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All About Gay Weddings

What Does It Mean When a Gay Son Takes His Husband's Surname?

My husband and I are thrilled that our son, who is in his late 20s, will be marrying his boyfriend in California this spring. I was not so happy, however, when he told me he’ll be dropping our last name and taking his fiancé's. When I married my husband in the early ‘80s I hyphenated my name, which felt like a good compromise. My husband and I are very hurt by our son’s decision, particularly since neither of us know any other same-sex couples who have chosen to do this (and we’d hoped to have grandchildren that carry on our family name). I also worry what this says about the dynamics of their relationship. I don’t want to be the mom who meddles with her son’s happiness, but am I right to be concerned? And how should I go about expressing my feelings?

Let me start with congratulations to your son and his fiancé on their coming nuptials. With that said, let me also dip into my cache of Shakespearean quotes and remind us all of one of Juliet’s most famous lines to Romeo: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Your son will still be your son, and your grandchildren your grands, no matter what name they bear.

That being said, many of my Facebook readers who responded to your question had much to say to you — and to your son.

· “I think the son is celebrating the fact that he has this option, which was not available to gay people before now. Changing his name is a political statement as much as an emotional one.”

· “To very many families the family name is very important and to simply drop it, can be a slap in the face.”

· “For gay couples, choosing one name or the other can have less to do with the ‘dynamics’ of the relationship than who has a ‘better name, but outsiders’ worrying/wondering about this says a lot about existing sex-role stereotypes.”

That last point is especially interesting — are you perhaps worried that your son’s changing his name is an indicator that he has a subordinate role in the relationship?

It probably doesn’t mean that. I emailed Andrew Solomon, the author of the acclaimed “Far From the Tree,” and husband of John Habich Solomon, for his take on John’s name change:

“We felt that in the same way that it’s radical for heterosexual women to refuse to change their names, indicating that they haven’t been subsumed into a new identity with marriage, so it is equally radical for gay people to change their names; it associates us firmly with the idea of family, of permanence, of being part of a many-generations tradition of intimacy. I like the fact that we are the Solomon family.”

Curiously, Mr. Solomon explained that, “sometimes it felt as though my identity was the one being subsumed, even though it was my name that he was taking.”

With your permission, let me jump back to when you were married in the 1980s. As you recall, a woman’s choice to hyphenate her name rather than succumb to the patriarchal default did not come without controversy. Newly empowered women risked being derided as “radical feminists” for wanting to claim their own identities and not be subsumed into their new husband’s. Other women who married in that era kept their own name, then hyphenated their children’s names to include both mom’s and dad’s surname.

On the practical side, much was made of what would become of the hyphenate offspring, presumably those such as your son. In my experience, those young hyphenates who marry are changing their names even faster than states are adopting marriage equality. Likewise, an informal theKnot.com poll found that those who chose to hyphenate their names dropped to 8 percent in 2005 from 21 percent in 2000. My niece, Jessie Petrow-Cohen, has told me: “I want to get rid of that long, clunky name as fast as I can.”

If I were to guess, I suspect that what your son is in search of a single name that establishes that he and his new husband are indeed a family. For L.G.B.T. families, there’s an eminently practical side to this question, especially when children are involved.

So although I sympathize with my niece’s urge to lose the hyphenated name, I well remember and fully understand how much time, effort and love my sister and her wife put into the decision to become the “Petrow-Cohens,” which was to present themselves to the world (and to their children’s school) as one family with one name.

So, what to do? If anything your question suggests to me that you and your son might do best by talking with each other. And what better place to start than by raising with him your reasons in having joined the “hyphenated” club of married boomers and then seeing where that open door takes you in more fully understanding his decision. Last, I believe we can choose to be hurt or not to be hurt. Choose the latter.

Originally published in The New York Times, JAN 28, 2014

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