In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
Meet the Expert
Liz Susong is the editor of Catalyst Wedding Co., a feminist wedding company that publishes a print magazine and website on the topics of love, sex, weddings, and marriage. She is a former professor of women's studies.
Queer and same-sex couples have the same subpar options as opposite-sex couples when it comes to choosing a last name upon marriage: keep original last names, have one partner take the other’s name, hyphenate, or mutually choose a new name. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: there are no good options when it comes to last names, people. However, unlike opposite-sex couples, the reasons behind same-sex couples’ last name choices may be specific to the experience of living in a country that has only recently begun legally recognizing their marriages.
Because of “shaky legal protection,” some couples have viewed sharing a last name as extra insurance “in case of an emergency, such as a trip to the hospital.” Others feel that sharing a last name gives their marriage more credibility in the eyes of a culture that understands marriage to be between a man and a woman.
But this is not the case for everyone. Some same-sex couples understand the tradition of one person taking the other’s last name to be rooted in a patriarchal, property-based history of marriage, in which a woman is subservient to her husband, and they therefore want zero part of that. Cindy of Missouri says this was definitely the case for her: “We both loved our names and adamantly did not want to change them.”
Others see the opportunity to share a last name as a challenge to the institution of marriage itself. After all, would your great-grandfather ever have imagined that one day his sister, Marge, and her lifelong roommate, Judy, would be known as Mrs. and Mrs. Jones? He’d be all, “So you’re telling me marriage is now a legal arrangement between two consenting adults instead of a way to staff the family farm? What will they think of next!?” Melinda of Ohio explains, “People often comment that gay people were trying to ‘change the institution of marriage,’ and some would deny that, but I think we have changed it, but for the better.” She explains that the legalization of gay marriage is just one way that marriage traditions have evolved: “People aren't going around trading their daughters for goats anymore or figuring out how to create political alliances.” So when it came to choosing a last name, “We didn't want to just recycle the tradition of the woman taking the man's name since there is no man here, no one is anyone's property, and sadly, no goats were exchanged during this process.” Instead, Melinda and her wife, Patti, elected to combine their names to create a new last name. Patti summarizes, “Marriage is the intertwining of two lives, and we even wanted to intertwine our names.”
People often comment that gay people were trying to ‘change the institution of marriage,’ and some would deny that, but I think we have changed it, but for the better.
Tony and his husband also chose to combine their last names after their wedding. The name they chose “was our hashtag for our wedding guests. A friend always said it was our ‘Brangelina’ name, and we never even considered it until we got such a positive response from our guests.” Tracy and her wife did the same: “My name was Schakett and her name was Williams. It was either Schwilliams or Willhakett (which is mass murderer-sounding). As we have been together for 11 years, many of our friends had already called us the Schwilliams for a long time.” These affectionately bestowed couples’ nicknames signify their community’s role in recognizing the legitimacy of their partnership, in spite of the larger culture’s reluctance.
For same-sex couples in which one partner chooses to take the other’s last name, there are a variety of factors to consider before choosing—the choice is not based on gender alone. For instance, maybe one person just has a nicer-sounding name. Or there may be a variety of sentiments attached to one name that the couple prefers. Brandon, a hair and makeup professional in Virginia, elected to take his husband’s name. He writes in a piece for Catalyst Wedding Magazine, “My former name was just fine. But then I got married and suddenly cared about my name. I don’t consider myself a traditional person; however, changing my last name to my husband’s excited me.” He talks about what this new name symbolized for him: “A ‘Kirk’ is a caring and compassionate person. A ‘Kirk’ is someone who holds family and loved ones close to their heart and is affectionate and nurturing. These are values I’ve learned to adore in my new family. So, it seemed fitting that I would choose this name after getting married in hopes that I might embody everything this names means.”
Opposite-sex couples could learn a thing or two from same-sex couples when it comes to choosing a last name. Because there is no precedent, same-sex couples are forced to have intentional conversations around values, identity, and family before choosing how to approach the last name issue. These conversations often go unspoken for opposite-sex couples who are more likely to do what’s expected rather than have some of the hard talks. But you know what they say: no pain, no gain, don’t expect her to take your last name.