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

"It just made things so much easier to be the Bramble family."
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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.”

Victoria and Lita, who adopted the name Dunn before same-sex marriage was legalized in D.C. and thus went through the formal name-change process, say it went smoothly for them, but couples elsewhere have found the system difficult to navigate and the fees costly. Plus some may fear the professional or social repercussions of publicizing the name change in the newspaper.

In her practice MaCade has observed that among same-sex couples, females tend to take their partners’ names more often than males, likely because it's just more customary for women to change their names, and because “in proportion, women are having children more often than men and it is those with children most likely to make the change.”  

Lee Hawk thinks it has more to do with socialization. “Growing up, girls maybe think, ‘Someday I’ll be Mrs. Tom Cruise,’ he says, “but for guys the thought of changing their names has never occurred to them.” 

Heather Bramble’s family, though very supportive of her marriage, struggled with her decision to take Joselyn’s name. “In their heads it would have been easier if Joselyn was a guy. But since we were two women, we were equal and they kept asking why she didn’t change her name.”

According to Luke Boso, associate professor at Savannah Law School, it's that very idea of same-sex marriages being more egalitarian that keep some couples from changing their names. "A lot of LGB [lesbian, gay, and bisexual] couples reject the idea of changing their names because of the sense that the name-changing practice has roots in a gendered, sexist marriage institution in which women literally became their husband's legal property and lost their identity under the law," explains Boso, whose research focuses on law and personal identity, and who has decided against taking his husband's last name due to the publications he already has under his own.

"Many LGB people see same-sex marriage as a way to transform the institution of marriage itself,” Boso continues,  “moving it away from its property/ownership roots and more towards an egalitarian partnership model based on mutuality and a greater degree of independence."

“When you move outside the hetero norms,” adds Victoria Dunn, “there’s so much more flexibility, creativity, and opportunity to do what you want.”

Considering that just 8% of women in different-sex marriages in the United States are currently keeping their last names, and nearly half of Americans, according to a 2009 study from the University of Indiana, think that women should be legally required to take their husband’s, this transformation Boso describes may still be a long time coming. But, with more and more same-sex couples making decisions about shared names and family identity based on reasons that extend beyond tradition and the patrilineal/feminist divide, maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps those in heterosexual marriages will follow.

Whether patrilineal tradition ultimately plays a role in the decisions made by same-sex couples or not, the irony is not lost on Victoria. "Out of necessity and wanting to be viewed as a family, I did something I never thought I would,” she says. “I have friends who are radical, separatist, lesbian feminists and nobody blinked when I changed my name. People understood the desire for safety we were feeling and you can’t argue with safety.”

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

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