Civilities: Steven Petrow on LGBT and straight etiquette

May 20, 2014

Columnist Steven Petrow takes your questions about LGBT and straight etiquette.

This week we'll be talking about last week's column , specifically the changing monikers for married gay couples (is it "husbands and wives," "partners," or something else). Not to mention the landmark coming out of NFL player Michael Sam. Is it even still necessary to come out anymore? Here's more about Steven's "Civilities" column and what makes him the person to dole out advice.

You can also reach Steven on Facebook at and on Twitter @stevenpetrow.

Welcome to today's chat, my second here at the Post.  I'll be taking your questions in a moment but first I'm curious what you all think about this one I received recently. I'm going to share it here; send in your thoughts using the "Submit your question" button (or in the comments if you're reading the chat transcript after the fact). In a perfect world I agree, no one would need to come out ... I don't think we're there yet, however.

"Why does anyone, like Michael Sam, have to announce that they're gay anymore? I'm a straight man, and I have no opinion at all on whether or not a gay football player should be drafted - I only have opinions on whether good players get drafted. But if I say I don't care about Michael Sam, people accuse me of being homophobic. I'm not - I honestly don't care that he's gay. I don't want to watch his press conferences, I don't want to celebrate his being gay, I just want to watch football. So why do people still think it's so important to parade their sexuality around?"

Seems like it should be directed towards you. The person asked: "I attended a casual friend's BBQ over the weekend and struck up a conversation with "Campbell," a person obviously born female but very butch. During the course if our conversation, I very quickly asked what pronoun Campbell would prefer me to use when referencing her. I thought I was being aware and polite in case she identified as something else, but she got huffy and almost yelled, "Don't I look like a woman?" She then abruptly ended our convo, and I could tell she was whispering about me for the rest of the night."

Yes, thanks for sending that question over here. Honestly, it seems like the person's intentions were good and not prying so "Campbell's" response seems harsh and not likely to lead to much light. On the other hand, I don't really see why this person needed to know "Campbell's" gender identity (ie, what pronoun to use). It's pretty easy to avoid using "him" or "her" in a conversation, especially when you know someone's name. If I were referencing her, I'd say something like: "Campbell just made a great point..." It's also not so nice to use a pronoun in someone's presence. Nor is it very nice for Campbell to have spent the rest of the night whispering about this person's seemingly unintended faux pas.

I have always referred to my sister's wife as my sister-in-law, even before they were able to get legally married. (Thy have been together for a long, long time.) However, it still feels strange to me to refer to her as a wife, especially when I am referring to them when talking to someone who is not in the family. (For family it is easy, we just use their names, just like any other members of the family.) However, what I want to convey in any conversation is not just that our family is accepting of the relationship, but that we love her dearly. Not a question, just a celebration of a great sister-in-law that everyone in the family loves and is proud of.

Kudos to you for calling your sister's wife, "sister-in-law "even before they legally married. I know that my sister referred to my then partner in the same way before we married. It's amazing how much language can help define our families.


That being said, I do understand the "strange" part of referring to her as a "wife" to others. Jim and I now use "husbands" but after 9 months of marriage we're still getting used to the new moniker. If anything, it's because it's unfamiliar. But we're getting more and more habituated (as are our friends and relatives) and so I encourage you to use "wife" going forward. I'm sure it will seem less "strange" with every utterance and will definitely make clear the relationship between your sister and her wife. Thanks for posting.

Michael Sam's coming out is another milestone that to me is very much worth caring about. On a less-fraught level, it's like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Why _should_ anyone mention that they're gay? Isn't that between them and their (potential) partners? When I see a famous person come out as gay, I feel like they're really saying "hey guys [gals]! I'm available! Let's talk!"

I was looking forward to at least a column last week. Has your schedule changed?

Ahh. Thank you. My column is every other week ~ the next one is a week from today. And then I do these chats in the inbetween weeks. But it's nice to be missed!

