Same-sex Marriage and Last Names

So what happens when Adam Johnson marries Steve Smith? Do they keep their last names as is? Do they become Adam and Steve Johnson-Smith? Mr. and Mr. Smith-Johnson? Adam and Steve Smith? The Smohnsons?

Whether or not it’s officially called “marriage” in their state, gay and lesbian couples are tying the knot around the country. Among the less contentious but still interesting side issues raised by the same-sex marriage debate is how to handle last names. We all know that, in our patriarchal system for heterosexual marriages, the wife customarily takes her new husband’s name. Of course, that convention has been challenged by women who retain their original last names, as well as the equitable hyphenated lot.

So how can gay couples handle last names? Regardless of same-sex marriage laws, an individual is largely free to change his or her name through the court system. This means that, even if a union isn’t recognized by a state government, couples have more name options than they can shake a stick at. Let’s consider them:

Same-sex marriage and last names: Option 1
Keep both names the same. Probably the most popular route for now, this continuation of the status quo is easy. Linda Jones and Beth Thompson stay Linda Jones and Beth Thompson, eliminating confusion and hassle. One can argue that, since same-sex marriage already bucks social convention, gay couples are freed from the traditional expectation to use the same last name and should just keep their surnames as is. At the same time, one can also argue that this option doesn’t allow for the same public, identity-altering symbolism inherent in a shared last name.

Same-sex marriage and last names: Option 2
Hyphenation. On one hand, it seems equitable and fair for two life partners to join up their last names like railroad cars: Ron Essex and Drew Daley, for example, can become Mr. And Mr. Essex-Daley or Mr. And Mr. Daley-Essex, selecting the better sounding combination. But hyphenated last names aren’t always so simple. What if Mike Czanznak marries Anthony Giovanelli? Mr. Czanznak-Giovanelli doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. There’s also the possibility that one of the two partners already has a hyphenated last name, and I don’t think that Clayton Parker-Chan would want to become Clayton Parker-Chan-Jennings upon marrying Tim Jennings. Hyphenation can work, but it’s largely dependent on the last names involved.

Same-sex marriage and last names: Option 3
One spouse takes the other’s surname. This is the gay take on the heterosexual convention: Wendy Schmidt and Joan Weinstein can become Wendy and Joan Weinstein. Or Wendy and Joan Schmidt. Either way, one partner must willingly give up his or her original last name to take on a partner’s. A person eager to give up a name they dislike may be satisfied with this. But it almost implies that one partner is the “male” spouse while the other is the “female” spouse, and there’s already a troubling and archaic notion among the ignorant that same-sex couples pursue different binary gender roles. So while this option can, in some respects, be easier than hyphenation, it also suggests that one person is subserviently folding into the other.

Same-sex marriage and last names: Option 4
The couple selects a brand new last name. Admittedly, this is a more creative approach, yet one of the things I’ve admired about openly gay couples is their natural willingness to entertain the unconventional. The new joint name could combine existing last names, with Jon Englewood and Jose Martinez becoming the “Marwoods,” for instance. Paul Yardley and Dave Schubert may become the “Schuleys” – or, less attractively, the “Yardberts.” Of course, there’s nothing barring Ari Rosenbloom and Radek Ocasik from just becoming Mr. and Mr. Kennedy (or any other seemingly random surname). While I laud the gay couples who pursue bolder tacks, these changes are harder to implement and harder for friends and loved ones to grasp.

Same-sex marriage and last names: Final thoughts
With these four main options, gay and lesbian couples getting married or otherwise partnering up can decide how they want to change their last names, if at all. And that joint choice, befuddling as it can be, is what freedom’s all about.

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