Civilities: Steven Petrow on LGBT and straight etiquette

Jun 03, 2014

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

This week we'll be talking about weddings, same-sex weddings that is: I've been hearing from parents and other relatives wondering just what their role is at a gay wedding? Moms, Dads and others, send in your manners questions. And to those planning a same-sex ceremony, what etiquette issues are on your mind? I've already gotten several about whether or not to invite unsupportive relatives. Of course, all questions are welcome! 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.

I see that we've got a good number of questions in the queue but let me ask for input on this one from a reader. Should she invite her parents who have not even said 'congratulations' to her after she got engaged to her girlfriend?

"Q: I’m in a pickle and was wondering if you have any advice. My partner and I recently got engaged and are planning our wedding for next summer. We are in New York, my parents are in San Diego. In the past few months, my parents have made small steps towards acknowledging our relationship, but since the engagement, they have regressed. They are both avoiding contact and neither has congratulated us. My mother once said that she would rather come to my doctoral graduation than my wedding (that she has been planning my wedding since the 70’s…). I told her I’d prefer the opposite. With this behavior, I don’t want them at either one. The rest of my family (even if they don’t agree with marriage) have been happy for us and will likely come to the wedding. Is it reasonable to not invite my parents?"

How do you handle things like office wedding showers at work for gay couples? I've had experiences where, even though they're held for straight couples all the time by managers and coworkers, people are wary to host them for gay ones because they don't want to take sides on a political issue or isolate conservative employees. I know something like this can seem minor, but I feel like it sends a pretty strong message that gay employees and their families aren't valued. Am I being too sensitive?

No, you're not being too sensitive. And honestly, this question highlights for me why I'm not a big proponent of office wedding showers, period. Whether for a straight or gay couple. Work is for work and it immediately gets complicated when you start to blur the boundaries between what's professional and what's personal. I know many of my colleagues have issues with workplace showers in general:  will everyone be invited? how much to spend on a gift? arm twisting for a collective gift? and so on.  I also know a good number of LGBT people who feel isolated or left out when there's yet another straight wedding shower (especially if they live in one of the 31 states where same-sex marriage is illegal).

Basically, my advice is to advocate for fairness here. If an office manager is going to hold wedding and baby showers for its opposite sex couples then it's only right to do the same for everyone else. I actually don't think it's a minor issue for the reason you noted: 'it sends a pretty strong message that gay employees and their families aren't valued.'

And this, in my opinion, is why wedding showers are best held among family and friends outside of the workplace.



Would it be worth a try to tell them that their attitude is driving a wedge between you and them, and ask them if they really want to be estranged from you permanently? Because you are going to get married, and it's their choice whether to hurt you badly and strain the relationship permanently, by expressing their disapproval. It might make them think a bit.

I'm actually of two minds about this conundrum. If the bride-to-be doesn't invite her parents, I fear she'll be forever known as the "bad daughter" with the onus of the fracture placed on her (even though its antecedents pre-existed). Of course what happens if the parents are invited and choose not to attend? I think that, too, would strain the relationship permanently, as you suggest. But talking together is always a good first step in a difficult situation like this.

I'd say invite them and let them be the ones to decide whether they can get over themselves and be happy for you. You could even be upfront about that choice. "We'd love you to come and share in our happiness. If you don't think you can do that, then you are under no obligation to attend." Maybe that's too harsh? But to me not inviting them ensures that the current rift perpetuates instead of keeping the door open for moving forward when (if?) they come around.

Your response sounds perfectly reasonable although I also think that simply sending the invitation says pretty much the same sentiment as your language suggested. I'd hope that anyone who doesn't feel as though they can support a couple marrying would choose to pass. Regardless of sexual orientation. By contrast, there's a tacit agreement when you decide to attend a wedding and that is that you will share in their happiness and support their relationship. Don't you think?

At an LGBT wedding are the principles both brides or both grooms or is it personal preference?

