But why can’t I assume I know you already?

We gon’ talk about some gender issues today, sorry kids:

Some women are so excited to take on the name and identity of their husband. That is great! Some women want to combine their past with their future through hyphenation. My mother was progressive by dumping her middle name and making “Steinhorst” her middle name. Even though I am Alana Henkel, I am still Mrs. Laufman. I am defined by my husband whether or not I ask for it. Why can’t he be Mr. Henkel, the husband of Alana Henkel?

The issue of changing (or not) one’s last name upon marriage has been done to death, not just on the internet, but in a lot of people’s personal experiences as well. I have cousins who are siblings but their last names are different: the older brother has my aunt’s last name but the younger two siblings have my uncle’s. Women who do significant things (publish articles, perform in shows, whatever) when unmarried have an additional pressure to not change their names to remain associated with their previous work.

But the taking of the husband’s name is also simply our cultural norm – because people like being able to assume things about other people. They like to look at a pair of apparently opposite gender people, see a pair of rings, and think “I only have to learn one last name: his”. Even if he were Mr. Henkel, husband of Alana Henkel, people would still refer to her as Mrs. Laufman, wife of [his name] Laufman. Cultural norms and assumptions like that make us think we know a lot more about everyone around us than we actually do.

I bring this up in light of a post I reblogged on tumblr (all spelling and capitalization is [sic]):

nice when cis people have their preferred pronouns up on their page. this isnt sarcastic i really appreciate when cis people do this because it helps reject the normalization of the assumption of a persons gender based on their appearance. thank u if u do this and if you dont it would be nice if you would. its helpful.

Why do we just look at someone and assume we know what their gender is? As a woman on the internet I get misgendered a lot, and it’s jarring. One of my friends is trans* but has not yet started medically transitioning, merely binding his chest and dressing masculinely. He and I were walking through a vendor room at a convention, and a person we’d never met stepped back for us to “let you ladies through”. When someone looks completely androgynous, it’s not uncommon to hear confused people wondering “what is that, a boy or a girl?”

Could we have a conversation about this, First Draft? You’re not the typical group of people with whom I have this conversation, so I’m very interested in your opinions. Have you had any last name snafus? Ever had your pronoun usage corrected? How would you react if someone introduced themselves to you and added their preferred pronouns?

18 thoughts on “But why can’t I assume I know you already?

  1. aimai says:

    I’m not sure what the question is? I’m cis, I suppose, and look and present as female. I kept my own name after marriage to a guy and people who know me, first, always think he is Mr Aimai rather than that I am Mrs His-Last-Name. At the moment American culture and english as it is currently used likes to ascertain the “right” gender (by which it usually means the biological, birth gender) of any person with whom an individual is speaking just as it often likes to ascertain the race and religion of a person in order to situate the two speakers in social space. Thats pretty typical–there are lots of cultures and languages where its nearly impossible to speak to somone if you haven’t figured out your respective hierarchical and social relations.
    In the future, perhaps, we can have a social structure and a language which elides this problem by either referring to people as “people” rather than “men/women/boys/girls” or some other term. But its not here yet.

  2. Hobbes says:

    No one specific question and in fact two entirely different issues here; I’m just kind of curious as to what the people outside of my particular odd little bubble think about them. (I confess this isn’t a particularly well-put-together post, but please cut me some slack, as I’m still figuring out this whole “feature post” writing thing – I’m used to more of a stream-of-consciousness sort of blog.)
    I have a lot of contact with both women who struggle with these name change issues (it’s a particular issue in academia, with the whole publishing thing) as well as people who identify outside of traditional cis/binary genders. I have no idea whether this is a common thing, or how other people feel about it. Like I said, just curious.

  3. Athenae says:

    Women who do significant things (publish articles, perform in shows, whatever) when unmarried have an additional pressure to not change their names to remain associated with their previous work.
    I kept my maiden name for work and use my married one for everything else. It gets confusing sometimes, but in other ways it’s nice to have that separation.
    I’ve never understood why keeping one’s father’s name after marriage is more or less feminist than taking one’s husband’s. Maybe if it was my mother’s family name, I’d feel differently, but as it is, I went for what I felt was the simplest option.
    A.

  4. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Athenae,
    better to do it the scandinavian way: Mr. Xson, Ms. Ydottir.

  5. Hobbes says:

    I’ve never understood why keeping one’s father’s name after marriage is more or less feminist than taking one’s husband’s.
    Exactly. I’ve heard some people say “well that’s not my father’s name, it’s mine“, but why couldn’t your husband (or wife)’s name become what you consider “yours”? Or hell, make a new one up. Why not?

  6. Nellie in NZ says:

    I did not change my name (married in 1980). My father asked my husband how he felt about that and the reply was “I am not inclined to change my name and I wouldn’t ask her to do anything I wouldn’t do.” But I know it is a name from my father. However, that is the family I most identified with. The children (now adults) have my name as their middle name (a tradition that my grandfather, born in 1893, was part of) but they are free to change it or add to it, if they choose.
    It is coercion that bothers me, not what people choose. I was irritated when people would look at my toddler and demand to know whether she was a girl or a boy. That information shouldn’t determine how they treat her.
    If someone calls me Mrs. Husband’s last name, I only correct them if it will make a practical difference though (filling out forms, etc.). Mostly, if they don’t know and make an error, they are far enough from the center of my pursuits that it isn’t worth correcting them.

