Q&A: Etiquette for Gays, Lesbians and Their Straight Friends

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Move over, Emily Post! When it comes to etiquette for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community — as well as their straight friends, family members and coworkers — author and journalist Steven Petrow is the authority.

His new 400-plus-page book, Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners (Workman), covers virtually every gay etiquette issue that may confront America’s evolving society — from how to handle coming out at work to how straight people should refer to their gay friends’ significant others (is “roommate” really appropriate?).

Petrow interviewed several hundred psychologists, teachers, lawyers, wedding planners and other experts to understand what he describes as “the idiosyncrasies of our culture.” TIME spoke with Petrow in Manhattan, just after New York became the sixth and largest state to legalize gay marriage.

TIME: Why is there need for a separate gay etiquette book? Isn’t all etiquette the same?

PETROW: It’s not like gay people set our tables differently, or that we treat our houseguests differently. I’m a big believer in clean sheets for everybody, straight and gay! But [there are] new situations that we’re finding ourselves in, everything from same-sex weddings to families with two moms and two dads, and kids in school who are having to celebrate Mother’s Day when there’s no mother, or Father’s Day when there’s no dad, as well as coming out.

What question do you get asked most frequently?

‘What do I call the significant other of my gay or lesbian friend?’ That’s it, by far. That goes back to the well-intentioned person who wants to know how to introduce these two people. And so the answer is, Listen to how a couple refer to each other.

In my case, my partner and I moved to Chapel Hill from San Francisco. We had a lot of new neighbors and they knew we were affiliated, but they didn’t know how to refer to us. And they would say to me, ‘So, how is your …’ and they’d stammer, ‘How is your roommate?’ And then I started using ‘partner,’ and they picked up on, ‘How’s your partner?’

Also, it’s fine to ask if you don’t know, ‘How would you like me to introduce the two of you?’

Is it O.K. to ask someone if they’re gay or lesbian?

The short answer is, no. The longer answer is, it takes most gays and lesbians a while to figure out who they are, to articulate to themselves what identity or what label. And then also to develop a trusting relationship with a specific person. When we’re ready, we’ll tell you.

You may be well intentioned. Better to express that, I say, [by] suggesting watching Ellen together. More generally, talk about the importance of diversity, in your family, not only for gays and lesbians, but for everyone. [Be] an open person and in time somebody who want to come out to you definitely will.

You give rules for one-night stands. Why do those situations also require etiquette?

The underlying theme of the book as I see it is about self-respect and respect for others. So I think that applies in all of these situations and even in some of the [other] sex-etiquette questions, which may be to some [people] a little bit out there. It’s really about infusing respect into those relationships, as well as any other relationship we’re talking about.

You also deal with the question of PDAs, public displays of affection. Are the rules different in different parts of the country as to what’s appropriate?

Yes. In a perfect world, the rules would be the same for everybody in all places. But certainly gay couples are much more comfortable holding hands in San Francisco than they might be in eastern North Carolina [the state in which Petrow and his partner live]. And it’s very important to understand the basic customs of where you are, and then to help educate people when you’re acting within that sort of paradigm. That’s appropriate, and I have talked a lot about that.

If it’s O.K. for two straight people to hold hands in this place, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be O.K. for us, as long as it’s safe and you know that part of this is new to many folks. Some of that just takes time to become part of the landscape.

Next: Is it O.K. to ask a lesbian mother who her child’s father is?

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