Yes, indeed two women marrying would be two brides and two men marrying, two grooms. If you're still around I'd be curious to know what you were thinking the "personal preference" might be? In previous chats we've talked about how to refer to same-sex married couples, i.e., 'husbands' and 'wives,' which has in the past year or so become the new default for many. And again, in that situation there would be two husbands and two wives. I'm thinking that you may be getting into a question about gender roles -- who takes out the garbage, who does the dishes kind of thing -- which every couple (straight and gay) seems to figure out one way or another. Or, if they don't, then they're in trouble as a couple. I hope this helps.

I live in a "gayborhood" where people place a lot of value on how much a person makes. The problem I'm currently facing is that my boyfriend makes significantly more money than I do and i feel like his friends judge me because I'm in a very middle class career. I love what i do and money has never been important to me, but it's clearly important to his friends and, at times I think, to him. How do I address that this is a concern of mine now so it doesn't become a deal breaker for us in the future?

Let me just start my answer by saying this is not a specifically gay question. Many couples find themselves at different points on the economic spectrum -- and, you're right, this can become a problem if not discussed early on before things fester (or as you wrote: become a deal breaker in the future). I think you've expressed yourself quite eloquently in your question and I'd recommend that you have a conversation with your boyfriend along those lines. Perhaps he's not aware of your perception of both him and his friends; or, in fact, there may be a value conflict between the two of you. There's so much to be said for loving what you do, since we spend the great majority of out time doing it. Have the talk and let me know what you learn.

Completely agree with talking to them first, but here' s my thought if you're still unsure afterwards: Do you love them? I'm serious. You want to be at your wedding with the people you love, and hopefully love you back, right? So at least go the first step and invite them to share in the love that is your marriage. If they accept, I hope that the love shown during your wedding will help them ease their minds. If they decline, I hope that they come around eventually before it's too late to repair the relationship.

Well said. And, in my experience, it's awfully hard not to feel the love when at a wedding of a relative or close friend. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many a same-sex wedding has changed many hearts if not minds on this issue. I don't think we'd have more than 50% of all Americans supporting same-sex marriage if that weren't part of the reason.

The one question that my LG relatives and friends loathe most is this kind. whatever you do, just on general principles, don't ever ever even think of asking which is the guy and which is the gal. Even if half the couple wears a tux and the other half a long white gown and veil. Just stop trying to impose hetero term on non-hetero relationships. It's pointless and hurtful.

Your point reminds me of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia di Rossi's wedding and specifically their attire. Ellen wore a sharp, silk pantsuit while Portia wore a "Cinderella" gown. Both were the "brides" and both are now "wives."

I am fairly knowlegeable about most LGBT issues and try to treat people as they want to be treated but I have never gotten an answer to this most basic of questions. Why do so many lesbians wear men's clothes? I am not referring to transgener people here. Women that I know are lesbians and identify as female wearing men's clothes.

This question seems a natural one after the last. First, I'm not sure what you mean by "so many" lesbians wearing men's clothes but yes there are lesbians who sometimes dress in a more masculine fashion (i.e. 'butch'.) I've pasted in below a response from a lesbian who wrote about this topic recently. I think she gives some very good insight into her sartorial choices and identity.


"I always feel a little uncomfortable when being asked to speak for the queer community or in this case for all lesbians.  So I won’t. I will speak for myself--someone who does, more often than not, “dress like a man.”

First thing is first.  I do not want to be a man.  I am really quite comfortable being labeled, identifying as, and relating to other people as a woman. Nor am I attempting to fool you or anyone else into thinking I am a "man."  But I do feel 100% comfortable dressing in a masculine fashion.

because of the following reasons (list not exhaustive) 

  1. I am LOW MAINTENANCE.  Like... low.  It is easier to look stylish when all you are pairing are t-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers. Clothes designed for women, tend to include different fits, cuts, complicated patterns, and frilly bits I don't know what to do with.                                        
  2. I am unwilling to sacrifice comfort for looks.  Women’s clothing seems to ask this of me. 
  3. I feel 10 times more confident when I am wearing more masculine clothes.  This I can’t explain, it just is what it is.  You know that item of clothing you wore till it fell into many pieces, it's like that. You just feel good when you're rocking it. 
  4. I enjoy people correctly assuming my sexuality.  And in this society, for people to do that, that means being more masculine-identified.