I've got a young relative who’s gay and out to peers but not to our family. I want to ask about his life in our convos but because he’s never come out to us, I assume he’s still not ready to share all parts of his life. I don’t want to make him uncomfortable but I also don’t want to treat him differently than I would straight relatives by not asking about his boyfriend (whom I've heard about through the grapevine). When we talk, I ask about work and school and everything else. Should I leave his relationship status on a list of things about which I shouldn't ask until he brings it up or introduces me to his S/O?

This is a sensitive question and I appreciate you asking it. The short answer is: You're right to assume he's not ready to share all parts of his life with his family. Some people choose to be out to their friends but not relatives. Or to friends and relatives but not co-workers. I once mistakenly outed a friend in the workplace, having "assumed" she was also out there. I would keep to other topics of conversation understanding that when he's ready he'll speak up. Of course, if there's any possibility that he might not intuit that you're LGBT-friendly, shall we say, then I would find ways to get that point across. For instance, perhaps you'll be watching the "Modern Family" wedding tomorrow night. You could say something about how much you're looking forward to Cam and Mitch finally making it legal.... I think you get the idea. Thanks.

Something else to consider: The gender-ambiguous person in question may not want to out themselves as transgender in any given social situation, so it is best to let them decide when it is safe to discuss their pronoun choice.


I don't even see it as a gender issue. Was she presenting male? "Very butch" is in the eye of the beholder.

It's to preclude whispers and questions. We have a norm and a divergence, and they are not treated equally. If he hadn't announced, and he'd been drafted and kissed his boyfriend, can you imagine the hullabaloo, scandal? Against him, the team, the network, etc.? Now if anyone has a problem, it's on them, not on the player (as much).

Just to clarify to those reading along; this is in answer to my Michael Sam question.

When I hear comments like that, I tend to reply "Do you have a picture of your wife on your desk? Do you talk about what you did with your wife over the weekend?", and so on. Because unless the person expects the gay person to never talk about their personal life, yes, we do have to "announce we're gay".

Michael Sam is not "parading" his sexuality around any more than a straight person "parades" his/her sexuality around when he/she kisses his/her significant other. It's important that he come out so that kids growing up being told that they'll never amount to anything *do* have a role model that they can aspire to be. We've made a lot of progress in this area, but we aren't done.

Well said. And I do think that the question-writer's use of the word "parading" made me think harder about my own thoughts. "Parading" is a first cousin of "flaunting," and I don't believe Michael Sam was doing either. Thanks for posting.

In a recent column you explained that an 'a' in LGBTQA can stand for 'allies,' but you didn't mention it's also frequently used for 'asexuals.' In young queer communities, I see it used more for the second now.

Thank you for that clarification. You're absolutely correct.

Are you a gay man with qualifications to comment on LGBT ettiquette? If so, wouldn't that imply you have an agenda and significant prejudice?

That's an interesting question. So, let me answer. Yes, I am a gay man. Yes, I am a journalist (previously Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., The New York Times). Yes, I'm considered a manners expert (5 books). I'm not sure what agenda you are referring to: My guiding principles, the lens I try to look through for every question I answer, are: kindness, respect, fairness, and civility. I'd be curious to know what agenda you're concerned about. Thanks for asking the question.

Hello! My brother recently came out as trans, and I am so proud of him for living his life honestly. But I am unsure of what to do with childhood photos of him when he was living as a girl? Should I remove them from display, keep or destroy the photos? He is coming to visit for the first time since coming out, and I don't want to offend him. Thank you!

You sound like a wonderful and supportive sister! I don't think there's a right or wrong answer to your question. If you take them down, he could feel he was being made invisible in some way; if you leave them up, he may not be happy. So how about this: Send him a quick email and ask him what he prefers. By the way, I want to commend you for switching your language so naturally; I noticed you called him your brother whereas previously you would have used sister. Thank you!

insert here the statistics about young gay suicides. If gays are invisible, then kids will go on thinking there is something wrong with them and they don't deserve to live. Hopefully we can get to a point where people don't have to announce their orientation, they can just live their lives, referring to a boyfriend, girlfriend, wife or husband as appropriate, ya know, *just like* straight people have always done.