  7. dr2chase says:

    We kept our names, a friend of mine took his wife’s last name, and another pair of friends both changed their names in a pronounceable mash — and it is so unique that to name it is to identify them — there are three, father (Jack), mother (Marion) and daughter (Hazel). And yet another couple we know is married, hyphenated, original lesbian, now cis-trans-traditional (if that counts as traditional, and yes, there are kids, I think each parent took a turn at being pregnant though I did not know them then and do not pry. And their kids are great.).
    I don’t care much about what people do with their names, as long as I can avoid giving offense if I’m working with incomplete information, but it appears that my gender-identifier is working at a level somewhere near the lizard brain. If I pay attention to what I’m doing when I’m not doing anything else, I catch myself automatically classifying people around me by gender. This is most striking when I’m riding my bike on a path with joggers and rollerbladers — it’s both silly and amazing the distances at which that the lizard brain will attempt its classification, and how often it is right. (This is clearly important to the lizard brain, which may be why people get so bent out of shape when they can’t tell for sure, because they haven’t stopped to realize that it’s just their lizard brain making trouble.)

  8. John Casey says:

    I’ve spent the past 30 years employing the following phone conversation:

    Me: Hello
    Caller: Hello, Mr. B?
    Me: No, but I’m married to Ms. B
    It’s about the only friction I’ve personally encountered from my wife keeping her own last name when we married.

  9. BlackSheep1 says:

    dya know, ’tis different in Spanish-speaking nations — often children inherit the mom’s surname, not the dad’s.

  10. Brooklyn Girl says:

    Anyone calling my home who asks to speak to “Mrs. Cohen” gets the response: “There is nobody here by that name” and a hang-up.
    Seriously, what people call me is more about them than it is about me.
    And first names are usually gender-specific. So what? If somebody asks a parent if their new baby is a boy or a girl, that’s because they can’t tell. Does it matter?
    The real issue is whether or not people are treated equally in terms of the things that have an impact on their quality of life (access to work, income, housing, etc.), not whether or not somebody’s social behavior is based in their personal cultural stereotypes.

  11. pansypoo says:

    if i get the chance, i don’t think i am changing names.

  12. Elspeth Ravenwind says:

    One of my high school buds married her spouse last November (both are female) and they blended their last names. 🙂 Maybe that is what should be done, no matter the gender of those doing the hitching?
    Personally, my father’s last name was taken from me for purposes of ‘social expediency’ to suit my mom & step-dad’s union. And it was made ‘legal’ when I turned 18. I didn’t know that they waited until then so they didn’t have to get my dad involved. I would really like to change my last name back to my Dad’s…I was wanting to even before his death.

  13. Kaleberg says:

    I’m often called Mr K because I’ve been living in sin with Ms K for over 35 years. If it saves people time, it doesn’t bother me. I often get called ma’am on the phone, because my voice has a higher pitch than most men. If it matters I’ll correct it.
    English, like most languages, has gender, so people have to choose he or she. They used to call babies it, but that sounds awkward these days. Most people, when they hear hooves, are going to asume horses, at least until they see zebra stripes.

  14. Eric says:

    I half to assume this is a conversation about personal preferences. Not what is right or wrong.
    My wife is a totally self-aware/PhD/professional who, of her own volition and without any input from me, decided to take my last name when we got married.
    After 22 years of marriage, she doesn’t seem to be suffering from any kind of identity issues, either personally or professionally.
    These kinds of “discussions” are kind of ridiculous. What a person decides to do with their name before, during or after being married is entirely their own business. I tend to look at folks who make some kind of huge issue out of NOT taking someone’s last name when married or questioning the motives or mental stability of those who do, as having a complex that they might want to get help for.
    Take a name, don’t take a name…whatever. Unless someone has a title, like Mr. President, or Madam Secretary, or Mr. 9th Assistant council to the 4th under-Secretary of Dog Catching, I usually call them by their first name anyway.

  15. Hobbes says:

    Eric – it’s also a conversation about how you view other people’s personal preferences, but I’m glad to see that this community is cool with letting other people do whatever they want to do. My cohort is generally younger than most of the people I see around here (you’ve been married longer than some of my friends have been alive), so yes, I want to know what the prevailing attitudes are. I see blog posts like the one I linked and I’m reminded that sometimes some people’s personal preferences make other people uncomfortable, and I am always interested as to why.

  16. Eric says:

    Heya Hobbes,
    I getcha ya. yeah I get curious about what makes people uncomfortable, my wife says too much, because I usually turn it around and use it…but that’s a whole ‘nother basket of worms to dive into another time.
    “Personal preferences” are exactly what it says…personal. If you want to name your kid Moon Unit..thats cool with me. Maybe not so much to your kid when your kid gets older but hey…
    I guess what really bothers me is that if a simple thing like the choice of a last name in marriage is soooooooo freakin important to someone, I shudder to think what something like poverty, or hunger or climate change would do to the same person.
    Btw, as an aside, I told my wife about us being married longer than some of your friends have been alive. Her response was “See you can make a good choice once in a while.”
    How right she is.
    Glad to have met you Hobbes.

  17. delagar says:

    As to the woman’s name simply being her father’s name, well, why should the man not take her name upon marriage? After all, his name is only his father’s name too.
    When Dr. Skull and I got married, I offered to flip a coin with him. Winner would take the other one’s name.
    “Yeah, no,” he said.
    Somehow, for a man, giving up his name upon marriage doesn’t seem so simple. You might ask yourself why — and why it should be such a simple thing (no big deal!) for a woman to do.

  18. delagar says:

    Oh — and Eric? We’ve been married 26 years now.

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