Tuesday, June 12, 2012

There's a Reason We Don't Give People Numbers: Part 2

Note: this was inspired by a friend's post on names. This is part of a two-part series about how I struggle with gender and my own name.  The first part is here.

Names are important. They can indicate our kinship ties and pieces of our identity. They can change how people perceive us, sometimes even before they meet us. In turn, as we wear our names, people color the meaning of the syllables that make up our name with the things they know about us. So, what do you do when the name people expect you to take isn't yours?

Historically, in many cultures, marriages took place to establish paternity, which was useful (a) to avoid incestuous procreation and genetic abnormalities and (b) to establish who financially took care of whom and to whom property would pass after a death and so on.  Often, this came with a side order of restricted rights for a woman as she passed from her father's care to her husband's care.  This doesn't thrill me: I don't believe that I require a husband (or a father) to provide for me.

The social expectation that a woman changes her last name when she marries a man seems annoys me.  Not only does it assume a heterosexual marriage, it seems (to me) to symbolize this sort of less-than-modern passing-the-woman nonsense, as she trades her father's surname for her new husband's.

This doesn't work for me.  I won't turn into a whole new person when I marry K.  I've had my name my whole life, and I have made it my name.  Certainly, it's a name that I share with my family: this doesn't bother me, as the family who bears the same name as I do has supported me throughout my life.  So, why should I abandon my name-- the name of my family-- because I'm starting a new family with K?  Our children will have his last name, and I believe that that will adequately signal my kinship ties to anyone who needs to know.  I don't need to give up my last name to commit to him.

Also, I love my last name.  When I went from my given name to "JP", I began writing my last name -- just my last name-- on all those things you're supposed to label with your name in case they get lost or stolen: textbooks, graphing calculators, notebooks, and so on.  I have a professional identity that I'm just starting to build using my last name, too. It's on four diplomas: one each from high school and community college and two from my university. It headlines my resume. 

I love my last name, and I don't want to change it.

I know that people will probably end up calling me Mrs. Hislastname.  That doesn't bother me-- after all, it will be kind of true.  K and I are getting married. People address letters to Mr. and Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname, after all,* and people do not expect me to change my first name.

I don't really mind what other people call me, as long as it indicates they respect me.**  We use people's names to identify each other, and what other people call me in the context of our relationship should simply select which of a number of respected people the speaker wishes to address.  In terms of my identity, the names that matter most are the ones I call myself.

*I could go on about how this is annoyingly gendered, too, but the people who do this are either (1) people who love you enough to send you mail or (2) working for a company sending junk mail.  The former already love you, and also yay mail, so I'm not inclined to fuss, and the latter everyone ignores anyway.  Etiquette guides are beginning to establish guidelines for addressing formal letters and invitations to non-traditional families, but this is a process, and since there is good-natured effort going on here, I'm not going to quibble.

**If I introduce myself as "Firstname Mylastname" to someone who persists in calling me "Mrs. Hislastname", though, that's disrespectful, and not the kind of mistake that's OK because you're trying but met him first and just didn't know better.  Of course, your best choice is to ask me what I'd like to be called, but I understand it's a lot of work to ask everyone that when so many people still follow the convention.


  1. I agree with basically everything you've said, and I don't like the custom either. My situation is a bit complicated and I'm wondering what your take on it is.

    I don't mind my last name, but I do not speak to a single person on my dad's side of the family anymore and haven't for the past two years. Only one person even tries to keep in contact with me. Two of them have said some nasty things to my mother after my parents got divorced, things which I will not tolerate even if they came from family. The rest don't speak to me either. My grandparents are both deceased, and I loved them a lot, and I'd consider keeping my name in honor of them. However, that name just gives me a sour, stabby taste in my mouth. And I don't know if the prospect of avoiding the gendered-ness of taking R's last name is enough to make me NOT take R's last name.

    At the same time, I don't want people to assume that I'm going along with a gendered tradition, and it would get old to explain everything.

    I have another option, too: change my last name to my mother's maiden name. They have more dignity and have been there for me much more. But again, it would be annoying to explain why I changed to that name, as well. Also, it would probably cost money to change to that because most states only allow free name changes on the marriage license if it's the groom's last name or a combo of the bride and groom's last name.

    What do you think of that?

  2. First off, check your local regulations-- lots of marriage laws vary by state. (Other things to check: do you need a blood test? how long is the license good for? and so on-- ask the local government.) You may not even have to explain what you want (once you've decided what that is, of course).

    If it turns out that you'd have to pay extra, though, consider: is it worth it to you to break that tie? One of my cousins changed his last name to his mother's maiden name (as his mother did after she and his father were divorced), and it was worth it for him. Remember, this is the name that (theoretically) you will use for the rest of your life-- is saving a few dollars now worth compromising on your name?

    One other option-- the people getting married can BOTH change their names to something completely different. My cousins did that, and if you prefer a clicky link, these folks both changed their last name to "Reynolds" after Captain Mal.

    In my personal situation, if my family were the Meanersons and K's family were the Nicealots, I'd probably change my name specifically to break that tie and join up with the family supporting me. I don't consider that particularly gendered, though-- I would argue for the same thing in the opposite situation, because who wants to keep ties with any Meanersons? If both families were nasty-- say, if I was a Meanerson and K was a Jerkus-- I would recommend that we both change our name to something else. However, that's what I would want. You should think about what you want and what you can live with, talk it over with R, and make a decision that works for both of you.

    Good luck!