ISSUE: This week in Grey Matters, we look at a dilemma facing every married couple, gay or straight. What do you do about the social convention where the wife takes the husband’s last name? Let’s examine this topic with a fictional story about Juan Gomez, an attorney, and Billy White, a personal trainer. The couple has invited Billy’s parents to dinner to tell them they’re getting married.
Juan waved to get the attention of our waitress. After five years of dating me, he had learned how to sweet talk my mother, and he knew it was easier when she was a little tipsy.
The waitress came over to the table, and Juan held up my mother’s empty wine glass. “Another white zinfandel, please.”
The waitress took the glass and turned to walk away, but Dad rattled the ice in his old-fashioned. “I’ll have another Maker’s Mark on the rocks,” he said.
Juan cut his eyes at me. Momma got relaxed and more fun when she drank. But Dad was different. He was at his best when he had only one strong drink. More than that, and he could be unpredictable.
We made small talk until the waitress came back with our glasses. Juan had ordered a split of champagne for me and him to share, and once we all had our fresh drinks, I raised my flute. “Momma. Dad. You know that for the past year, Juan and I have talked about getting married. We’ve finally set a date.”
“Oh Lord,” Momma started fanning herself with her napkin. “I can’t believe it. This makes me so happy!”
“Congratulations, son.” Dad clinked his glass to mine and the gestured towards Juan. “And future son-in-law.” Juan smiled, showing the gap between his front two teeth. Something that he wanted to get fixed, but I liked that about him. “It’s the only thing about you that’s not perfect,” I had told him.
Momma held out her wine. “A toast to my future in-house lawyer.” She turned to me. “I’ve always wanted a son-in-law who was an attorney. Does that mean I can get free legal work?”
“If you need help building a 500 MW power plant, give me a call,” Juan said.
Momma could never understand that attorneys weren’t like doctors. Whereas all doctors had to know basic medical stuff, attorneys were highly specialized. Juan did project finance for large energy projects at a large law firm. He couldn’t draft a will or help Momma with a land dispute with her neighbor.
“So when is the special day?” Momma asked.
“June 26,” I said. “That’s a big day for our community.” I looked over and smiled at my fiancé. The only bad thing about being married to him is that I could no longer use the word “fiancé.”
Juan nodded. “It’s a big day for our community. On June 26, in 2003, the Supreme Court made it unconstitutional to criminalize intimate conduct between two men. In 2013, the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. And in 2015, the Court made gay marriage the law of the land in every state by the Obergefell case.”
“That’s wonderful,” Momma said. “So romantic.”
“I’m so glad that you’re happy with all this,” I said and never felt more proud of my parents. Even with their Baptist roots, they’d come to accept my life choices and Juan as my life partner. I almost didn’t want to spoil the moment by telling them the rest.
“There is one more thing that I wanted to tell you both,” I said and glanced at Momma and then Dad. He finished off his drink. I never had a good poker face, and he knew the other shoe was poised to drop.
“I’m taking Juan’s last name,” I said.
“Why would you do that?” Momma asked. She looked at me. “What does that say to people?” She paused and took a sip of her wine. Her voice got really quiet. “What does that say about the ‘dynamic’ of your relationship?”
“What does that mean?” Juan asked her, but I knew what she was referring to.
“She thinks that we’re saying that you’re the husband, and I’m the wife,” I said. “Right, Mom?”
“I don’t understand why Juan just doesn’t take your last name?” Dad asked me. “Did you consider that?”
“We did,” I replied. “It’s just that Juan has been an attorney for twenty years, and his clients all know him as Juan Gomez.”
“And I’m proud of my Latin heritage,” Juan said, but I wish that he had just stayed quiet. “I don’t want to take a name that is literally ‘white.'”
“Aren’t you proud of the White name?” Dad asked me.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s not that.”
Dad continued the interrogation. “Son, didn’t your people fight not to have to follow tradition? Where you can come together as equals and each keep your last name?”
