The central conflict of the most heralded love story in history can be encapsulated in four words: "What's in a name?"
High atop her balcony, Juliet assured young Romeo that a rose would smell sweet no matter what she called it, and that she would love him even though his last name was Montague. It's a nice sentiment, quoted often — but at the end of the play, it was their names that sealed their suicide pact.
Some words, like Montague and Capulet, simply carry more weight than others. And lately, the lesbian community has had a lot to say about two words specifically: "marriage" and "DeGeneres."
In the last two weeks, Kelly McGillis joined her longtime partner, Melanie Leis, in a civil union in New Jersey, and a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner granted Portia de Rossi's request to change her last name to DeGeneres.
While AfterEllen.com readers have had plenty to say about both events, mainstream media coverage has been surprisingly casual.
In a 100-word article, The Associated Press succinctly noted,"Portia de Rossi has officially taken wife Ellen Degeneres' last name." Gossip site Just Jared simply headlined the story: "Introducing ... Portia DeGeneres." And entertainment site Movieline only used the news to tease readers about how the Arrested Development movie is never going to happen.
As for McGillis, LGBT-centric sites, like 365Gay, used the correct legal terminology for news of her ceremony: "Kelly McGillis joins Musak exec in NJ civil union." The New York Times also was careful to call it a "civil union" in the weekly "Vows" section.
But loads of mainstream media outlets gave the McGillis story the full marriage treatment. "Kelly McGillis and Girlfriend Tie the Knot!" E! proclaimed. "Top Gun's Kelly McGillis Marries Longtime Girlfriend," TVGuide.com declared. "Kelly McGillis Takes the Plunge," Florida newspaper The Keynoter exclaimed.
So what does it mean for the LGBT community that the mainstream media views a state-sanctioned civil ceremony with the same gravity as a federally sanctioned marriage? And what does it mean for the LGBT community that the highest profile gay couple in the world now share a last name? Is it silly to argue over the semantics of "marriage" and "DeGeneres"?
Let's talk about Portia first because you had a lot of feelings about her decision to adopt Ellen's last name. Some of you greeted the news with a smile and a happy sigh about solidified commitment, while others of you couldn't whip out your Lucy Stone League membership cards and bang out the words "patriarchy," "heteronormative," and "feminism" fast enough on your keyboards.
The legacy of the marriage surname change — in the English-speaking world, at least — is a persnickety piece of history and a topic that has caused various sub-waves of feminists to take turns verbally walloping each other over the last 20 years.
Women were originally required to change their last names to their husband's last names because ownership/responsibility of the woman passed from the father to the husband in marriage. But After World War II, many women began to question the validity of the name exchange. Women had manned the war machine in America, after all. They'd manufactured the fighter plane engines and bombs that secured an Allied victory. These women were the property of no men. And many of them fought to make sure their names reflected their newly won autonomy.
When the third wave of feminism came sweeping in during the '80s and it was no longer a requirement, many feminists began to embrace the convention of keeping their last names. To them, it symbolized what new feminism was all about: personal choice.
From the comments on the original article about Portia's decision, some of our readers indicated that they changed their last names or combined their last names with their spouse's as a symbol of their commitment to one another, or as a way to distance themselves from traumatic pasts associated with the surnames of their birth. The freedom to change their last names wasn't about acquiescence to a patriarchal structure, but about the empowerment that comes from being given a choice.
Of course, a lesbian's choice to change her last name in marriage is a moot point if same-sex couples aren't granted the federal right to marry. And that brings us back to Kelly McGillis. Seeing mainstream media outlets use the word "marriage" to describe her union with her girlfriend is heartening. It indicates that they understand the importance of the commitment regardless of the exegetics. But in the LGBT community, we understand the gravity of the word "marriage" a little differently.
From a legal standpoint, "civil unions" are protected by the state, whereas "marriages" are protected by the federal government. There are over 1,000 federal laws that are relevant to married couples and, while many of them are relatively minor or only affect a small group of citizens, these federal laws also govern taxes, Social Security survivor benefits, health insurance, immigration and pension. But perhaps the most striking difference between the two terms is the ability of straight couples to use the word "married."
Children don't dream of growing up and participating in a civil union. People don't usually commit to their partners for the legal benefits. The significance of marriage is, for the most part, symbolic. The validity, the weight, the meaning is something that is ingrained in most of us from the time we are children. And as long as gay and lesbian couples don't have the right to use the same word as straight couples, gay and lesbian couples will not be viewed as equal to straight couples.
Again, there are lesbians that would strike down the concept of marriage as a "tool of the patriarchy." But there are also lesbians who long to make that kind of commitment in front of their family and friends, to identify themselves as a wife — without the air quotes.
What's in the name DeGeneres? About $85 million, according to Forbes. And what's in the word marriage? Forty billion dollars a year in cakes and entertainment and booze, according to wedding industry statistics.
But what's in those names on a personal level?
For Portia, is it symbol of her commitment? A political statement about the indistinguishability between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages? A way for her to redefine her personal identity?
What about the lesbian who wants to join her life with her girlfriend in a forever kind of way? Is that a symbol of commitment? A political statement? A way for her to redefine her personal identity?
I would argue that it doesn't matter. Portia DeGeneres is not a blank slate; we're not entitled to project our own feelings and opinions about name changes onto her. Nor are our marriage-longing friends blank slates; the entrusting nature of love expresses itself in a multitude of ways.
What matters isn't that we call a rose a rose. What matters is that lesbian and gay people have the federally-mandated legal right to call it the same thing as everyone else.
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