Another response to the Michael Sam question:

One comment here said "can you imagine him kissing a guy without letting people know first?" (I paraphrase.) That's not usually the first clue one gives. I would not kiss my boyfriend in greeting when with, say, coworkers unless I first said "my boyfriend will be here later! You'll all get to meet him!"

I'm the guy from 2 weeks ago who wrote in about how long it took for my husband and I to get used to saying "husband". Your 9 months is about where we started to be comfortable with it. And like you, my husband's sister had been referring to me as her brother-in-law for years before we got married. Our niece has called me Uncle since she was born, and that was even before we moved in together. She's 12 now and has never had an issue with having a pair of gay uncles. (I like to point that last bit out to folks that argue young kids "shouldn't be exposed to that kind of thing". People like that are just trying to pass their homophobia on to the next generation.)

Hello guy from two weeks ago! Thanks for checking in. Hope to see you again soon.

I heard you interviewed on NPR and really appreciated your statement that intent matters ... that is, when someone uses an offensive term or says something slightly ignorant, but did not mean harm, give them a bit of a break. I went to an extremely liberal college where using the wrong term to refer to someone could result in being ostracized. And, on that note, what do you think about the trend of calling people whose identities and bodies match "cisgender." In other words, we aren't men and women we are transgender and cisgender. My knee jerk reaction is that it is silly and extreme, but I can be convinced otherwise. I know that transgendered people (is that the right term?) have and continue to suffer a lot, but sometimes some of this language policing just makes me want to roll my eyes.

Thanks for listening to me on NPR. You know, I don't think anyone should be ostracized for using a wrong term without ill-intent. How does that help anything?As for cisgender, it is a new term for many of us but that is probably because we are just in the early stages of awareness about transgender issues in our culture. Perhaps we will get used to the term, or perhaps the term/s will change with time... The one thing that is clear is that it's important to respect how people identify THEMSELVES. By the way,  "transgender" is preferred to "transgendered."

I'm concerned about the agenda of heterosexuals who refuse to acknowledge that what they call "parading sexuality" is what they experience as normal life. "My wife and I went to a movie this weekend" is something anyone should be able to say without being accused of "parading sexuality" or "having an agenda."

I'm seeing a lot of questions without answers.

No, tech issue. I asked a question at the very beginning of the chat and am posting many of the responses to that question. When they haven't put Michael Sam in the topic field I'm trying to clarify. I'm going to save the rest of the Michael Sam responses for the end of the chat and then post them.

My boyfriend makes considerably more money than I do. For the most part, it isn't an issue, but on the occasion that he wants to do something very splashy and expensive, it becomes one. The reason? I feel most comfortable splitting the things we do 50/50. I'm 10 years younger than he is and people already make daddy jokes. I want to give them as few reasons to make them as possible. But when it comes to a weekend at an expensive spa or a $500 dinner, I just can't swing it as often as he'd like. What is the most appropriate way to approach the issue that I can't afford to do all of the things he wants to do? The Younger Boyfriend

I don't actually think this is gay-specific since I can equally imagine an opposite-sex version of this question. But before I get into dollars and cents let me say that it's rude of your those people who are making 'daddy' jokes. It's not their business to make a judgment on your relationship. I actually addressed this topic in a recent column:

But if you're not comfortable with your BF picking up the bigger tab items, start by telling him how you feel. That may ease some of your concerns. There are also other ways for you to show you care -- without spending gobs of money. I haven't met anyone who doesn't love a homecooked meal. Or take him somewhere special -- but somewhere that you can afford. Let me know how it goes.

