Civilities: Steven Petrow on LGBT and straight etiquette

Jul 02, 2014

Columnist Steven Petrow took questions about LGBT and straight etiquette.

This week featured special guest Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG.

This week we have a special guest - Jody M. Huckaby, the head of PFLAG National, the nation's largest organization of parents, families, friends, and allies united with people who are LGBTQ--who will be taking your questions in the next hour about coming out, how to support those who are LGBT in your life, and why so many celebs make a big deal about being LGBT.  Welcome Jody!

Thanks so much!  I'm thrilled to be with you today Steven.


Jody, I'm often asked how coming out has changed for this new, younger generation of LGBTQ people. For many of us -- in what I like to call the 'middle ages' -- there often was the big coming out talk, with parents, other relatives and then friends. How has that changed now with greater acceptance of LGBT people? Is it easier?

Steven, well, I'm in good company with you in the "middle ages", or as I refer to them, the "dark ages."

When you and I came out years ago, society was very different then, and parent and family acceptance was very different for most of us.

Today, younger people are coming out as LGBTQ at a much younger age. The context for their coming is very different, thanks to the many good changes that have been occurring.

However, the sad reality is that for every positive story we hear through PFLAG of a child's coming to their family, we also hear the stories of rejection, the stories of bullying at school.

Young people are still running away from home, or worse, kicked out of their homes by their families, because they are trying to live honestly and authentically as LGBTQ.

So yes, it's definitely easier than it was for you and for me, but there is still so much more work to be done to truly create a world where young people can be all that they are, and loved and accepted and celebrated for who they are.

Related to this question, Jody: What's the biggest trend you're seeing when we're talking about coming out?

Steve, the biggest trend that PFLAG is seeing though through our 350+ chapters across the country is more younger parents coming to PFLAG because their young child is trans, or is displaying or exhibiting behaviors that are considered gender non-conforming.

In fact, this is largest growth factor across our entire chapter network from our very urban areas like NYC, DC, LA and our more rural communities like Ames, and Omaha and Tampa.

And more adult people who are transgender are finding PFLAG as a place to build community and to build family.


Speaking of people being younger to come out, what's your advice on whether they should use social media services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to come out?

Ah, very good question as we are using this live chat to communicate with your readers.

Coming out through social media undoubtedly feels "safer" to a young person who is finally able to express who s/he really is. But there are so many dangers in doing so that we advice young people to think through the potential consequences of sharing themselves in such a public way. 

Social media is a great way to communicate, and we can use it to share very personal aspects of our lives.  I have lots of nieces and nephews and living far from them, I get to read about and see photos of their expanding families.  But we advice much caution in coming out through social media given the reality of cyber bullying.

It's not really a question, more of a comment. But I don't even care any more when another celebrity announces that they are gay, and honestly, I'm starting to get tired of the special coming-out announcements and appearances they make. It seems like it's more about extra publicity at this point, unless it's someone like the first gay football player, who is actually breaking some sort of barrier.

Here's the first of our reader questions. What's your take?

I hear you!  And I'm a bit torn on this very good question. 

I think that part of what allows younger people to be able to come out as LGBTQ, and we are seeing that happen all the time, and not just as trans, but as gay, lesbian or bi, is that they are seeing all of those celebrities coming out.

Whether it is actors, politicians, or professional sports figures like Michael Sam, these people are having an important influence on younger people today.  And they are influencing parents and families to have conversations even before a family member comes out to them.  So there is definitely a benefit to having celebrities and public people come out.  

And the influence it has on straight people who don't have LGBTQ family members (that they know of) is tremendous too.  They talk about it in the workplace, they discuss in their faith communities.

But for the everyday younger person today, the positive role modeling is causing them to feel less like this needs to be some grand announcement and instead that it's something about them to share.  That's major progress.

my husband of many years recently dropped the bomb that he thinks he's attracted to men and may -- after all these years -- be bisexual. i'm confused and angry. and i don't understand how this could happen. what do you think i should do?

Steven adds: Talk with us a bit about how PFLAG can help this couple?


First, let me say thank you for sharing this question with me.  This must be a very painful realization from you, and it's natural to be experiencing a wide range of emotions.

I think that the first thing you can do for yourself is find a supportive group like a local PFLAG chapter to share your concerns.

Or go to our website at to see all of the resources that we have to that address to complex issues of coming out.

If your husband is indeed bisexual, there are resources that he should seek out as well.  But for you, there are some tremendous resources that were designed by the straight spouses who have experienced, after being married, that their spouse is now identifying as gay, or lesbian, or bisexual or transgender.

