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Desert Companion

Open topic: Name equality

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Heidi Kyser
Illustration by Hernan Valencia

Getting married may be easier for everyone now, but for Nevada women, it’s still complicated to leave an ex’s identity behind

Watching a middle-aged woman with overworked hair lose her cool at the Social Security office on Buffalo and Charleston last summer, I had an ugly moment of smug superiority. As the woman ranted at the clerk behind the glass window about being told she needed something different every time she came in and how sick she was of having to come back again and again with a different piece of paper, I thought, Poor thing. If only she, like I, had brought every document that could possibly be required. The clerk repeated her instructions to the woman in a sterner tone while I confidently took inventory of my own folder for the zillionth time: name-change application, birth certificate, passport, marriage and divorce certificates from ex-husband, marriage certificate to current husband. Ah, the joy of good preparation!

Personal knowledge further bolstered my confidence that I’d have my request expedited in time to swing by Chipotle and make it back to the office before my lunch hour ended. My friends Scott and Heidi Swank love to tell the story of their prenuptial decision to take a different name — a composite of their respective Sowers and Frank — rather than an existing one or the other, and how all it took was filling out and signing the marriage certificate with their chosen new identities. What I wanted seemed even simpler: to revert from my previous married name, Heidi Kyser-Genoist, to my maiden name, Heidi Kyser (my current husband, Peter Frigeri, and I having concluded that we’re better off keeping our fathers’ names than becoming Peter Fryser or Heidi Kygeri).

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I heard the poor woman who’d been denied whatever it was she was looking for mutter furiously as she strode behind me toward the exit, “Is it their job to keep from helping you? That’s what you’d think by the way they act.” Etc.

I was next, at the same window.

“Do you need a break?” I asked the clerk, showing my sympathy for the plight of public servants who have to deal with the unreasonable masses.

“No, I’m fine. How can I help you?”

I handed over my pile of papers with the simple declaration, “I got married and I want to change my name.”

“Mm hmm.”

She examined the documents for several minutes as if they contained indecipherable oddities. She even turned one page of something over to look at the back, perhaps searching for the conclusion to a bureaucratic non sequitur? Nothing there. My confidence waned.

Then, she began asking questions. Who was I? To whom was I recently married? And this Bertrand Genoist, who was he? What was my name now?

I swallowed the embarrassment of being on my third marriage in my mid-40s and laid it all out. My first go-round was so brief, and I was so young, that I can’t remember anymore how many months it lasted. We were lonely college kids from the same hometown whose devout Christian parents wouldn’t hear of us living together in sin. So … Fast forward a few years, and I meet a Frenchman who’s come to the States as an au-pair to improve his English. I offer to tutor him. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, he needs a green card. Having disliked the process of changing names — then changing back — with my first marriage, I decided that I’d simply tack the Frenchman’s name, Genoist, onto my own. (Somehow I thought this would make it easier to revert back, should the need arise.) Trouble is, during the dozen years he and I remained married, I began my career as a writer, using the byline Heidi Genoist because it sounds so much cooler than my maiden name. I developed a readership and, like most journalists, became protective of my private life. After my second divorce, I kept the hyphenated name, opting for pen name continuity over a change that could invite gossip. So it was that I came to marry Peter while still bearing another man’s last name.

“So, your name now is Heidi Kyser-Genoist?”

“Technically, yes. But I just go by Kyser.”

“And your current husband is Peter Frigeri?”

“Yes.”

“And you want to change your name to Heidi Kyser?”

“Yes, back to my maiden name.” (I’ve learned my lesson.)

“Hold on a second.”

Nina, whose name I would shortly demand, disappeared into the bowels of the agency, returning after five or 10 minutes of conferring with her superiors to deliver this news: My options were to (1) Keep my name as is, Heidi Kyser-Genoist; (2) switch my last name to Peter’s, becoming Heidi Frigeri; or (3) add Peter’s last name to my current last name, Heidi Kyser-Genoist-Frigeri. Current Nevada law, Nina explained, only allows for the woman to take the man’s name should she so choose. 

The absurdity of what I was hearing made it difficult to grasp. Consequently, I kept asking and re-asking the same question in different ways. Nina answered in an ever-sterner tone.

“So, I can’t just drop the Genoist and be Kyser?”

“That’s correct.”

“I want to talk to your boss.”

A few minutes later, I met Mario, who, after undergoing the same incensed interrogation as Nina, confirmed her ridiculous story. He added this insult: “You can change your name to Heidi Kyser, but you’ll have to get a court order.”

“BUT THAT’S MY NAME! YOU CAN SEE IT ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE RIGHT THERE!” etc.

Around this time, I sensed the presence of someone behind me and noticed Mario looking over my left shoulder. Security.

Okay, okay. I lowered my voice. “Are you sure there’s no exception to the rule that would allow you to just drop a hyphenated name after a divorce?”

“No. In your divorce decree, you say that you will keep the name, ‘Kyser-Genoist,’ so that’s your legal name,” Mario said, neatening my stack of papers and handing it back. “We can’t make the change you want based on a marriage to someone else.” He turned and walked away.

I snatched up my folder giving Nina a final glare and headed for the door — no security escort necessary. Though I managed to keep from fuming out loud, a sense of injustice boiled in my throat. In the days that followed, potential scenarios kept dawning on me: What if my husband wanted to take my name? The law wouldn’t allow that either, I suppose? What if two women got married, as they now can; neither one can take the other’s name? I consulted an attorney friend, and he concurred with the social security officers’ interpretation. It might be sexist and anachronistic, but it’s the law. Maybe Heidi Swank, who also happens to be a state assemblywoman (we were friends long before she got elected), can do something about that.

Meantime, here’s what it cost me to get back the name I was born with: $270 in filing fees at Clark County Family Court; $75 to publish a notice of my intended name change in the legal section of the newspaper; a few hours of my time; and a boatload of indignation. But it’s done. I have an order signed by a judge showing that I am officially — again — Heidi Kyser. Tomorrow, I plan to spend my lunch hour at the social security office signing up for a new card.

I wonder if Nina will be on duty.

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