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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...
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