My wife and I got married in Connecticut in 2009 because it still wasn’t legal for us to do so in our home state of New York. We wed while I was pregnant with our first child, in the hopes that doing so would facilitate getting her name on his birth certificate. We decided to keep our names, rather than change or hyphenate them, because, for reasons both professional and personal, we were attached to them as they were. Our son, however, was a different story. One that we were writing. Whose last name should he take? What was fair? What was right?
One of the awesome things about being queer is that it frees us from certain social expectations. When we do make stereotypically heteronormative life moves, like getting married or becoming parents, it’s more likely to feel like a conscious choice rather than the fulfillment of some predetermined script.
Because I had the privilege of gestating our baby and providing half of his DNA, I left the last name question up to his other mom. Her surname is the name of the small fishing town on Lake Superior that her ancestors founded, and she wanted to share this special connection with our child. When his little sister came along four years later, carrying my wife’s DNA instead of mine, we didn’t hesitate in giving her the same name. Laws had changed, again, and her birth certificate was easier to acquire. I filed it away with her social security card when it arrived in the mail, and didn’t give the matter much further thought.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I revisited the decision. We were returning from a vacation abroad, preparing to go through passport control. Given their matching surnames, not to mention their matching blonde hair, we quickly decided that my wife should present the kids’ passports with them. I came through afterwards, alone—a brunette straggler.
Later, my daughter declared that she wanted me to change my name, so that we could “be matching.” I’ll admit I considered it, but only for a minute. My entire publication history is under Holmes, and I wasn’t prepared to give it up.
For similar reasons, writer and GO Magazine Managing Editor Dayna Troisi and her wife reached a different conclusion and decided to hyphenate their last names. “We really wanted to feel like we were coming together,” says Troisi, “but also wanted to honor our roots.” Keeping both names, adds Troisi’s wife, Vanessa, allows for “respecting our individual accomplishments outside of our marriage.” While their names are now longer than before, the couple are confident in their decision.
It turns out that our experiences are pretty typical. Carol Buell, a lawyer and mediator in New York City with a practice focusing on LGBTQ+ family law, mediation, and estate planning, has been helping queer families legalize their ties for a number of years. Most of her clients these days, she says, are making one of the following two choices when it comes to their children’s last names: they use one parent’s surname as the middle name and the other as the last name, or they hyphenate their last names.
Buell notes that she and her wife kept their last names and hyphenated for their daughter. “We were lucky because both of our last names are one syllable,” she tells GO.
Some couples are committed to hyphenation regardless of the names involved. “I’ve had clients whose last name is six syllables hyphenate,” says Buell. Most families do consider sonic quality to some degree. Mirabai Knight, a New York mom married to another woman, explains that when she and her spouse decided to hyphenate their child’s surnames, “we just picked the order that sounded better.”
Amanda Armstrong-Price, another lesbian mom in NYC, says she and her partner chose a hyphenated last name for their child “because it seemed like it would reinforce that both of us were kiddo’s parents to schools and other institutions.”
A smaller number of couples, Buell notes, create a new surname by either combining their last names into a new one, or picking a new name for the kids or whole family. A grandmother’s maiden name, for example, might be resurrected for this purpose.
“We thought long and hard about a combo name but never found one we liked,” says lesbian mom Pamela Greengarten, whose children use her last name. In addition to some complicated family history, her wife’s last name is also seventeen letters long. Greengarten says she does worry that people will assume that her wife is not the children’s parent.
Buell notes, however, that she sees the third surname option used less often. Many examples she has seen came from “older clients who had difficult relationships with their families of origin” who were looking “to reinvent themselves with an affirming name for their child.” Buell hypothesizes that as fewer queer people face rejection or abandonment from their families, particularly in places like New York City, she is seeing less of this option and more hyphenation and use of a surname as a child’s middle name.
While changing an adult’s last name, hyphenated or not, requires “a name change order by a local attorney,” or sometimes even without an attorney, for a child, “you just affirm what you want it to be,” says Buell. We’re all free to put whatever we like on that birth certificate, first, middle, and last—though it seems that most of us don’t look too far afield, selecting among names we have connections to.
Buell does recommend to clients that one parent’s last name match the children’s, for the sake of navigating situations like passport control. “We still have a lot of homophobic bureaucratic officials out there as we travel who make a lot of assumptions about people,” says Buell. For example, “people look askance at men traveling alone with small children.”
When I ask if she recommends that her clients travel with copies of documents such as birth certificates and orders of adoption, she says that it’s always a good idea, but quickly notes that some people will end up needing to show these more often than others. My white, cis wife and I have never been asked for additional documentation when traveling—even when I brought both blindingly blonde children to the West Coast on my own. But not everyone’s experience is so easy.
As the parent of a child who is now a young adult, Buell also advises clients to think as far down the road as possible. “Imagine your child at 20, imagine your child at 50.” Ultimately, each family has to decide what feels right for them, with the understanding that the process of merging lives doesn’t always come without some loss—whether of history, simplicity, or brevity.
Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t also room for joy as we all reimagine, in our own queer ways, what family can be. “I love the way our kid’s name sounds,” says Knight. “It’s hard to spell and pronounce, but unique and beautiful!”