Civilities: Steven Petrow on LGBT and straight etiquette

May 06, 2014

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

Why talk about etiquette? In his recent book Steven wrote that "treating everyone with respect and decency makes for a better and fairer world, and that manners are among the best ways to make sure we set out on the right foot. 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.

OK, here we are for my first Civilities chat and i'm excited by the great number of questions in the queue.

just so you know i'm still getting used to the chat technology -- so please be patient. i also want to thank jessica stahl, today's producer, for her assistance.


My beloved niece is marrying her partner next month. I've met her partner and she seems terrific. But this is the first gay wedding I've been to, so I'm looking for any etiquette pointers you might have ?

first of all congratulations to your niece and her fiancee. yep, that's right, gays and lesbians are increasingly using many of the traditional monikers for marriage and married people.

that being said, in the most important way a same-sex wedding is the same as an opposite-sex one. it's a ceremony of commitment and love before those whom support you.

but there are differences and yours is one of the most frequently asked questions of me. w/o any specific queries on your part let me jump in with the role of family. i've seen more often in gay/lesbian weddings that friends take a more prominent role in the ceremony/reception than some family members. this is for a couple of reasons: for now, the same-sex couples who are marrying have tended to be together for a while (sometimes decades) and aren't looking to their moms, dads, aunts or uncles either to pay for the shindig or to take a prominent role. some don't have family support, which i find sad every time i read about such a situation.

in your case, it sounds like you've got a great relationship and if your niece asks you to participate in anyway you should feel honored. and if she doesn't, don't take it personally. (nor should anyone's parents). in the end, i think you'll see that it's all very much the same -- except take note -- the pronouncement may likely be: i now pronounce you wife and wife!



No questions, just hugs and best wishes!

thank you very much. it's an exciting day for me. come back in two weeks when you do have a question. or 'like' me here:


Lately, I've been hearing the acronym LGBTQ. I have heard the second Q means questioning. Is that right ? And does that imply that the person is uncertain as to his orientation or something else ?

this is a great question and one that i was asked by one of my new editors recently. in fact, the 'q' can stand for 'questioning' or 'queer.' as for the first use, you're absolutely right; the individual isn't quite sure. as for the second, many find that queer is a word that better captures their identity than gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender etc. you may also see an 'a' be added (for ally, which connotes a straight person) and an "i" (for intersex). thanks for asking your question; it may seem like LGBT 101 but many people are confused by the alphabet soup.

in fact, many years ago i was at a cloris leachman performance and she got all tangled up on 'LGBT' and said to the mostly gay audience: "why don't you just call yourselves the 'BLTs'" humor is never a bad thing.

My coworker refers to her spouse as her spouse. Is it wrong to refer to her as her wife? Is there a difference?

Again, a great question and one that I'll be answering in full in my column next week. For now, let me say this: more and more gays and lesbians who marry are using the monikers "husbands" and "wives" to refer to each other, which is one of the accoutrements of marriage. So, I'd say use that when you don't know any better. But in your case, I'd follow the lead of your co-worker who is using 'spouse.' Not everyone likes the heteronormative nomenclature and I've especially seen that some of my lesbian friends don't really love using "wife" because of the more traditional role associations with it. In short, go with 'spouse.' And thanks for joining us today.

Yesterday, a woman told me two gay male friends were visiting her and she wanted to take them to dinner in West Hollywood, which is known for its relatively more visible gay community. She asked me what gay men like to eat. I replied "gay people eat the same food as straight people." Was I wrong in my answer?

Don't you know that gay people have a special, secret diet?! OK, I'm making a joke just in case that doesn't translate on the page. Your answer was perfect; I can't imagine why someone would think gay men eat differently than straight men. Some of my best LGBT friends are vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians and plain ol' carnivores. So are my straight friends. But, there is a manners brownie point in her question, wanting to choose a restaurant that these guys would enjoy. That's what a good host does! She coul dhave asked instead: "Where do you think Ross and Charles would enjoy having dinner?" Thanks for your question and I hope I've helped.

