In October 2008, racing against California's gay marriage ban, Chloe and Frankie Frankeny wed legally in San Francisco with one chore already done: Chloe had taken her wife's name two years before. "It was the only way we had to fit into a mainstream role that was understandable to anybody," said Chloe, managing editor of a fashion website. "When I told my father I was taking Frankie's name he was sort of blown away because I definitely consider myself a feminist." With a battle over the state's ban on gay marriage possibly headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, it's likely more same-sex couples will do the same. For the Frankenys, the name switch couldn't magically grant all the marriage benefits denied same-sex couples when compared to one man, one wife, but it was one more way to express their union. It's a symbol rendered even stronger now that legal gay marriages are on hold in California, and for partners who've never had the option. Logistically, a name-change for gay couples isn't always as simple as trotting out a marriage certificate, the proof most required in heterosexual marriage. Emotionally, the journey is about love, commitment — and a way to ease anxiety over being misunderstood as non-relatives in emergencies or considered less-than as parents. Kirsten Palladino, who runs the online gay wedding 'zine Equally Wed, shed Ott for the surname of her partner, Maria, last year without benefit of a state-sanctioned union in Georgia. She's seeing more couples go to court for name changes, settling on hyphenation or one partner's surname over the other. "We have grown stronger and are speaking out for ourselves in this way," said Palladino, 32. "There's nothing stopping us from taking each other's names, even if we can't get a marriage certificate." After a five-year courtship, the Palladinos had a wedding at an antebellum mansion in Decatur, Ga. Kirsten became a Palladino after running a newspaper announcement of her intentions once a week for four weeks and appearing before a judge, just as people going through a formal name change for reasons other than marriage must do. "I was nervous. I didn't know how the judge would feel, but he was great. Personally, I had to deal with some identity issues after, but becoming a family unit with my wife trumped anything else for me," she said. College sweethearts Kathryn and Heather Kraft of Newton, Mass., just celebrated 12 years together and have a new baby. They had a church wedding five years ago in white gowns with 10 bridesmaids after obtaining a marriage license under their state's gay marriage law. Whose name did they choose? Kathryn said her Kraft over Heather's Cole "because we're very close to my family and wanted to add to that family in a noticeable way." They had considered combining names into a new one that "represented both of our ancestry, but in the end we're very traditional people." Cole is now a middle name for the entire family, including baby Esther. Making the switch with a legal marriage certificate was no trouble for Heather, until she tried to get a U.S. passport ahead of a trip to Europe. "We were shocked when Heather's application was denied," said her 32-year-old partner, a family therapist. "The passport office would not recognize our marriage certificate as proof and insisted that she had to go in front of a judge to have a court-ordered name change."
After six months, she was issued a "known as" passport identifying her by both names. "It's a small thing that isn't noticeable when you look at her passport, but the process was long and an unnecessary reminder that things aren't exactly equal," Kathryn said.
Jason and Anthony Cline committed to each other in 2001 during a hotel ceremony in their native Indiana, where gay marriage is outlawed. They thought about heading to a state where their union would be legal but decided not to bother knowing they'd return home to suburban Indianapolis without that recognition. Jason, 33, legally changed his name, going through a newspaper notification process and enduring questions from a judge as Palladino did. "The process seemed cold but it helped prove our relationship to our friends and family that maybe weren't as advanced in their thinking on the topic. It helped solidify our relationship to the people that we knew and to the world," he said. "It starts a conversation. It tells a story." Chloe Frankeny sees other practical outcomes to changing her name, including proof of family status in case of a medical crisis. "With the same last name we could say we were sisters," she said. "We've all heard stories of partners kept apart in emergency rooms. That was a precaution we wanted to take."
From nearly 80 percent to 95 percent of heterosexual couples marrying for the first time legally adjust their names as the age of the average bride has risen to about 27 over the last 20 years, according to research. Professional identity before marriage motivates others — in same-sex and hetero couples alike — to keep their original names informally or incorporate them as middle names. Elisa Hebert, 32, wasn't attached to her surname before she traveled with partner Megan from their home outside Denver, Colo., to Rehoboth, Mass., a plus since most of their friends and family are from New England. Back home, Elisa appeared in court to complete her legal name change before a judge managing a roomful of ticked-off parents and their kids hauled in for truancy. "I felt like a 12-year-old who was in trouble," she said. Marni Kahn, a doctoral candidate in sociology in Atlanta, took partner Casey Brown's last name after a marriage ceremony that blended their Jewish and Southern Baptist roots. "It really did tie things up nicely," said Casey, a marketing analyst.
Actor and writer Marcos Mateo Ochoa, 29, of Los Angeles chose to hyphenate instead. He goes by Cermak-Ochoa after marrying partner Frank Cermak on Oct. 4, 2008, a union legally recognized in California with 18,000 other same-sex marriages there before voters approved Proposition 8 and ended the practice. He plans to make the name switch legal once the court case is resolved. "We want to identify ourselves as being united, but with California being so flip-floppy on this, it's just a matter of when we go about the process," Ochoa said. "Is this going to be another obstacle, another hurdle for us to go through?"