For Same-Sex Couples, Changing Names Takes on Extra Significance

"It just made things so much easier to be the Bramble family."
Artur Bainozarov/Reuters

“Before I came out and was still on a path of planning to marry a man,” says Victoria, “I was pretty radical and said I’ll never change my name." But when Victoria Cunningham married Lita Grossman, in Washington D.C. in 2006, three years before same-sex marriage was legally recognized in the District, she was forced to reconsider. Finally, both wound up changing to a third surname.

Personal and professional considerations aside, for women entering heterosexual marriages, the last name decision often comes down to ideology. But for newlywed same-sex couples navigating their way through the thorny question of family nomenclature, there’s no tradition in place to buck or to follow. With the overturn of DOMA and an expanding geography of states legalizing same-sex marriage (nine plus the District of Columbia), it remains to be seen what naming trends will emerge as same sex-couples decide whether or not to use shared names to formally identify as units, and why.

Victoria and Lita first met in 2003 at a rally that Victoria — then working for Code Pink — helped organize. After meeting again a few months later when Lita was back in town, the two realized there was a spark. “It’s like that old joke about bringing a U-Haul on the second date,” says Victoria. “She moved in two months later.” In time they bought a house together, had a big wedding, and registered as domestic partners, a legal union that provided limited protections within the District but not beyond. 

With such shaky legal protection, Victoria and Lita came to see having a shared last name as a necessity and hoped it would help them be viewed as family in case of an emergency, such as a trip to the hospital. They decided on Dunn, a family name from Lita’s side, and both legally changed their names. Victoria, having grown up in a small Southern town where her parents owned “the Bible bookstore on Main Street,” also knew she and Lita would be traveling to places where they might not want to be open about their relationship. “I didn’t want to have to deal with any nastiness. I just hoped people would think we were sisters,” says Victoria.

Heather MaCabe, a family law attorney who specializes in LGBT issues, often sees couples like the Dunns adopting shared names as a safeguard and says it is “most common among folks who are anticipating or are in the process of expanding their families.”

This was the case for Joselyn and Heather Bramble, who legally wed in Canada in 2006, and didn’t view having the same surname as a priority until they were ready to have children three years later. They decided that Heather would carry their first baby, a boy, and Joselyn would give him her last name so that both would have their own special bond with their son. In Washington D.C., where they were living at the time, an infant cannot be given the last name of anyone besides his biological mother or father, so to ensure that their son would be a Bramble, Heather changed her name as well. She says it still feels weird to introduce herself by her new name, but it was the right decision. “We were in and out of the hospital a lot those first couple of weeks. It just made things so much easier to be the Bramble family, even in dealing with insurance.”

In deciding whose name will be passed on to their children, considerations extend beyond personal bonds and lineage in order to determine the best situation for the child legally and economically. In Alabama, explains Andy Page, who grew up near Birmingham and hopes to someday adopt a child with his husband Lee Hawk, a gay couple cannot adopt jointly, so they must choose one person to be the adoptive parent. “In our case, Lee would be the one to adopt. He has a great job, insurance, a pension. I would take Lee’s name of course. It would just be easier for the child for us to all have the same last name.”

“Lee is my whole,” adds Andy. “Taking his last name would be a cool way to be a little part of who he is, to show my commitment to him, and I like that.”

Same-sex couples may also feel that having a shared name gives their marriage more authority, says MaCabe, the family law attorney.  “People also do it for a need of acceptance in a larger world where there is one idea of what family looks like and to fit into that box.” But as the idea of what family looks like continues to evolve, with each state free to define it differently, the process of changing names can be complex and expensive.

Across most of the country, changing surnames for any reason other than a wife taking a husband’s usually involves filing a petition, appearing before a judge, publishing the old and new names in the newspaper, and often paying a fee of several hundred dollars. Early this year, Lazaro Dinh, a man from Florida who took his wife’s last name, made the news when his local DMV suspended his driver’s license, charging him with fraud for not going to court to formally file for a name change. He had followed the standard procedure used by any bride changing her name to that of her husband, but was later told that the much simplified process of changing due to marriage “only applies to women.”

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Vicki Valosik is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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