To lose your maiden name completely. To change it personally and keep it professionally. To hyphenate or not to 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. 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,” Hayley said. “We were both stubborn.”
How to settle on a family name has confounded couples for decades, with no easy answers. Many men consider themselves feminists, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been eager to take their wives’ last names. Hyphenating seems like a good option until you’ve heard the complaints of children burdened with unwieldy double-barreled variations. And with the passage of same-sex marriage laws in an increasing number of states, some gay couples are now grappling with what to call themselves, making choices laden with issues from logistical to emotional to aesthetic.
Bernadette Coveney Smith, 36, a New York- and Boston-based wedding planner who specializes in same-sex weddings, said numerous women she helps are merging names, among them the Gerkmans, and Rebecca Zeitlin and Teresa Sakash, who developed their own creative mash-up: “Zash.”
Samantha Goettlich and Laura Semon are two 28-year-olds who began their love affair as AEPhi sorority sisters at Emerson and married in September. The couple 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. “It’s like, I’m Goettlich-Semon and I have two mommies.” So she and her spouse took the name Abby, the former 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, Serrano has seen all the hassles people go through when they hyphenate.
“There was this woman I hired,” he said. “She was fantastic, but she said her name was Shari Johnson in her documents.”
“Then I met her and she introduced herself as Shari Bracy. When she set herself up in her new-hire paperwork she did it as Shari Bracy-Johnson. It created massive confusion. No one could find her in any of the directories and so I made a mental note to self: When you find the man you want to marry, remember this so as not to create mass confusion in an organization.”
And there are other considerations, he said. He likes the idea that when he and his husband have children they will share a last name that celebrates one of their parents’ Hispanic heritage.
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, Dr. 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 her own 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 the children up 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 said: “I don’t feel like my having my husband’s name diminishes my feminism.”
Kirschner, who is 32, is the artistic director at the Women’s Project Theater.
“I think what I did is indicative of the third-wave feminism I’m part of. 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.”
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.”