Finally, don't hesitate to take care of yourself as you address this in your relationship.  There is great help out there for you.



Jody, You just mentioned the workplace so let me ask you this question, which came to me via email:

 What do I do if a work colleague comes out to me?

We spend countless hours at work, so I love this questions because it's so practical.

In 2007, PFLAG developed a program to address the unique issues of straight people who don't have a family member who is LGBTQ, and it's called Straight for Equality.  We are in dozens of workplaces every year providing training sessions on coming out issues.

The first thing that you can do when a colleague comes out to you at work it to say Thank You!

Coming out is a very personal decision, so acknowledge that with gratitude that you are trusted by your colleague with this information.

Next, ask them who else knows,  and let them know that you don't want to mistakenly out them to others at work.

Finally, ask them what it is that you can do for them in the workplace.  Because, regardless of what policies are in place at work regarding nondiscrimination, PFLAG knows all to well that policy and law changes don't mean that attitudes and culture change so easily.  So ask how you can help them to be their ally at work.

Check out PFLAG's "Guide to Being a StraightAlly" at

That's a great answer. I will also add that it's not always clear who our colleagues are out to. For instance, I have a very good lesbian friend who then joined a publishing company I worked for. I never thought that she wouldn't also be out in the workplace and one day made a reference to her wife, effectively outing her. That wasn't for me to do. Definitely my bad.

I have a unique situation. I am a very visible member of my college LGBT org, march in the parades, volunteer, etc... My whole family knows and supports me for being gay. My boyfriend is also out, but on a much lesser scale. His family has all but disowned him, he has several childhood friends who have shunned him, and as a result, he's not comfortable "coming out" as a couple with me. He says he'll get there, I'm growing impatient. What advice would you offer a couple that while otherwise happy is in two different places like this.

Thank you for that good question.  

First, know that this is more common than you might think.  We find this to be the case, especially in less urban areas where influences such as family, culture, faith, etc. can have a major impact on one's comfort level being completely out in their lives, including in their relationship.

I understand your impatience.  This is a very natural response especially if you have had to hide any part of who you are, and now that you are in a relationship with someone you love, you want him to be as open as you are.

Family dynamics are complex, and if your partner isn't where you are in feeling that he can be open as gay, and his connections to his family remain strong, I think you both should consider seeking out a PFLAG chapter in your area to talk with other who have had similar experiences.

PFLAG isn't just for parents and family members and friends.  PFLAG has always been an organization for everyone dealing with issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.  We have so many wonderful PFLAG members who are LGBTQ.  

And remember that all relationships are complex, and they can be very challenging.  Seek out professional counseling if you find this issue to be one that continues to cause more anxiety for both of you.  Your local PFLAG chapter and/or LGBTQ community center can find appropriate referrals for both of you.

I would ask you to look at these events through the eyes of a young person who may be afraid to come out. You can choose to think "oh not again" or choose to think "maybe this will help someone."

We're getting a number of responses to the question Jody answered above about LGBT celebrities coming out. Here's one.

So ignore it. Don't go to the trouble of feeling aggrieved about it. These announcements are not made for your sake.

And here's another response. And I have to say I agree. I think this 'parade' of coming out announcements makes such a difference, especially for younger people. So, if it bothers you, move on.

Thanks for the feedback everyone.  I said earlier that I was really torn on this. Let me tell you a quick personal story about why.

My partner and I have a very special "adopted daughter" that came into my life when she was only 87 years old.  She has a wonderful mother who has raised her on her own.  On Father's Day a few weeks ago, now at the age of 19, we were grilling hamburgers outside and spending typical time together on a weekend.

We went inside for dessert and we were all sitting around with our dog and cat and their two dogs running around.  She told us she had something to say and that she said she really shouldn't have to announce this to us, because announcements are "silly" about this kind of thing.

She said, "I'm gay. I'm a lesbian. And because it's Father's Day, I thought this was a good day to tell you and to tell Mom."

So a 19 year-0ld who thinks these kinds of announcements are unnecessary tells me  that we are making major progress.

No doubt all those celebrity announcements have been helping to create a culture where those major announcements are becoming less necessary!

My "adopted daughter" was 8 when she came into my life.  Not "87" :-)

Thank you for sharing that beautiful story with us, Jody.

Jody, you wrote: "The biggest trend that PFLAG is seeing though through our 350+ chapters across the country is more younger parents coming to PFLAG because their young child is trans, or is displaying or exhibiting behaviors that are considered gender non-conforming."