I like my style right now, it makes me comfortable, makes me feel more me.
In high school I wore more feminine clothing--skirts, tight shirts, rocked some long hair.  And at the time, I was comfortable with that too. And I know a lot of other queer women who feel very comfortable wearing masculine clothes one day, and a dress the next.  It is about feeling good in my clothes.  And I do!"

They can also use the word "spouse," as they wish.

Absolutely. They can also use "partners" too. Sometimes people think I'm trying to straight jacket folks into specific language and terms. I'm not. In this case, I'm putting forth what will be seen and heard as respectful language for a same-sex couple. When in doubt, listen to how a couple refers to each other when making introductions, ie, "I'd like you to meet my wife, Amy ...." Then follow suit. It's also fine to ask them: "How do you like to be referred to?"

Invite them. Take the higher road. Do you want to hear "I wasn't invited to my own daughter's wedding" for the rest of your life? If they come, fine. If they don't, it's on them, not you. (Though for the record, my husband and I eloped so I wouldn't have to make MY mother make that mother-in-law and other in-laws ended up being disappointed, though.)

Great answer. I don't think anyone wants to hear, "I wasn't invited to my own daughter's wedding" for the rest of her life.

You say his friends judge you because you don't make a lot of money. What does this say to you about his choice of friends? Do you feel there's an inbalance in the relationship because he makes more? What do you - and both of you - feel you bring to the table?

Yes, you make a good point about the boyfriend's friends. And, I'd like to believe that the more well-to-do fellow finds other virtues in his BF. Important to talk about. And especially important for the lower wage earner to understand his value and what he's bringing to the table. It's not all dollars and cents, folks.

1) straight women do, too. 2) why do you care what women wear? 3) how do you define "men's clothes"? 4) pants and loose shirts are unarguably more comfortable than skirts and high heels. Just for starters.

Well said. Thank you for posting.

AND for the last ten to fifteen years have been too tight and revealing. There's been a slew of articles on how difficult young professional women find it to find clothing that looks professional, fashionable, and yet not clingy or revealing. And don't say "just buy a larger size" because that looks even worse.

Again, thank you for writing in.

Invite them. Invite them in the same manner you invite the rest of the family, as in, no specific invitation or conditions, whatever, and give them the chance to grow. If they decline, it's on them. The only caveat to that is if you fear they will cause disharmony or a scene at the wedding. You said they had started to move towards acceptance. So they stumbled. Give them a chance to regain the path.

You do make a good point here. If you think that the parents will cause a disruption or in anyway distract attention from the meaning of the day, then we're dealing with a different type of scenario. In that case, I'd be sure to have a conversation with them beforehand and lay down the law. "We'd love for you to be there and we need you to honor us at our wedding."


But when one stumbles, I hope we'll be there to help them get up again.

This comes up with weddings in other contexts, too--for instance, parents who object to the religion of a child's intended. You invite your parents. They decide what to do. For an amazing number of families, this will result in the parents showing up, being civil, & perhaps even discovering that they love their new in-laws. Really.

Very true. Really!

In discussing an upcoming wedding of two women, most people, understandably, assume that my friend is marrying a man. I've made references to my friend and her "fiancee with two Es," but that seems to be too subtle for my audience, who inevitably makes a reference to a male fiance later in the conversation. It seems like oversharing to overtly state the wedding will have two brides, yet I embarrass the conversation partner when I have to correct their assumption. Is there a better way to preempt this misunderstanding (even with a highly LGBTQ-friendly audience!)?

