Monday, July 07, 2008

Just write it down

One of the craziest things I discovered when I was first learning French was that the French have laws about what you can and can't name your kids. They've relaxed the laws a bit in the past few years, but it used to be that you had to choose the given names from a big list (of Catholic saints) and the kid's last name was determined by a simple algorithm: it's the same as the last name of whichever parent gets to city hall first to declare the baby's birth. (The dad has a bit of an advantage here, not being stuck in a hospital bed.) Or, if the parents are legally married, then the kid would get the father's last name.

Also, under normal circumstances you can't change your own name at all. I think they grant a special exception if your last name is "La Merde" or something, but I'm not certain. Actually, there is one exception: If you're a woman and you get married, then you weren't allowed to not change your name.

This whole idea took me completely by surprise. How could it be the state's business to choose what you can and can't be called? I understand that there are legal reasons to keep track of people's identities (for example, I think in the U.S. if you want to change your name you typically have to declare that it's not for the purpose of hiding from creditors or the law). But it seems like it should be the individual's (or family's) job to select the name, and the government's job to just make a note of it.

I was thinking about this the other day with respect to gay marriage.

The thing is that the marriage-type relationship exists in every human society. If you go to another country, you'll meet plenty of couples that you perceive as "married" -- even if in their country they use a different word, and even if their country's legal documentation for marriage is totally unfamiliar or non-existent. Sure, the corresponding rights and responsibilities vary from one culture to the next just as the behavior of parents towards their children varies from one culture to the next. But the relationship itself -- to be someone's spouse -- you understand it as intuitively as you understand what it means to be someone's brother or someone's mother.

Legal identity documents (for birth, adoption, marriage, death, etc.) can have some effect people's perceptions and behavior. For example, if a French person doesn't like being named after a Catholic saint and decides to ask all his friends and colleagues to call him "Rainbow Appleseed" or something, he'll discover this is a huge pain in the butt to explain every time he has to fill out any forms (a surprisingly frequent occurrence in France). I learned this lesson myself, actually. As a young, idealistic American feminist, I decided that I wanted to keep my own name rather than taking my husband's (because your name is your identity!) But after less than a year in France, my laziness won out over my principles and I took to just introducing myself as "Madame husband's name" in all situations except my own work. Legally I never did change my name, but French forms -- instead of having one "last name" slot -- have separate lines for "maiden name" and "husband's name". So I fill out these lines accurately and Voila ! -- the fact that my husband's name doesn't appear on my U.S. passport becomes a minor technicality...

But what is in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

I think that people who say "the solution is for the government to get out of marriage altogether" are missing the boat. The underlying kinship relationships exist whether the government writes them down or not, and a society that needs legal identity/kinship documents such as birth, death, and adoption certificates has an interest in correctly documenting marriages as well. There are a number of rights and responsibilities that follow from kinship relationships (inheritance, immigration, next of kin, etc.), and "spouse" is a kinship relation that is as fundamental as "parent" or "sibling."

Similarly, those who think they can keep couples from being married -- just by denying them the word "marriage" or the legal recognition for it -- are deluding themselves. Sure, you can make life inconvenient for some couples by making them go back to doing it the old-fashioned way: by declaring their commitment in front of witnesses (without the corresponding legal identity papers).

And it's true that by restricting marriage documents (in a society that normally uses them), one can create a host of minor-to-major problems for the families that aren't legally documented. But it won't change the underlying reality of which couples are married according to the common perception of what it means to be married. It's just a question of cleaning up the paperwork.

see also Discrimination against homosexuals: why? why? why??? and Why? Why? Why??? II


MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Chanson,

You're right on the mark, as usual. :-) The inconveniences you mention can be big, as interracial couples discovered 40 years ago in the US. Going to jail or being lynched is inconvenient.

Gay couples in Iran are inconvenienced by the threat of execution. After the McCain Supreme Court recriminalizes sodomy, who knows what life will be like in Texas or Alabama for gay couples.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!

Yeah, I don't mean to trivialize the problems by using the word "inconvenience." Even in my own family's case, lack of legal marriage would be more than an inconvenience:

It annoys me every time I see someone arguing that the government should just stop recognizing marriage altogether, because it's a big deal for those who need it. In my case, I'm American and my husband is French, so if "governments got out of the marriage business" that would break up my family: we wouldn't necessarily have the right to live in the same country together. One can split hairs over immigration law, but the bottom line is that in our modern society there are legitimate reasons for granting legal recognition to kinship relations.

AnnM said...

Ditto. I understood that technically, Madame was only correctly used with my husband's name.

I think government should get out of marriage, but not civil unions. Let marriage mean whatever your church or personal view intends, and civil unions mean a specific set of legal rights and responsibilities bestowed by the government on this relationship. Which is sort of the French model, no?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

I think that's the French solution, but I really don't think it's a good solution. For one thing, a "civil union" typically doesn't have the same recognition as a "marriage" at home or abroad. And for another thing, I think it's just evading the real issue: call it what it is. If a couple of people consider themselves married, they declare it publically to their community, and live as a married couple, then they're married. It's not the government's business to tell them if they're married or not, it's the government's busniess to make a note of it.

MoHoHawaii said...

One of the reasons the California Supreme Court struck down the state's gay marriage ban was that the civil unions enacted to replace marriage were too close to marriage.

This is odd, but it makes perfect sense. The court reasoned that if for some minority of people you replace marriage with a civil union that is virtually equivalent to marriage but has a different (and less recognized) name, then the only reason behind the difference in treatment must be "pure animus."


The French solution of civil unions suffers from this problem.

Anonymous said...

Marriage is just a legal contract as far as any western government is concerned. There's no reason to prevent two or more people from engaging in an equal contract to gain the financial & legal benefits that "marriage" brings.

