What's in a Name?

When my sister got married, she gave up our family name, Semon, for another. One might wonder what woman in her right mind would give up such a dignified name. What woman would deny herself the joy of repeating, in person and over the phone, for every appointment, every dinner reservation, "Yes, it's Semon" (pronounced "see-min")? When my brother's wife took the name, I thought, "That is true love."

Before our marriage, my wife Sam was a Goettlich (pronounced "get-lick"). Though it doesn't produce the same immediate lascivious reactions as Semon, when the two are paired, like a great steak and a full-bodied Cabernet, the results are exquisite. How did two women with such tenacious last names end up together? A cruel consequence of fate, our love stopped me from achieving my childhood dream of marrying into a classic last name.

Sure, I was teased in school, but my name gave me a thick skin. I even liked it, repeating it for substitute teachers a touch too loudly and boldly: SEMON. Still, I dreamed of the day I would marry and thus inherit a fancy new name. Then I met Sam. In our early courtship we didn't worry about a last name. But then came wedding planning, and as members of a community historically unrecognized in marriage, we consider it important that we share the same last name and pass it down to our children. Many of our same-sex friends will choose the preferred name. Some of them consider male heirs to the family name; others consider their names in relation to their career. Some are open to hyphenating. For same-sex couples who plan to keep one of their names, the name-change process in the state of New York is identical to that of straight couples.

Neither I nor Sam was keen to take the other's name, and hyphenating was not an option. Our friends had a blast conjuring suggestions like Semonlich and Goetsemon. "Our poor future children," I lamented. "Our poor unborn babies," Sam replied. We imagined our future child on his first day of school, hair combed into the appropriate style, homemade lunch of roasted-veggie quinoa and baby-arugula-with-pear-and-goat-cheese salad tucked into his superhero lunch box, looking around the cafeteria for a friend. At each table he would stop to sit, only to be met with sneers, "Can't sit here, Goettlich-Semon. Why don't you go home and sit with your mommies?!" It was clear that we needed a new name altogether.

Negotiations began. We considered hyphenating our moms' maiden names. We considered names passed down through our families, and finally we decided to do something that many other couples, both straight and gay, have done before us: We took Sam's middle name as our last name. That decision turned out to be the easy part.

Next we needed to find out how to change our names. The tedious process had nothing at all to do with gay marriage. Had either one of us chosen to take the other's last name, the process would have been easy. The marriage license would have allowed either spouse to take the surname of the other. That being said, we certainly confused some of the employees downtown who couldn't quite figure out why two women were simultaneously changing their surnames to Abby, so it sounds like what we've done is a little out of the ordinary.

We each had to petition the court for a name change. When I filled out my paperwork, which was available on the Web, there was space to write why I wanted to change my name. I wrote that my fiancée and I would be taking her middle name as our last when we married. The petition involved a $65 fee for each of us. We brought our completed copies down to civil court at 111 Centre Street in Manhattan. We completed our petitions downstairs and were then sent upstairs to the cashier, who then sent us back downstairs, at which point we were given our court date. The cashier is easily the nastiest person in the building, and you can either pay with exact change or a personal check. We were the idiots using the ATM. They do not accept credit or debit cards, and they don't care that you didn't realize that you'd have to pay six other hidden fees. They want their exact change.

Because Sam is originally from New Jersey, the court made a photocopy of her birth certificate and returned it to her. I am from New York, so they kept mine. Aside from finding this illogical, I was freaked out at the prospect of handing over my original birth certificate, but for a fee I was able to order a new one.

The following week we returned to Centre Street to see the judge. If your experience is anything like ours, you will enter a large, windowless room and cautiously approach the court officer, who has no patience for your confusion. He'll swipe the papers from your hand and then tell you to sit down, and without any prompting, he will let you know, "You're gonna be here awhile." You will sit quietly in fear. A judge will enter, but you will not talk to him. Then some guy will call your name, and you'll chat, sit back down, and wait another 40 minutes, and a woman will start handing out your petitions as the judge reminds you to read your documents thoroughly, because even if they got it wrong, once you leave here, this is your new, permanent name. They tell you which newspaper you're required to publish with. Our judge chose the Irish Echo, so when I called a day later, I spoke to a lovely Irish lass named Mary, who charged me $70 for two name-change publications, which were published the following week. Upon publication we received an affidavit, which we took down to Centre Street, where we finalized the paperwork and bought certified copies of our name-change documents. It was a snap!

From there the process is similar to the usual name change, which can be completed on the marriage license. Our next stop is the social security office and the DMV. I'm not at all looking forward to it.