It's really too bad that there's only an E of a difference between 'fiance' and 'fiancee' -- and no difference in pronunciation. I think that this problem will solve itself over time. When it comes to weddings our natural default is still a opposite-sex couple but that's changing as more and more straight folks know same-sex couples who are marrying. I like your attempt to solve the problem by saying "fiancee with two Es;" you could also try using their names, say Linda and Beth. But that doesn't always work either; I've got two wonderful friends, lesbians, married, whose names are Max and Robin. But why does it seem like oversharing to say there will be two brides? It's not TMI. It's something to take joy in, don't you think?

Please invite your parents. They may suck it up, come, and realize they are happy for you. All parents have a habit of being a pain around weddings (and your parents should behave differently), but it would do so much harm not to invite them and warmly welcome them if they come. This is a cross roads and a place where it pays to be the bigger person.

Many are responding to my initial question. Let me post some of them and open up the queue.

It's not just a gay issue. I bent over backwards and incurred extra expense to ensure an aunt and uncle from my (small) family would be comfortable at my wedding. I sent them an invitation. Unfortunately, my spouse was of a different religion and they declined to come.

Not it's not just a gay issue -- unfortunately.

I'm so sorry your parents have reacted this way. If I were in that situation, I would try to contact the parents (by letter or e-mail if they refuse phone or in-person contact) and explain how hurtful their actions have been. In the letter, maybe include something along the lines of how their actions have made you seriously consider not inviting them to the wedding. If they want to refuse to accept the relationship, then you just won't invite them. I'm leery of not inviting them to the wedding without saying anything.

Another response to the question about invited the 'rents.

Perhaps when a woman in an opposite-sex couple earns far less than the man, societal values about the man-as-breadwinner kick in, so it's traditionally viewed as an acceptable situation. When both partners are of the same sex, however, such asymmetry may be more perceived by some as an unequal relationship. Not at all my view, but just speculation on how the some of the OP's neighbors see things.

Good point. Thanks for posting it.

I haven't faced this particular issue myself, but I have had to choose between responding emotionally and responding graciously. Every time I respond with (negative) emotion, I've regretted it later. I've never had reason to regret acting with graciousness. Bonus: even people who have been treating me horribly recognize graciousness when they see it. Sometimes it helps them choose better in the future, as well.

I really love how you put this ~ 'responding emotionally' versus 'responding graciously.' I think that's a great yard stick for many of us to use in all sorts of situations. Thanks.

Try "my friend and her future wife."

Another great answer to this question.

It's wonderful that the lesbian you quoted has the options of wearing what she will, or switching between male and female attire. As a male, I wish I had that option but I know that won't happen ~ particularly the "switching" part.

Gender bending goes both ways, my friend. I have a gay male friend here in NC, for instance, who sometimes wears heels, dresses and other more feminine-identified clothing. When you have a moment do a Google search on 'genderbending' attire. You'll quickly see that you're not alone.

how many questions are not specifically gay. For instance, in opposite sex engagements there are often parents who don't like their kid's choice and threaten to boycott the wedding - religion, race, career choice, political leanings,of the finace etc. In some ways reading this chat reinforces that the LGBTQ community is more similar than dissimular to the straight community.

Surprise! Not really, right? But what I think is important about what we're all doing here is providing a forum for the LGBT-specific circumstances, which really don't exist elsewhere. So, I appreciate this forum as well as how open folks are with their questions. And here's a secret: If I'm successful at this job of mine, one day I won't need to be doing it. I'll just focus on plain ol' manners (and that will keep me busy enough!)

Thanks for being here and sending in your questions. I'll be back for another live chat in two weeks; I believe that's June 17th. 1 pm ET. In the meantime, you can send me private questions to: stevenpetrow AT earthlink DOT net.


And stay tuned for a new column next Tuesday. Cheers.

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.
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