me, and any future members, something tangible tying us to two families standing behind us, and reminds us that we’re future bound together. And nobody ever said that would be easy.

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