Mrs. & Mrs. Smith: How Some Gay Couples Reclaim Old Marriage Traditions

Same-sex couples approach the age-old issues of changing their last names and deciding what to call their partners.
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Weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland, a wedding expo was held in the Tremont hotel in downtown Baltimore. In a pair of packed ballrooms, ABBA was playing—"Take a Chance on Me," of course—and vendors were vying for this new marital demographic. Beckoning from tables were caterers, DJs, wedding planners, limo services, B and B proprietors, stationers, photographers, florists. A travel agency invited couples to consider shipboard ceremonies, after which they could shoo guests on shore and embark on a honeymoon cruise. A stilt walker and balloon-twister worked the crowd; the balloons, naturally, came in rainbow colors.

How same-sex couples are changing an institution
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Scores of couples wandered through the displays, snacking canapés and savoring decisions many, growing up, had never expected to be allowed to make. Afternoon or evening? Big or small? Dress or tux? Cakes were everywhere: tiered confections iced in lavender and silver and daffodil yellow. Couples considered what traditions they would reject, and what traditions they would embrace. Among them was a woman named Melissa, so thrilled to be a bride that she was planning to take the last name of her fiancée. "In the lesbian community, lots of people are changing their name," said Sheila Alexander-Reid, strolling with her soon-to-be-spouse, Deborah Cummings-Thomas. Both women are officiants and have facilitated same-sex weddings in Washington, D.C., since they became legal in 2010.

Cummings-Thomas said many couples who travel to the D.C. area to marry are from states that ban same-sex marriage. Returning home, they find that "being able to change their name is a way to have their home state recognize their marriage," in spirit if not in fact. For their own part, the two women had shown up at the courthouse early, the first same-sex couple to get a license in Howard County, Maryland. They were planning to share a name: They just had to figure out which one. Probably Reid, they were thinking.

The decision to take the same surname is one way same-sex couples are rehabilitating—repurposing, you might say—some of the most ancient marital traditions. Name-change dates back to the common-law doctrine of "coverture," when a bride assumed her husband's name and legal identity and, in what is called "civil death," ceased to exist as a separate legal person. Feminism inspired some women to reject this tradition—about 10 percent of women, according to studies, decline to take their husband's surname—taking a stand for autonomy but contributing to a world in which teachers are sometimes unsure which children belong to which parents, and the generation who grew up with hyphenated names must decide whether to exponentially burden their own offspring. In embracing the standard option, same-sex couples are lending it a new, radicalized flavor. Not only lesbian brides but some gay grooms change their names; whether this will pave the way for straight men remains to be seen. Name-changing may turn out to be something men do when partnering with men, but not when partnering with women. The number of straight men who change their name upon marriage, remains so tiny as to be imperceptible.

Lesbians also have to come to terms with "wife," a word that for many remains ideologically burdened

In same-sex couples, decisions around who will do the name-changing and who will do the name-losing have to be made according to something other than gender. "There's more of a conversation" in many same-sex partnerships, says Suzanne A. Kim, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark.

"For us it was about being a family," says Bev Uhlenhake, who lives with her wife, Sue, near Bangor, Maine. The women have three children, conceived by sperm donor and carried by Bev. To make it clear they have equal parental status, Bev was inclined to let Sue's be the family surname. But there was one problem: Bev is tall—6' 2"—and Sue's maiden name was Teeney. There was no way Bev was going to go through the rest of her life fielding height jokes, or subject their kids, already "taller than your average bear" to that playground torture.

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Liza Mundy is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.

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