I'm not surprised considering there's so much more visibility for transgender people today. So, let me ask: how is coming out different for a trans person than a gay or lesbian one?


Coming out as trans might feel like it was for us 25+ years ago.  Very foreign and very scary, with few reference points as role models.

I even hear this within the LGBQ community that they have few if any personal contact with people who are trans.

I was just at the White House on Monday evening and saw Laverne Cox, who is a great role model for many people who are trans.  Every time I see her, I thank her for putting herself out there as a role model for younger people.

I wanted to ask your advice on something. Before I do a brief background. My wife and I are what would be labeled as Conservative Christians. Our son came out in April as gay. He was 13 at the time and quite frankly we were not surprised. We love and support our son. I am appalled at why any parents would shun or kick out their gay child. That is another topic for another day. Since then our son slowly has told friends and posted his sexual orientation on Instagram. My side of the family knows and they are fairly accepting of him. As for my wife's family they do not know and she is not sure if they will be too accepting. My question is who tells her family? Is it our son our my wife? I would like to know what you think.

First, let me say thank you for being such supportive and loving parents.  You affirm what we at PFLAG know so well, that you can indeed be a person of faith, and be someone who loves their children, family members or friends who are LGBTQ.

Even at the age of 13, your son should be a part of the decision about who will tell the family.  So why don't you and your wife sit down with him and tell him that you think that some of the family may have difficulty with the news  that he has come out as gay.  The best think you can do is to assure him of your love for him, your support for him coming out however it is that he thinks is appropriate. Explain to him that there is so much misinformation about this issues.  Some of the family will assume that he is sexually active because he has come out as gay.  That's another misconception that people have, and so assure him that you and your wife want to be supportive of him and help educate the family about these issues.  Assure him that he isn't responsible for making everyone in the family comfortable or fully informed.  He's still a 13-year old.  Assure him that you can help provide information and resources for the family so that he can just be who he is.

Finally, for you as parents, find  a local PFLAG chapter as a resource for you.  You may not think you need support or guidance, but you may indeed be needed in PFLAG as another great example of Conservative Christians who love and affirm their son in all that he is.

Thank you all for your questions today. I'm sorry we couldn't get to each of them but I've got them and will be answering some in upcoming columns.

A special thank you to our special guest, PFLAG's Jody Huckaby. I've long supported PFLAG and its chapters across the nation (and overseas) and it's been an honor to talk with Jody today. With any luck, we'll be able to convince him to come back soon and answer more of your questions. (Also, thanks to PFLAG's Liz Owen for all her assistance in helping set this up.)


Thanks so much Steven. It was  a great pleasure spending time with you and those on the chat today!

I'm a high-school teacher in Northern California and I have a student who I very strongly sense is struggling to come out. His parents seem nice and supportive, but i have no idea how they would react to his being gay. He is struggling in school and his interest appears to be slipping. I'm wondering what I can say or do to let him know i'm there for him if he ever needs someone to talk to without making it seem like I'm pushing him to come out before he's ready. Thoughts?

Last question, and thanks for it.  School teachers can be huge anchors for young people who feel different, don't feel like they fit in with their peers, who don't have strong family connections.  You can find simple ways to integrate LGBTQ issues into your everyday work in the classroom that would send a message to your student, and to all of your students. that you are supportive and that you are there as a resource.

For example, R. Kelly and his wife just revealed that their child is transgender.  You can reference this in your classroom in a positive way.  You can say that he and his wife are just like other non-celebrity parents who are working through these issues and that they love their child.  That's an easy and nonpersonal way to raise the issue without directing it at your student. 

And this kind of everyday reference to coming out "normalizes' the topic for young people who may struggling with coming out.  And just as important, it sends a message to students who are straight, and to the school faculty and administration, that you are supportive, that you are a resource.  So you can be a role model for all of them as well.  It's not just the big things we do, the clubs we join, or the advocacy we do--that's all important for sure--it's the simple things we do when we integrate LGBTQ issues into our everyday conversations that help to really cause people to stop and think.  That's what changes hearts and minds, attitudes and culture.

In This Chat
Steven Petrow
Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners. Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for The Washington Post as well as "Manners Hero" for Parade and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health.
Jody Huckaby
Jody M. Huckaby has been the Executive Director of PFLAG National since February 2005 and is one of the longest-tenured leaders of a national LGBT organization. He has served as a nonprofit leader for more than twenty years.
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