Opinion
3:53 pm
Thu April 24, 2014

'He's My Partner, Not My Friend': A Primer On LGBT Etiquette

Originally published on Thu April 24, 2014 6:17 pm

Less than 20 years ago, Ellen DeGeneres hadn't come out, gay-wedding announcements didn't appear regularly in major newspapers and 17 states and the District of Columbia hadn't legalized same-sex unions.

But there was Steven Petrow. In 1995 he published The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette. He's been answering questions ever since — from LGBT and straight people alike — about new and sometimes perplexing social situations.

This week he announced the launch of a new advice column for The Washington Post called "Civilities." He tells All Things Considered host Audie Cornish that many of his letter writers are "well-meaning people who are very afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing."

We asked NPR readers on Facebook and Twitter to submit their own questions on LGBT/straight etiquette for Petrow to answer.

Joshua Shawnee is an openly gay pastor at a "small town church" in Shawnee, Okla. He writes:

"Many of my older congregants — though they are very, very supportive — often refer to my partner as my 'friend.' I understand that for a certain generation in the South this is the polite and accepted way to refer to one's same-sex significant other. My partner, on the other hand, finds it a little offensive. What do you do when etiquettes are at odds?"

Petrow says it's the most common question he's asked. He advises people to use the term they prefer until others catch on.

"The rule here is: If folks are married — opposite sex or same sex — the default is 'husbands' and 'wives' unless they chose to refer to each other a different way," he says. "Some couples, gay or straight, may use 'spouse' or 'partner,' still."

Diane Santiago, from St. Louis, wanted to know how to respond to questions about her gay teenage son's love life. She writes:

"When the question comes up — 'Who is your son dating these days?' — I always feel a little uncomfortable on how to respond to that. Can you shed any light on that for me?"

Petrow says it's important to make sure her son is "out to the world" — and ask what he would prefer.

"Otherwise it's really not her information to share, it's his," he says. "And I've certainly seen over time, people may be out to their family, they may be out to their friends — but not at work, or some other variation of that. So never assume that anyone is out — always ask first, then you should be fine."

Amanda Coyne of Columbia, S.C., wondered about etiquette around transgender identity:

"When is it appropriate to ask someone what gender pronouns they prefer to go by?"

Petrow says the best first step is to see if they give you clues.

"A lot of times someone will be clear in the way they're speaking about the pronoun or the gender identity that they have," he says.

But unless you have a reason to ask — don't.

"Don't ask just out of curiosity's sake and most of the time you can avoid having to go down that path by using the person's name," he says.

Matthew Richardson of Ann Arbor, Mich., wondered about requirements for his wedding invitation list.

"I'm a gay man and intend to propose to my boyfriend this summer, and I'm not sure what to do about unsupportive family members. I'm unsure if I should send some sort of announcement, or just let them hear about it from other more supportive family members. What does one do in this situation?"

Petrow recommends sitting down with those people (and your partner) before the wedding and explain why marriage matters to you and the difference it will make in your life.

"More often than not, people will be persuaded to come around and support you. In the event, though, they don't, I think it's perfectly fine to leave them off your list and save that special day for those who really are supporting your relationship."

No matter the etiquette question, Petrow believes the answer always comes back to respect. "Respect and kindness underlie everything," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Not so long ago, Steven Petrow wrote a book called "The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette." It was 1995 - before Ellen DeGeneres came out, before gay wedding announcements regularly appeared in major newspapers, and before 17 states and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex unions. As the legal and cultural landscape has shifted, Steven Petrow has continued to answer questions from LGBT and straight people, questions about new and sometimes perplexing etiquette dilemmas.

This week, he announced the launch of a new advice column for The Washington Post called Civilities. He joined us earlier today to talk about it, and I asked him about the kinds of questions he gets and the anxieties they reveal.

STEVEN PETROW: Most of the questions I get are from very well-meaning people who are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. And I had a mom come to a talk that I did in Miami, and she said her son had recently got engaged to a young man. And she just didn't know what her role as mother of the groom was to be. You know, whether the parents should be paying for that wedding, whether the father was going to be expected to walk down the aisle or dance with his son. She had - I mean, she was almost having a panic attack. But all very well-meaning. So I kind of walked her through it. She seemed better.

You know, these are new situations for everybody, gay and straight. You know, there are a lot of same-sex couples that also anxious about getting married and how to do it and sort of do it right or do it their way.

CORNISH: Do you have advice for sort of the flipside of kind of like how to deal with those faux pas without accusing people of bigotry?

PETROW: I often say to my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community, intention really matters.

CORNISH: Well, I'm going to put you on the spot because our listeners have written in with their questions. And, first, we're going to hear Joshua Shawnee from Oklahoma.

JOSHUA SHAWNEE: I'm a pastor who's openly gay in a small town church in the Bible Belt. Many of my older congregants - though they are very, very supportive - often refer to my partner as my friend. I understand that for a certain generation in the South, this is the polite and accepted way to refer to one's same-sex significant other. My partner, on the other hand, finds it a little offensive. What do you do when etiquettes are at odds?

PETROW: That is a variation of the question I get the most often from both gay and straight people. I know that when my now-husband-former-partner and I moved to Chapel Hill from San Francisco, our neighbors did the exact same thing. How is your, uh, friend? How is your roommate? And I would constantly refer to Jim then as my partner, and they began to pick up on that.

And then when we got married, we switched our vocabulary, but they were also pretty happy for us and they started calling us husbands as soon as they saw the marriage announcement. So the rule here is: If folks are married - opposite sex or same sex - the default is husbands and wives, unless they choose to refer to each other a different way, you know, and some couples, gay or straight, may use spouse or partner, still.

CORNISH: I want to take another question from a listener. This is Diane Santiago. She's in St. Louis, Missouri.

DIANE SANTIAGO: My son, who is a teenager, is gay. So when the question comes up - who is your son dating these days - I always feel a little uncomfortable on how to respond to that. Can you shed any light on that for me?

CORNISH: Steven Petrow?

PETROW: There, I would ask, is the son out to the world? Because one thing the mom really doesn't want to do is outing her son to people who don't know. And then she should ask him that. Do you mind if I talk about your relationship with others? Because, otherwise, it's really not her information to share, it's his. And I've certainly seen, over time, that people may be out to their family, they may be out to their friends, but not at work or some other variation of that. So never assume that anyone is out. Always ask first. And then you should be fine.

CORNISH: Given that variation in sort of how people are handling their relationships, what kind of questions do you get that kind of fall within those lines of issues that aren't even settled within the LGBT community?

PETROW: Yeah. There's been a long road on acceptance of transgender people into the LGBT community and then around language and around pronouns and around names. And so if someone is identifying as a female, then the right thing to do is to refer to that person as a woman, as a female, using the female pronoun, using the feminine name or vice versa. So that's been a challenge for both the LGBT community and for the straight community.

CORNISH: I've got another question here I want to play for you because it is wedding season.

MATTHEW RICHARDSON: My name is Matthew Richardson and I'm from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I'm a gay man and intend to propose to my boyfriend this summer, and I'm not sure what to do about unsupportive family members. I'm unsure if I should send some sort of announcement or just let them hear about it from other more supportive family members. What does one do in this situation?

CORNISH: Steven Petrow.

PETROW: Well, first of all, congratulations. That's wonderful news. And what I think is the best thing to do is, before the wedding, to sit down with these people and explain with your boyfriend, with your fiancee, if you're using that term, why marriage matters to you. And more often than not, people will be persuaded to come around and support you. In the event, though, they don't, I think it's perfectly fine to leave them off your list and save that special day for those who really are supporting your relationship.

CORNISH: With some 33 states that still have laws on the books that limit marriage to a man and a woman, do you get inquiries from people who are still opposed to same-sex marriage? What kind of questions do you get?

PETROW: Well, I guess sort of the inverse of the question we just talked about, which is they have a family member who is gay or lesbian who is getting married, and they don't support same-sex marriage and they wonder whether or not they should attend. And, you know, another principle that I think everyone should think about when they're dealing with these kind of family situations is family should trump politics, not the other way around.

And so, going to a same-sex wedding does not mean you're voting that you're in favor of same-sex marriage. It means that you're just standing with your family and you're standing with people that you love.

CORNISH: Can you remember a time - or give us an example - when you committed a faux pas in this area?

PETROW: My husband always says he's going to come on one of these programs with me and tell the truth about me and...

(LAUGHTER)

PETROW: ...I often say to everyone, you know, do as I say, not as I do. But, you know, one that comes to mind is when I was still single, I had started dating a fellow - and we were not a serious couple at that point - and I got invited to a wedding and I asked to bring my new boyfriend. And that was a faux pas. And, you know, the reason was we were not a serious couple. And my host actually drew the line and they explained to me, kindly, you know, why that wasn't possible because then they would have to open it up to, you know, all other kinds of dates and so on. So I had...

CORNISH: But that gets at something that I saw in some other questions, which make me think that a lot of these inquiries are things that could also be a question with straight couples.

PETROW: Absolutely. And, you know, I've been asked so, you know, are gay manners different than straight manners? And, you know, it's not like we treat our house guests differently. You know, we write our thank you notes pretty much the same. A lot of the rules, the foundation - respect, kindness, civility - that's the same and that's wonderful. It's really the situations that are novel, that are different, that are new. And that's where it comes into play.

CORNISH: Steven Petrow, his new LGBT-straight advice column appears biweekly in The Washington Post. It's called Civilities. Thanks so much for coming in to talk with us.

PETROW: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.