Gay couples confront the dilemma of choosing a family name

  • Article by: JACOB BERNSTEIN
  • New York Times
  • December 30, 2013 - 9:28 AM

Should you drop your maiden name? Change it personally, but keep it professionally? Or hyphenate?

Hayley Gerkin hoped to avoid these questions when she married her girlfriend, Erica Rothman, in 2011. But they liked the idea of their children sharing a family name, she said. “It’s streamlined,” she said. “Everybody on the same page.”

Gerkin, 32, was thinking they could be the Gerkins; Rothman, 33, was holding out for Rothmans. The stalemate ended with Gerkman. “We were both stubborn,” Hayley said.

Settling on a family name has confounded couples for decades. Even men who consider themselves feminists may not be eager to take their wives’ last names. Hyphenating seems like a good option until children burdened with unwieldy double-barreled variations complain.

Now, with the passage of same-sex marriage laws in an increasing number of states, some gay couples are grappling with what to call themselves, making choices laden with issues from logistical to emotional to aesthetic.

Bernadette Coveney Smith, 36, a New York-based wedding planner who specializes in same-sex weddings, said some couples are merging names, while others — such as Rebecca Zeitlin and Teresa Sakash — are creating their own mash-ups. (In their case: “Zash.”)

Samantha Goettlich and Laura Semon, both 28, married in September. They couldn’t imagine hyphenating, Samantha said. Her own German last name was endlessly confusing to people, while her spouse’s was endlessly made fun of. Giving their combined name to a child “would be totally embarrassing,” she said. So she and her spouse took the name Abby, Goett­lich’s middle name, and they’re starting fresh.

When it came to her own marriage, Coveney Smith and her wife, Jen, took a piecemeal approach.

“She hyphenated, I didn’t,” the wedding planner said. “We just couldn’t agree.”

Among gay men, anecdotal evidence suggests fewer newlywed couples are merging or changing names. This might explain why friends were confused when Kurt Serrano (formerly Kurt Roggin) told friends he was changing his name.

“No one said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but almost all of them said ‘Go for it, but I would never do that,’ ” Serrano, 40, said. Still, despite the fact that he is older (his husband, Jimmy, is 27) and though people now draw conclusions (“They assume you’re submissive,” he said), he was resolute.

As an executive in human resources, Kurt Serrano has seen all the hassles people go through when they hyphenate. He likes the idea that when he and his husband have children, they will share a last name that celebrates Jimmy’s Hispanic heritage.

New feminism

The desire to share a last name with one’s children appears to be at the heart of a growing trend among heterosexual women who identify as feminists but are nevertheless taking their husbands’ names.

In 2004, Claudia Goldin of Harvard released a study showing that in the ’70s and ’80s, during the height of the women’s movement, the number of women changing their names decreased, before increasing again in the ’90s and after.

Many women also adopted their maiden names as middle names. (In a much-reported tabloid development, this is the tack Kim Kardashian said she will be taking when she marries her fiancé, Kanye West.)

Goldin recalled a conversation she had with a niece who had changed her name. For this young woman, Goldin said, the decision had little social significance beyond convenience — the desire to avoid confusion when the plumber came to the door or when she went to pick up the children from school. The message, Goldin said, was: “Your generation did all the work, now we can go back to having our husbands’ names.”

“I consider myself a feminist,” said Suzanna Mettham (formerly Publicker), 29, a lawyer for the New York City Police Department who was married in June. “For me, it was a choice. If we decide to have children, I like the idea they would have our name. Both of ours. It’s kind of a ridiculous thing, but at our wedding we had a quote from the Avett Brothers: ‘Always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.’ And I think that that kind of sums up my decision.”

The newly minted Kate Kirschner agreed. “I don’t feel like my having my husband’s name diminishes my feminism,” said Kirschner, 32, artistic director at the Women’s Project Theater.

“I think what I did is indicative of the third-wave feminism I’m part of,” she said. “We don’t feel the same need our mothers did to declare our independence as women, because we feel it’s more inherent. We haven’t had the same challenges they had, and, for better and for worse, it means we’re not waving the flag in the same way.”

Strong, not weak

But Kirschner’s mother, Deborah Pines (who kept her name), questioned her daughter’s choice.

“I was not thrilled about it,” Pines said. “I felt that she was going back. She says that women nowadays don’t have to follow the feminist wave and I don’t think that’s true. I feel the ‘Lean In’ person doesn’t change her name. So I was upset she had decided to do that.”

Patricia Molina, whose daughter Rachel Brodhead (nee Blitzer) recently changed her name, feels similarly.

“I have two daughters,” Molina said. “I always thought they would keep their names. I raised them to be strong, independent young women.”

Molina added that she’s not angry about her daughter’s choice (“I’m glad it’s even a question, a decision to be made,” she said), but she is holding out hope that Brodhead, 33, a patent litigator, will continue to use her maiden name professionally. “I think if she were to ask me, I would tell her to keep her professional name of Rachel Blitzer. I don’t think she should change that. But she hasn’t asked my opinion.”

For his part, Kurt Serrano sees a strength in his choice.

“A lot of people have said, ‘Does it feel different being married?’ and I said, ‘Yes. Yes it does. I have this daily reminder because I’ve changed my name and I wear it like a badge of honor.’ 

“A lot of my female friends who have changed their names are really strong women,” he added, “and they have said it’s empowering making a traditional decision and reclaiming it. I’m that secure in myself and sense of identity. I don’t feel weaker doing it. I feel stronger.”

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