I took my husband’s last name when we got married. We were in grad school (in the humanities!), that hotbed of liberal politics and loose sexual morals and more than one friend raised an eyebrow and wondered why I, as a good feminist, would do that.
I had my reasons at the time and those are valid still. Primarily, I wanted to indicate that my relationship with my husband trumped my relationship to my father (who, at the time, was the only other family member I had with the same last name as me). It was a symbolic gesture, more than a political or feminist one, and I haven’t regretted the choice.
Yesterday, though, the name of a guy I went to junior and senior high school with popped into my head and I went a googled him. W, as I’ll call him, was a couple years ahead of me in school; his brother was in my class. I didn’t know either one of them very well. W struck me as cute, rich, smart and popular (all of this, of course, from my teenage vantage point, a notoriously unreliable perspective). He went off to university and I heard, a few years later through the grapevine, that he had come out of the closet, become a political activist, and changed his name to reflect this change. D became W. Cool, I thought. And I envisioned W engaged in all sorts of very earnest HRC-type lobbying and sent him my warmest thought waves.
When I googled him yesterday, I found out that he’d gotten his PhD in English a few years before I got mine in German and is an English Prof and Associate Dean at a university far away from our home town. He looks older, of course, and somehow more like his little brother. There is no trace of his childhood name anywhere. Because I’d heard from a friend what his new first name was, I was able to find him easily in the interwebz.
It isn’t very common, of course, to change your first name. And W did it long before the advent of social media, so he wasn’t, as far as I can tell, “hiding” anything, but rather revealing something else. I changed my last name, keeping my maiden name as a middle name, and also saw this as an act of revealing rather than squashing. But I do wonder, if W or his little brother, or any number of acquaintances from wherever/whenever wanted to find me, does having a new last name cut me off from them? When I got married, I gave some thought to the argument of continuity: stay who you are; present yourself consistently over time and across space–keep your name. Those arguments didn’t sway me in 1996. I wonder if social media, googling, and the coinciding public curating of our private lives has changed the strength of that argument for me.
And, as the image above reminds us all: W changed his first name in an era when it was impossible in all 50 States to change your last name via the vehicle of marriage for same-sex couples. May we soon enter the era when my 1996 dilemma is open to all of us, regardless of whom we love.