This is why most object to government involvement in marriages. It's a loaded word with a lot of baggage & it's not the correct term to describe what an enlightened society would call these legally recognized (aforementioned) "relationships".

Record keeping is good. Limiting social contracts to millennial old customs is bad.

Joe said...

Question about the feminist not-taking-your-husband's-name thing. Odds are your surname is your father's surname. Even if you took your mother's maiden name, odds are her maiden name is her father's surname and so on.

(One solution would be a film critic teacher I had who mashed he and his wife's surnames together to form a new name.)

Incidentally, I believe Sweden, Japan and China also have approved name lists. (The naming conventions of some ethic groups in the US and Utahns, argue for approved name lists here as well :-)

Anonymous said...

Also - another note - it may not matter which country you're in.

A former boss of mine didn't take her husband's name. She had to leave her husband's name on her voice mail at work, as they thought they were calling the wrong number when the school called - or wouldn't give her his prescriptions at the pharmacy.

And this is the 21st century US midwest. I am very disappointed. - aerin

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MxRacer652!!!

I know that's a popular position, but it's essentially the very position I'm questioning here today.

I don't think that in western society marriage is just a legal contract. I think it is also a legal certification of a familial relationship (with all of the corresponding rights and responsibilities). If the government should stop providing official papers to acknowledge which couples are married, then by the same logic, they should also stop providing official birth and death certificates. Motherhood is also a loaded word with lots of baggage, associated with lots of bad stuff (along with the good) throughout human history. Yet I'd just as soon have an official record declaring that I'm the mother of my kids -- this simplifies a lot of administrative tasks.

In earlier times when most people lived their whole lives in their home village (or not far from it), keeping a register of who is in which family wasn't necessary because everyone in a small town knows everyone else. It's not like that today -- in our modern society, there are a lot of situtations where it's useful to be able to have your family documented by an impartial body.

Hey Joe!!!

That's true. My reasoning was that this is the name I grew up with, so I didn't like the symbolism of marriage changing my entire identity.

I also thought about Utah names as I was writing this. I think part of the official rationale for having a list of official names was to keep people from naming their kids made-up stuff (they way people do in Utah).

Hey Aerin!!!

That's too bad, but I guess it's not that surprising...

Lars Larson said...

Gotta love the Van Eyck painting.

Hey! Do you see that "thing" hanging from the bed canopy? You know what that is, right? It's all the fabric of the bed curtain pulled up out of the way while the bed is not being used during the day. But...

It also has to do with CHEESE MAKING...that's right, CHEESE MAKING. You see, back in the day, one would take the stomach of a cow or a sheep, fill it with milk, add some salt and so start the cheese using the rennet inside. Then you add salt and you would hang the thing from a nail or something while you waited.

Why do I bring this up? Because that "sack" of cloth is seen all OVER the place in medieval art, in particular in ANNUNCIATION paintings because in those days CHEESE MAKING was a allegory for FERTILITY. Everyone looking at this painting in the years after it was painted would have seen that sack and known what it meant. This marriage was being undertaken for the sole purpose of procreation.

Marriage for LOVE is a fairly new idea. And we STILL don't have it right. It takes a while for the idea of marriage for procreation only to wend it's way into a more modern idea of pure companionship where the idea of it being simply between "one man and one woman" can be dispensed with. Hopefully, within a half century or so, we won't even remember what we were so worked up about just like none of us would look at a sack of cloth and think "cheese" and "babies".

Anonymous said...

Hi CL,
Maybe we're crossing wires. I'm advocating for an encompassing legal certification of a familial relationship, in the form of whatever the participants wish, because I can't see a good reason not to.

Two elderly sisters sharing a domicile to reduce living expenses, regular hetero nuclear family, gay couple(s), polygamists, etc.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey ErlyBrd!!!

Well, I had no idea that was a sack of cheese nor did I make the connection with babies. But I did notice the bed. So I guess I'm viewing the painting through my own cultural lens.

Hey MxRacer652!!!

I agree that it might be useful to have some documents for more generalized family relationships, but I don't think that marriage should be merged into such a thing and disappear as a distinct relationship.

The practice of having a pair-bonded (mating) couple who have declared to their community that their bond is permanent is something that exists in every culture, and is a part of the human condition. I don't think it's useful to act like there's nothing distinct about it or that being someone's spouse is no different than moving in with your siblings to save money.

As for the polygamists, I think their marriages should be documented. As it is, polygamy is apparently impossible to prosecute, so pushing it underground by making it illegal doesn't help anyone. If the government were to take the strategy of getting the polygamists to document all of their marriages, it would actually help those people who want to leave because they'd be able to sue for divorce.

She said...

Does that mean Aurelie and Euralie are approved names?? Yikes.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephanie!!!

I guess they probably are...

Kimpatsu said...

Lists of names from which you are legally obliged to choose your kid's name is actually not uncommon (unfortunately). Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Korea, and China all do it. State interference is ubiquitous.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kimpatsu!!!

Weird but true, isn't it?

Lorry said...

I can't speak for the other countries, but in Denmark, you can name your child something that's not on the pre-approved list. It has to be approved by your kommune, so it's not a sure thing, but it can be done and I know people who've done it. They also make an exception for children who have at least one foreign national as a parent. Since I'm an American citizen in Denmark, if I can demonstrate that a particular name is approved in the US, I can use that name on my child here.

I'm not saying this makes the law somehow awesome and acceptable, but I'm just anal about people saying things that aren't quite true.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Alcyone!!!

Thanks for the precision! It's fun being an expat in Europe, isn't it? It's also interesting to note how much the various countries of Europe differ from one another.