Hi, Steven! Thanks for taking my question. My family and I all live in states where gay marriage is not (yet!!) legal. Obviously if a gay family member or friend uses the term husband or wife for their spouse I use that term, regardless of the legal status. However, if they don't identify as married, is partner the most preferable term to use? Thanks!

Hi, back at you! First of all, I'm sure your same-sex married friends appreciate being referred to as husbands, wives or spouses. There's something very validating to many of us who for so long could not legally attain that status. If they're not legally married, which doesn't mean they're uncommitted (sorry for the double neg), I would 1) listen to how they refer to each other and then pick up on that and 2) if necessary, say for to introduce them, it's fine to ask something like ~"How do you like others to refer to you two? I want to be sure to use the right language." Well-intentioned questions like that are always appreciated ~ although it would be a snarky person who gets upset if you use 'partner.' If there's a faux pas, it's in downgrading a relationship -- to say 'friend' or 'roommate' -- which I have seen happen when those not-so-in-the-know aren't yet familiar with same-sex couples. Thanks for asking the question. Please come back!

Male roommates just out of college, friends of friends, coming to stay at my house while they both have job interviews in my city. I think, but am not sure, that they are gay. Our mutual friend says she doesn't know, either. How do I offer sleeping arrangements?

That's an interesting question. So, if I understand correctly, these two guys were roommates in college. Therefore, whether gay or straight they're comfortable sharing a room and I can't see why that should be different now that they will be your houseguests. Separate from sexual orientation, I always recommend that hosts let guests know ahead of time if they'll be sharing a bedroom or a bathroom. People just kind of like to know that sort of thing in advance. And if there's an issue, they can decide to stay elsewhere. Thanks for asking!


By the way to everyone: Jess, my producer, tells me that if you have follow-ups to anything that I've answered just send those questions or comments into the queue and I will do my best to get to them.



Hi. Would love your insight on something. I've been a Methodist all my long life, and attended a liberal, "inclusive" Methodist church in Northern California. Unfortunately, the top governing body of the international church is much more conservative, and in the past year has endorsed an offensive (to many of us) stance towards gays and lesbians, in part I think because of the very conservative attitude of the growing African membership of the church. Something just gave out in me--I just couldn't deal with telling my gay neighbors, family members, and friends that I was a member of a church that condemned them. I felt like I would be telling them I was a member of the KKK but was trying to reform it from the inside. Yuk. So I guess my question for you is, how do you feel about someone that is a member of a gay-discriminating organization, though you know and like them as people? Do you feel they should resign? This decision has on the one hand caused my a great deal of anguish--you tend to think about religion a lot more when you get into your elder years!--but I'm also ok with it because I think I feel better about myself for having disassociated myself from the Methodist church.

That's a very interesting and important question.

Personally, I try my best not to judge others, in part because I'm hardly perfect myself and in part because I recognize that there may be information that I'm not aware of. In your case, I might not have know that you were trying to reform it from the inside -- although I'd certainly appreciate knowing that if I understood you were a church member. I think that since you say you're ok with your decision to resign you've made the right decision for you. It sounds like a principled, reasoned decision. Thanks for asking.

Why/how would "queer" better capture identity than "gay, lesbian, . . . etc."? I always thought "queer" was derogatory. Apologies in advance for my ignorance.

I'm glad you asked this follow-up. You know how if you're in a community it's often okay to use language that's not appropriate if you're not a member. Think racial and religious groups, for example. In that light, it's often okay for LGBT people to use specific words, like queer, but not okay for others. Where well-intentioned folks run into a problem is when they hear a gay person use a word and then think to themselves, "Well, if he can say 'queer' so can I." That's why my advice to anyone in a specific group is to be careful about the language you use because it can be misconstrued. No ignorance on your part; hope my answer helped.

I really wish we could drop the word "straight" in reference to sexuality. It seems very insulting to me (a heterosexual), because it implies that if you're not straight, you're crooked (or somehow imperfect). Is there any feeling in the LGBTQ community about this term?