As an ally, I am very much in favor of equal rights for all, regardless of orientation. But I got so dang tired of seeing the clip of Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend. It was a very sweet reaction to a very big life moment, but did it really have to be shown for days on end? I felt like I couldn't voice my frustration because saying something may imply to others that I am uncomfortable with Sam's orientation, when I'm not. I end up not saying anything because of that. And sure, maybe I don't *need* to voice my frustration. But I hope that one day, an "event" like this doesn't have to be shown on the news constantly and that people like me can voice frustration without it being assumed that they're homophobic. (full disclosure: I also hate the "kiss cam" on New Year's Eve. Blech.)

I sure did see that kiss a lot, too. And we have ESPN (primarily) to thank for that. I'm quite certain that once such kisses are run-of-the-mill they won't stand out in the way that this one does being so new. For the record, I don't think you're homophobic for raising this point! Thanks.

I'm a woman; my partner is a transwoman. We often meet with other "in the community." Sometimes, someone we meet will assume I'm trans as well. Should I be insulted or pleased?

I don't think that's for me to say. Are you insulted or are you pleased? And why or why not? Let me know.

It doesn't bother me when I see straight people or gay people or trangender people or ANY people kissing in public or on camera..unless I see tongue. Too far! Forget about the kids. *I* don't wanna see that.

I've been asked a lot about PDA in the wake of the Michael Sam kiss and my answer has been: There aren't different rules for LGBT people and straight folks; light-kisses, hand-holding, and eyegazing are fine (anything that's PG). Stretching those boundaries, regardless of sexual orientation is -- as you write -- going "too far." I have one caveat: LGBT couples should always make sure they will be safe even if it's PG PDA. Safety trumps manners every time.

I am 100% on board with Gay marriage, however I am very disappointed on the selective targeting from the LGBT groups. The mozilla CEO was targeted for a donation in 2008, but you don't see Obama or Hillary receiving attacks when they made similar statements of marriage being for one man and one woman. Society (and this includes dems and black churches) very recently accepted gay marriage. If the LGBT uses a legitimate complaint to mask political attacks, it will lose a ton of goodwill with the public.

As I recall the Mozilla CEO refused to renounce his previously stated views on same-sex marriage. Yes, the Clintons were once opposed but they have very publicly explained their change of heart and mind. I think that's a big difference. Do you agree?

I can argue both ways. You think I don't look like a woman? I'm insulted! You accept me enough to think I'm "one of you?" I'm pleased. But mostly I smile and say 'thank you but I'm here with Jill."

Well, I hope you won't get cross with anyone then! And I like your answer.

LGBT couples are less safe kissing than, say, gay couples?

I'm referring to gay-bashing and other forms of anti-LGBT violence. I wasn't specifically comparing LGBT v. gay.

My understanding is that he was planning to come out after the draft, but rumors were swirling and they were so non-specific that he was afraid he was getting a rep as "difficult" which would lead to him not being drafted at all. I think he decided that if he wasn't going to get drafted, at least it would be for the "right" reason. Not that it was right that he might not get drafted, but. . . . Am I making myself clear, because I think I've lost myself?

Ok, we're about to wrap it up here. My editor needs me to finish up a story for tomorrow's paper on the Modern Family wedding. I'm going to post a few more of the responses to the Michael Sam question now. Thanks for joining today -- and see you in two weeks.

Remember when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won their Oscars and it was a big deal because black actors hadn't won an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier. Remember what a big deal it was when Lupita N'Yongo won hers last year? You're right, nobody paid any attention to what color she was. The FIRST time (in this case, in the modern era) that something happens, it is kind of a big deal. After that, it's just the (new) way things are.

The day that a guy like Michael Sams can kiss his boyfriend in a celebratory fashion on TV in the same way a straight guy kisses his girlfriend without the Internet blowing up with "eww, disgusting" is the day when guys like Michael Sams can stop announcing they're gay. Says this straight ally.

Ok, we're about to wrap it up here. My editor needs me to finish up a story for tomorrow's paper on the Modern Family wedding. I'll see you in two weeks!

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: