If you believe in living and letting live, it’s not always easy to listen to social conservatives go on about the social chaos that gay marriage will likely kindle across the land. But it’s time for all Americans—even those who are gay and married, like me—to admit it: The gloom and doom pouring forth from the anti-equality right does, in fact, contain a kernel of truth.
Of course, the social disorder I’m talking about isn’t a function of marriage equality itself. No, the problem is that an increase in gay marriage inevitably means more couples of a previously rare sort: two spouses, one first name. The vintage chant of anti-equality protesters—“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”—sounds merely old-fashioned today. But “Adam and Steve, not Steve and Steve!”—well, that might have some currency, especially for those who’ve welcomed a same-name couple into their circle of family and friends.
Like all the most subtly pernicious threats, the phenomenon of same-name couples is itself nameless. Instead of “the love that dares not speak its name,” how about “the love that speaks it twice?” Or we could call it an extremely equal form of marriage equality—“marriage equality equality,” perhaps, appropriately abbreviated ME2. Until a better suggestion appears in the comments, I’ll dub it “homonymous marriage.”
Perhaps you’re not immediately convinced homonymous marriage will bring the republic to its knees. Well, remember in Steel Magnolias, when Olympia Dukakis remarked that all gay men are named “Mark, Rick, or Steve?” Demographically, that theory is bunk. (First problem: no mention of Brian.) But it foreshadowed a level of social chaos that I could never have imagined when Mark and I first met.
The simplest type of homonymic confusion occurs at large gatherings: parties, dinners, or barbecues. Someone calls out “Mark!” Invariably we both turn. Sure, America can cope with dinner-party disorder—but imagine that moment of confusion in a national security-critical context, like in a submarine or on a battlefield. The effects on military cohesion could be tragic.
Our friends and family plumb even greater depths of bewilderment when Mark or I come up in conversation. At first everyone referred to us as “Mark 1” and “Mark 2,” based on whom they’d met first. But as our friends mixed, and we met new friends, it became unclear and unimportant which Mark they’d known first. (Also, “Mark 2” makes “Mark 1” sound technologically obsolete, as with cameras or torpedoes). As for initials—aloud, “Mark V” and “Mark J” sound too alike, and oddly formal besides. Some distinguish us by day job—“mathematician Mark” and “pilot Mark”—but that seems sad, especially when we’re on vacation.
Physical characteristics are an obvious port in the homonymous storm. I know an interracial couple of California Susans who wholeheartedly embrace the simplicity of “Black Susan” and “White Susan.” But that’s just the sort of outcome—an increased reliance on race-based distinctions and categories—that conservatives must fear from an America that embraces marriage equality. And anyway, even simple descriptions aren’t always so simple. Michael Scarna, a New York producer, recently married Michael LaMasa, an actor and dancer. The mother of Michael S. refers to her son-in-law as “Tall Michael”—but “Little Michael” was already taken by his (Michael S.’s, I mean—you’re seeing the problem here) best childhood friend, leaving Michael S. without a height-based appellation. Sometimes the only solution is to mix categories. The mother of a friend of ours regularly interrupts him to ask “Ka’i Mark? Pilot Mark ke uncho Mark, chasma sathe?” (Which, of course, is Parsi Gujarati for “Which Mark? Pilot Mark or Tall Mark with the glasses?”)
Holidays, and the inter-family gatherings they occasion, pose particular hardships to homonymous couples. No one is going to write “To: Black Susan, From: Santa” on a Christmas present. But maybe they should. Each Christmas morning, Mark and I take turns quizzically holding gifts labeled “Mark” aloft until someone recognizes the wrapping paper and gives a slow nod or shake of the head. It’s stories like this—homonymous marriage sowing family discord, good Christian names doubly defiled (around the Christmas tree, no less)—that may justify the anti-equality fervor of social conservatives.
If family gatherings are tough, out-and-proud homonymy causes even more trouble with strangers. At weddings, parties, hotel check-in desks, just having to drop the G-bomb can get wearying; imagine also having to explain identical names. People think we’re joking. Or they joke about it themselves, then look briefly stricken over whether that’s OK. Or they think they’ve misheard—“Wait, which of you is Mark?” Then, fearing their misunderstanding reveals homophobia (or worse, an overfamiliarity with Steel Magnolias), they get apologetic. We try to console them—“No! It’s fine! It’s funny!”—though we don’t even know them. It’s all weird.
I thought Mark and I had it bad until I spoke with Jon Paul Buchmeyer, a writer and a member of a particularly elite tranche of homonymous couples: those who have the same name in different languages. When people meet Jon Paul and his husband—wait for it—Juan Pablo, they either get it right away (and assume the joke’s on them) or suffer a painfully delayed “Hang on … isn’t that!? …” response. Jon Paul and Juan Pablo have learned to wait patiently for el otro zapato to drop.
Of course, homonymous relationships have advantages, too. Kathryn Hamm, president of GayWeddings.com, the nuptial website for same-sex (“and same-name!”) couples, introduced me to John Mercurio, half of a John2 couple in Washington, D.C. John M. brightly points out that homonymy simplifies as many situations as it complicates. It’s easy—and apparently endlessly humorous—for their friends to refer to “the Johns,” for example. And Michael and Michael used “The Michaels” on the return address of their wedding invitations.
It’s also true that the de-Mark-ations developed by our friends and family can be lovely. The grandmotherly friend who introduced my parents will say to me, “And how is your Mark?” As if I’m hers, and he’s mine, and everyone should have one. Kids, too, regularly come up with winners. As a toddler, my goddaughter dubbed us Mark and “another one Mark” (now abbreviated to “’nother-Mark”). Her cousin, after meeting Mark and me at an Anglo-American Thanksgiving in London, asked his parents whether, if he discovered he was gay, he too would have to find a partner with the same name.
Such flickers of sweetness and light make me wonder if there isn’t some way to encourage nervous conservatives to embrace all gay couples—not just those with different first names. It’s worth pointing out that opposite-sex couples, too, can be homonymous. Ask Paris Hilton and Paris Latsis, or Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner. And given the vogue for gender-ambiguous baby names, there’s plenty more homonymy in the pipeline: Think of all the Rileys, Jordans, and Harpers yet to meet.
A more effective tactic might be to remind conservatives that the gay-rights movement is only the outermost ripple of the American experiment’s historic, ever-expanding promise of freedom. No one put this quite as well as Arthur Evans, the Stonewall-era activist. Linda Hirshman, in her recent history of the gay rights movement, notes that Evans found particular inspiration in the fathers of the American Revolution and constitution. Said Evans: they “combined the rationality of the Enlightenment with the vigor of a popular uprising … you can’t get much more American than that.” Arthur’s partner at the time was an activist too, and his name—well, let’s just say their friends found it easy to remember.