What’s in a name: Portia DeGeneres, Kelly McGillis and the battle for equality

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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