Coming Out & Combining Names

After 11 years of marriage, my wife Kate and I are finally going to change our last names.

I’m a little embarrassed it’s taken us so long. Like many couples, we discussed it during our wedding preparations. The obvious choice was hyphenating our surnames, but we also tried to brainstorm new ones. “Somerville,” where we live, sounded too British; “Chocolate,” a shared passion, too silly. And as much as we love bad puns, “HerWuMann” (combining her name, Hermann, with my name, Wu) was never going to work.

Our main concern was more serious: we hoped to adopt a child. We knew that our being a same-sex couple would make an expensive, time-consuming, and heartbreaking process even more difficult, especially if we looked overseas. But we’d heard of an approach similar to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in which one half of a couple poses as single and straight; once back home, his/her partner then files for full joint adoption.

Kate__Ailsa_clapping_edited-240x300Kate and I weren’t sure if we were going to do this. Neither of us liked the idea of going back into the closet, even a temporary one. We also felt our marriage was worth celebrating. As I learned during my conversion to Judaism, our tradition places a lot of importance on names.  Though not as concrete as wearing a kippah or putting up a mezuzah, taking on a new name is a powerful way to demonstrate a commitment or mark a transformation. Becoming the Hermann-Wus would’ve made our sexual orientation and our relationship crystal clear and added to the joy we already felt about being able to marry legally.

But we wanted to leave our adoption options open… so we held off.

A few years later, when we approached an adoption agency, we learned that being legally married meant we couldn’t go the DADT route. Really, it should have occurred to us. Courts have every right to ask questions if your papers list you as single in some spots but married in others. A marriage certificate meant we couldn’t conceal that part of our identities, even if we had wanted to.

We could have made the switch then. Other priorities, though, demanded our attention, time, and money. We also felt that between our two wedding ceremonies and our openness when talking to people, we didn’t need a hyphenate name to be out, especially when it came to our synagogue and professional communities. In any case, many families have known us for years, and I’d always assumed that word would get around.

Then the other day, as we were leaving the preschool where we both work, one of the parents overheard us talking and asked, “Are you two …?”

Surprised, we stopped in our tracks. Kate replied, “Um, yes, we’re married.”

“Wow, I hadn’t realized!”

The moral: even if you think you’re completely out, the job is never done. Just as the bar or bat mitzvah is the beginning of wearing tallit, opening the closet door is an invitation to keep on opening it and let other people see you for who you really are. Unless you’ve introduced yourself to everyone on the planet, there’s always another way to honor your identity and make yourself and your communities more visible.

For us, that means following through on our name change. It won’t mean we will never have to come out again. It will certainly need more paperwork and fees than Abraham and Sarah ever had to deal with. But it will affirm, powerfully and publicly, the promise we made to each other at our Jewish ceremony: Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li. I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Coming Out Day.

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