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?

Gay marriage is a critical issue, but are there gay people who aren’t interested in marriage, who think that it’s a straight construct they don’t need?

Absolutely. And I think every gay couple now is being asked, ‘When are you going to get married?’ For those who are straight and dating, ‘When are you going to get married?’ [is] a little bit of a pressure on [them] too. Not everybody who’s gay wants to get married. But just about everybody who’s gay wants the right to get married. And there is a difference there.

Should people feel an obligation to come out at work?

No. In fact, the first thing you should do when you’re thinking about coming out at work is to understand the law in your state, because in three-quarters of U.S. states, you can be fired simply for being gay. So in this economy, you want to make sure you’re going to hold onto your job.

And then you also want to understand the policies of the specific company and the attitudes. The most progressive companies have elements in their HR policies about sexual orientation and gender identity, and benefits for partners.

Anyone who’s coming out at work [should] be professional about it. It’s still a workplace. One of the easiest ways to do it if you’re partnered is to put a photo up of your beloved and then let people ask you questions: ‘Who is that?’ and then talk about it that way.

Otherwise, just integrate your day-to-day life into your work life: ‘Oh I went with some friends this weekend to Fire Island and it was Ron, Robert and Juan.’ People catch on. You don’t have to shout it out to let it out.

Is it O.K. to ask a lesbian mother who the father of her child is?

Not really. One, lets say it’s a young child and the mother hasn’t talked to her child about how he or she even came into the world. You as a parent want to have that conversation with your kid before anyone else has information about that. And secondly, that’s really not anyone else’s business. There are lots of things in the world that we’re curious about. Holding back is also a good thing sometimes.

What should people do when they encounter extreme rudeness from others who do not accept gays and lesbians?

That’s a really important question. I have to tell you a little story. My dad, who used to teach at NYU and [who was] also a journalist here in the city, was once with some of his friends when someone told an antigay joke. He has two children who are gay — myself and my sister — and he said in the moment, ‘I don’t think that’s very funny.’ That was exactly the right thing for him and others to do.

You don’t want to humiliate anyone; you don’t want to be aggressive. But to be silent is read as to be in agreement. I think whenever anyone makes any kind of joke about a group, we should say something: ‘That’s not so funny’ or ‘I find that offensive.’

People say, ‘Well, you’re making the jokester uncomfortable. Isn’t that bad manners?’ Believe me, the other people who are listening are uncomfortable too. So you’re probably making nine out of 10 more comfortable by just drawing a line like that, and saying something.

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