I don't think there's any specific objection in the LGBT community about the word 'straight' and frankly, I haven't heard much from my heterosexual friends, coworkers etc. Heterosexual is really the only other commonly used word, which like homosexual can sound awfully clinical at times. What would you prefer?

Actually I DID mean African, not African-American. The Methodist church is an international organization and there is a lot of growth in Africa, where the attitude toward gays and lesbians is much less accepting.

Indeed, you did and I've amended my answer. Thanks to everyone who pointed that out!

Queer can also be used as a more inclusive term of sexual orientation/sexuality. For example, a woman identifying as queer might date cisgender women, transwomen and/or transmen. It can be an indication of "my sexual attraction doesn't quite fit in a box". Thanks for answering these questions and providing info!

Interesting, I see you just deleted/edited the answer I had concerns with. It might have been more instructive to issue a sincere apology for misinterpreting a person's question, rather than secretly fixing it. Many Africans and African nations are very conservative.

I'm just learning the ropes here. But I did note my mistake a few minutes ago.

Facebook now has a choice of dozens of genders. Do you think this is helpful? I think if I said "I'm trans-*" or many of the other choices the response would be "what the heck is that supposed to mean?" or a nod accompanied by a vacant stare.

I actually think this was a powerful step for Facebook to acknowledge and allow us to identify in ways other than 'male' or 'female.' We don't all fit into little boxes and the more choices that are given the greater the likelihood that a person will feel their choice reflects who they are. But, yes, that may open them up to some additional questions -- or they might just send them to me:)

I don't have a good alternative to "straight." It's an interesting question; I'm a writer/editor, so am interested in language and how we identify ourselves.

Thanks for replying. One thing I'm sure of: Language will continue to evolve.

I'm a 40 something single gay man living in DC. I've had relationships before, but none really panned out for more than a year, and while I'm not actively "looking" for a relationship, I'd prefer to meet someone and settle down than endless nights alone or being the proverbial fifth wheel to other couples. My issue is this: many of the age appropriate gentlemen that I've recently gone on date's with are in open relationships and it's getting tedious. I don't judge anyone or their relationship, but I've been subjected to scorn and indignation for not wanting to date (or sleep) with someone who's in a relationship for someone else. My feeling is that I don't want to be someone's second choice. Are there any single guys left or should I just downgrade my expectations?

I wanted to get to your question before the hour runs out -- even though it's not strictly a manners query. But it's one that I get quite frequently from those in, shall we say the "middle ages" (which is where I am, too). I remember many years ago I went on a date with a great guy who, after dinner, said to me: "You know, I'm partnered but we have an open relationship and he knows I'm out with you tonight." I replied: "That's great for you guys but not for me." In short, you know what you're looking for -- don't lose sight of it. Of course, there are single guys left -- even in DC:) If you're dating online be clear about your expectations; I think that's one of the benefits of those services. And if you haven't join some clubs (book, hiking, etc) or do some volunteer work with presumably like-minded people. I don't say any of that easily or flippantly; it's not so easy to age in our community. Best of luck.

Our niece is dating a woman who is in the process of becoming male (she/he is presently taking 'hormones'). My husband and I disagree about which are the appropriate pronouns when referring to her/him. I believe that since 'he' and our niece have accepted the gender change, and think and refer to 'him' as he, his, him, etc., then we should follow suit. My husband believes that since 'she' still has a vagina and is biologically female, that she is 'she.' What is the proper etiquette in this situation?

You are correct. It was Chaz Bono, Cher's daughter turned son, who said correctly to my mind: "To me, gender is between your ears, not between your legs."It's respectful to refer to a person in the way that they identify. Thanks for asking this question.

I want to say thank you to everyone who joined me for our first chat. Great questions and I really appreciate your showing up! I'll be back in two weeks, which is Tuesday, May 20th at 1 pm ET. In the meantime, look for a new "Civilities" column next Tuesday. Best, Steven Petrow

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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.
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