Introducing Steven Petrow’s ‘Civilities,’ an advice column on LGBT/straight etiquette

What a difference five years makes. When I first started writing an advice column that focused on LGBT etiquette in 2009, only two states allowed same-sex marriage; Californians had recently passed Prop 8 banning it; and “don’t ask, don’t tell” still prohibited openly gay men and women from serving in the military.

I set up my shingle as a sounding board for all manner of questions, and the queries that poured into my e-mail reflected both the confusion of the social landscape and the hurt and anger caused by bullying and discrimination. My job was “simple”: To be a guide for both LGBT and straight people as they faced one novel (and anxiety-producing) situation after another.

Why me? Like many other advice columnists I’d long been a journalist (primarily covering gay issues), not to mention having served as president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and penned a well-received book about gay manners. As I’m always quick to point out I’m far from perfect (just ask my husband!). I once inadvertently outed a lesbian colleague; another time, I asked to bring a boyfriend du jour to a wedding. In my more recent book I wrote that “treating everyone with respect and decency makes for a better and fairer world, and that manners are among the best ways to make sure we set out — and continue — on the right foot.”

Reaching back into my mailbag, these early queries stand out.

•Is there anything improper about the lesbian couple who were ordered to leave a mall because they held hands and kissed lightly? My answer: The rules about showing affection publicly are the same for gay couples as they are for straight people. If there are any distinctions to be made, make them according to venue or situation, not orientation.


Steven Petrow (Bryan Regan)

•What should a rookie gay cop do who wrote in to say he was being subject to homophobic jokes, fearing that “they want to push me out the door.” My advice: Be careful: Lesbians and gay men can be fired simply because of their sexual orientation and until Congress enacts the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that will remain the case.

•Or the question from a gay widower (“what do I do now?”) whose in-laws omitted him from his husband’s obituary. I suggested: Explain your feelings with as little rancor as you can, and in the meantime prepare your own notice and pay for its placement. (This is precisely why gay couples need to prepare crucial legal documents — such as wills, trusts, and medical power of attorney — and have them filed away just in case.)

But even as I wrote the first few columns, change was in the air — and the courts. In 2010 marriage equality arrived in the District of Columbia and in 2011 New York became the seventh state to allow same-sex marriage. A cascade of other states followed, and wedding etiquette became the main topic in my mailbox.

Almost overnight, I was surprised by how many questions came from straight people worried about making a faux pas. Do parents pay for their gay son or lesbian daughter’s wedding? (“Your only required role is to provide them with your love and support, which I am sure they will fully appreciate.”) Is a dad expected to walk his son down the aisle? (“Most adults don’t need to be ‘given away’ by either parent. But if he asks, think of it as a lovely way to show the world ‘we are family.’”)

Change also came to the military in 2011 with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I got questions from those ready to test those waters. Wrote one lesbian soldier: My partner is insisting that I take her to events on base that other spouses are invited to but I think it’s still too soon. My response: It’s your decision how and when to come out in your workplace. Do it when you feel comfortable and safe. (But I really hate to take sides between spouses!)

If there’s one question I’ve heard more often than any other, it’s a variant on the query, “How do I introduce a married same-sex couple?” In 2012 I answered that the default was partner. Then came the Supreme Court’s double ruling in 2013, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and dismissing California’s Prop 8. As the political landscape changed, the etiquette evolved, too, and I amended my answer: “Members of same-sex couples who are married should be referred to as you would any legal spouse, and that’s ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ ”

As gay marriage became more common, the next wave of questions pushed at new boundaries: What pronoun (and restroom) is appropriate for a person who is transgender? How do you respond to “assimilated” gays who find “flamboyant” ones embarrassing?

The question that most surprised me arrived from a closeted grandmother who wrote that she’d planned her suicide, preferring death to the risk of ostracism. She changed her mind and came out, then asked for advice on dealing with those who shunned her. Among the hundreds who commented on my advice I was most surprised — and touched — by this post from a reader named Brandon Lineback:

“Treat them with love and respect. I’m only 17 but when I came out I lost a lot of friends and people treated me horribly. Then I got to where I was hateful to everyone. I realized you can’t treat others the same way they treat you and that it’s hard to look at those who shun you and say, ‘I forgive you and I still love you.’ But forgiveness is not for the other person, it’s for your peace of mind.”

Of course, as much as things have changed much hasn’t. Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states, but not in the other 33. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is still not federal law. Anti-gay bullying seems as prevalent today as five years ago. And transgender acceptance is still in its infancy.

And with that look back, let me say how much I’m looking forward to this next chapter at The Washington Post. I invite you to send in your LGBT/straight etiquette dilemmas to me and to join our online chat every other week.

Every other Tuesday, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his new column, Civilities. On those days, join Steven for his chat — about everything that’s on your mind. You can also reach Steven on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow.

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
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