What’s In A Name? For Gay Couples, A Struggle.

Andi Hutchins likes her last name. It represents permanency and family, something she had lacked with divorced parents and a schizophrenic father. The Hutchinses became Andi’s foster parents when she was 11 and adopted her at 16. At 13, Andi took their name. She’s not ready to give it up just yet.

But she loves her partner, Clara Rodriguez, 26, and wants to take her name when the two get married in a few months. “I want my cake and eat it too by keeping mine and taking hers,” she said.

Hutchins’ parents are not fully accepting of their daughter’s homosexuality, so Rodriguez isn’t too keen on adopting that name completely. What do do? Hyphenate? “Too long,” says Hutchins, 22. A hybrid, Hurod, “Sounds funny,” Hutchins says.

“In same-sex marriage, there is no obvious way, based on sex, for couples to navigate their way through marital-naming decisions,” wrote Suzanne Kim, associate professor of law at Rutgers University Law School, in a 2010 Indiana Law Journal article. “Name changing in same-sex marriage therefore holds the promise to proceed from conversation, rather than from gender-based expectation.”Six states have now passed laws legalizing gay marriage. Two more are set to join them within the year and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently declared California’s controversial ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. There are now 50,000 legally married same-sex couples in the United States and the number is rapidly growing, according to the American Community Survey. So more and more same-sex couples are coming to grips with the quandary facing Rodriguez and Hutchins: Whether to change their  surnames and if so, to what.

That conversation may touch on several topics for same-sex couples: Whether to change names at all, how attached each partner is to a name,  which name combination sounds best, and what name to give the children.

For many gay couples, honoring a family member or an ethnic heritage is often a  priority in choosing a common last name. Emily Keenan and her wife, Kristen, met six years ago in a Boston flag football flag league. They married last July and now live with their two miniature schnauzers, Rudy and Archie, in Boston. Emily was ready to give up her surname, Damgaard, from the start. But after Kristen proposed, she asked: “Why would we choose my name over your name? Couldn’t we both take your name?”

The two women admired Kristen’s mother, who was adopted and given the last name Keenan. She had since married and changed her name, but Emily and Kristen liked the concept of taking her maiden name. They weren’t going to be a traditional family and Kristen’s mother hadn’t had a traditional upbringing. “We knew it meant a lot to her mom,” Emily said.

Some couples spend months searching for the perfect amalgam of both last names. Colby Berger and Sarah Swett, a married couple in their 30s living just outside of Boston, gathered some friends last summer and hunkered down until they produced a new, hybrid name, Swettberg.

“We had a great time coming up with various configurations of our new last name,” Colby said. “Picture several bottles of wine and brainstorming sessions with friends.”

The name issue is a relatively new one for same-sex couples. In 2001, when Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions, a partnership that shares many of the legal characteristics of a marriage, few couples changed their names. Over the first year, only 6 percent of couples took on a portion or all of their partner’s name, according to a 2007 study by Elizabeth Emens, professor of Law at Columbia University’s Law School.

For years, name changing wasn’t even a thought in the gay community, said Kathryn Hamm, president of GayWeddings.com, the country’s largest gay-friendly wedding directory. There were so many legal and social hurdles to jump through before any type of wedding could be held that name changing was at the bottom of the list, she said. Hamm herself has been with her partner for 19 years and, “It’s never even occurred to us to have any interest in taking the other one’s name,” she said.

Ruben Gonzales married Joaquin Tamayo, his partner of 11 years, last fall in Washington, D.C., where the couple, both in their mid-30s, now lives. A friend who officiated at the ceremony kept asking what name to announce, but the two never seriously considered changing their surnames.

“We both have close ties to our family name,” Gonzales said. They were more anxious about asking their Catholic relatives to participate in the Mexican tradition of placing the traditional lasso over them during the ceremony.

But if changing the last name doesn’t come up before the wedding, it often does when children come into the picture. Daniel Santiago and Scott Stewart married last September. They already had a son with the last name Santiago-Stewart and didn’t want him to lose his connection to either of their names, so for now, they’ve kept their separate names.

Several couples said that giving their child a connection to both partners’ names was a way of eliminating ambiguity about the family’s cohesion. For Emily and Kristen Keenan, having a common last name “solidifies our relationship to people that don’t know us well,” Emily said.

Suzanne Kim of Rutgers said that the research shows that heterosexual married couples report that a shared last name strengthens a family’s relationship. But it might be same-sex couples who end up re-framing the way all couples think about their naming choices after marriage.

Right now about 80 percent of American women in opposite-sex couples take their husband’s name after marriage. But the rise of gay marriage “provides an opportunity to revisit the dominant attitude about how married couples operate with regard to one another,” Kim said. “It just inherently will open up the conversation.”