“We just plan on having kids one day. And all want to have the same last name.”
“So you’re telling me that you won’t have White kids,” Dad said.
“Are you talking about his last name or the color?” Juan raised his voice, and everyone at the tables near us started to stare.
“Juan, Billy is my only son,” my dad said. “I have three daughters, all married, all with their husband’s last names. If Billy doesn’t give his kids the White name, then it will die.”
“Did you think about hyphenating?” Mom asked. Her wine has kicked in, and she was trying to play peacemaker, as was her custom.
“We discussed that,” I said, not offering any explanation, but again, Juan jumped in.
“Our names don’t hyphenate well,” he said.
“Not helping,” I muttered under my breath, but he didn’t hear me or chose to ignore me.
“It seems mildly racist to say White-Gomez or Gomez-White,” Juan said. “Like we’re distinguishing it from the brown Gomezes.”
“Won’t people be confused if you have a Hispanic surname?” Dad asked me. “Won’t they think you’re Mexican or something and then when they meet you, and you’re not Latin, won’t they be upset?”
“Dad, that was a Seinfeld episode with George’s mother and this woman named Donna Chang, who Estelle thought was Chinese.” I started to explain the whole episode, but my mother held up her hand and stopped me.
I could see the wheels spinning. She was stuck on what this said about the “dynamic” of my relationship with Juan. She jumped back into the fight. And this time fought dirty. “Billy, I hate to bring this up. And no offense to Juan, but you don’t have the best track record. I think it’s great that the gays can marry now, but it also means you can divorce. What will you do if you two divorce? Change your name back?”
“Mom. If we were to get a divorce, then I can just change it back as part of the divorce decree.”
“So you’ve already looked at this?” Dad said as if our relationship were already doomed.
“Juan is an attorney,” I said. “He knows things like this.”
Momma threw up her arms like she’d heard enough. “And yet he can’t help your poor mother get her neighbor to stop operating a gun range on his property?”
Dad leaned over and glared at Juan. “Is this something your parents put you up to?”
“We haven’t even told them yet. Juan’s dad hasn’t quite accepted the he just hasn’t met the right chica yet.”
“Why not have a new last name?” Mom asked. “One you both pick?”
Dad jumped on that bandwagon. “What about something that represents you both?”
“I suggested that,” I said. “I proposed we translate the word ‘white’ into Spanish and be called Juan and Billy Blanco.”
“I like that idea!” Momma said.
“I’m not changing my last name,” Juan said. “Billy, we’ve discussed this and agreed.”
I reached over and put my hand on my mother’s hand. “Mom. Dad. I’m taking Juan’s last name because I love him. I will always love him. And I want this bond to be permanent. I am changing my name because he asked.” I stared at them until they both nodded.
COMMENTARY: This scene sets out a litany of questions that get raised when couples decide what to call themselves after they marry. Of course, tradition dictated that a wife took her husband’s last name. In the ’70s, women started to rebel against this and many kept their last name or couples compromised and hyphenated. I’ve worked with many folks who have hyphenated last names, and the joke was always about what would happen if your son/daughter meets someone with a hyphenated last name. Would you then have four hyphenated last names?
I have a lot of female friends who are attorneys, and they kept their last names because they had already established themselves professionally. One confided to me that she did not believe getting married in anyway changed her identity so she didn’t take her husband’s last name, but her kids have her husband’s last name. For this reason, she feels ostracized. She uses her husband’s last name socially and her last name professionally. She said that “Having two different names in some ways reinforces that I have two different identities, one as a member of my family and one professionally.”
There are pros and cons for all positions on this topic, and gay and straight couples have taken every imaginable approach from picking a new last name, from hyphenating to picking one of their names from a hat. One lesbian couple held a family soccer match to decide whose name to take. (Of course, because it’s soccer, the score ended up being tied.)
The key here is for family members to stay out of the discussion. It’s hard enough for a couple to make this decision. Parents should be glad their kids can marry whom they love. What last name they pick doesn’t matter.