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

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 our Logo partner 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.