Civilities: Steven Petrow on LGBT and straight etiquette

Jun 17, 2014

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

This week we'll have a special guest - Tony award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who will talk about his play "Mothers and Sons," which is chock full of gay/straight manners dilemmas. 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.

This week we have a special guest - Tony award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who will talk about his Tony-nominated play "Mothers and Sons,"  his other works, and how the world has changed for LGBT people in past decades. Terrence will be here for the full hour; please send in your questions. On a personal note, let me say that I recently saw "Mothers and Sons" (starring Tyne Daly) in NY and I highly recommend you go before it closes on June 22nd. For more info, click here.

Much like the characters in the play, I know there's a significant age difference between you and your partner. I'm wondering how autobiographical the play is and if Tyne Daly's character plays a stand in for your own mother?

My plays are usually emotionally autobiographical, seldom literally. My husband Tom and I share a 25 years age difference. But our relationship is not a subject of the play. Cal and Will are much closer in age than we are. My mother informs some of Katharine but so do a lot of mothers and women I have observed over my 75 years.

Terrence, A few weeks ago I answered a question from a mother whose son was dating a much older man. She was not so happy. When you and Tom first started to be a couple did the age difference attract attention from friends or family? Is it different between a same-sex couple and an oppiste-sex one?

First off, why was this mother so unhappy? Maybe age had nothing to do with it. Tom's large family has been incredibly welcoming to me since day One. I think our friends want us to make smart choices when it comes to long term relationships, straight or gay is not the issue.


As she wrote she was upset about the age difference and worried aloud that the older man was taking advantage of her son. It was more like a Dustin Lance Black/Tom Daley situation in terms of their ages. I thought she was overreacting, especially since she had chosen never to meet the fellow. Which I recommended as a starting point.

Mr. McNally - I am in my early 30's and a particular passage from your play really struck a chord with me. You write: "First it [AIDS] will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. ... It¹s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away." I can feel it happening too - so many of my friends don't treat it with the importance or the urgency I think it deserves. What do you think? Has my generation forgotten about AIDS, and what do you think it's going to take to make us remember?

I think it's important for all of us to tell our stories as honestly and urgently as possible. If the "young" forget or don't even know their recent history, it is the fault of the generations of gay men and women who preceded tham.

"Mothers and Sons" explores the interactions between, and reactions of, different generations to the loss of a loved one to AIDS. Do you feel the play is creating the understanding between generations you hoped for, and what reactions are you getting you did not anticipate??

Yes, the talk backs and mail I have received make me feel we are reaching an audience with this play. I'm only surprised by the number of mid-30's to younger who say they "didn't know" how bad the crisis was at its height. They also are not as aware that young men are still getting infected as they should be. The work continues.

Along these lines, Terrence, I know Larry Kramer has visited the set of Mothers and Sons, what was your take on the HBO version of The Normal Heart?

How do you think the characters in "Mothers and Sons" would have reacted to each other if Andre had died of a heart attack, an auto accident or something other than AIDS? How would that have changed how they interact with each other? How have those interactions changed between family members since you wrote "Andre's Mother"?

Andre's death from AIDS is the truth Katharine cannot look at, any more than she could his sexuality. The woman I wrote about would have been not more disposed to Cal if her son had been lost to a heart attack or car accident.

How surprised are you by how quickly the LGBT landscape has changed in the past 10 years? Do you have any disappointments? Or, what's left to come? Thank you

The changes are wonderful but not as quickly as they now seem. The struggle for marriage equality began before AIDS.

My disappointment is that homophobia is as rampant as ever. Good legislation is not enough to change people's hearts but it's a good place to start for those of us wanting our full rights as citizens of the U>S>A>

What did getting married mean to you? Was it more - or less -- what you expected?

The happiest day of my life and the best thing I ever did. I happen to think Tom Kirdahy is the best man in the world, which makes me the luckiest.

Being straight, I believe one of the oddest questions that Transgendered people are often asked is "when did you first know you were............?" It is a question that is very unlikely to be asked of a straight person about their hetrosexual life. What are the boundries for straight people who wonder about LGBT sexual lives? (That may even be oddest question # 2).

I think all people know their sexuality at a very early age. The lucky ones don't struggle with it.

I am as comfortable talking about my sexuality as the person I'm speaking with is comfortable talking about theirs. What I don't enjoy are "interviews" i.e. who does what to whom and why, when and where?

How was it working with Sheryl Kaller as a director on this project? Do you think having a director who is both a woman and mother influenced the shape the play took in onstage?

I loved working with Sheryl. She is a director whose work I had been tracking and admiring. When it came time to produce the play, both the producer and I thought a talented, experienced woman would be a good choice. She was our first choise and said yes. She was also very patient with our 7 year old company member. I don't think I could have been so good with Grayson.

Grayson aka "Bud" certainly asked a lot of questions in the play. Were there "things" that needed to be explained to him? I'm not even sure how much a 7-year-old knows about death and dying.

When same sex marriages will be recognized by ALL the States? 2020? 2100? Never? I know it's only a guess at this point.

I think it will go to the Supreme Court and be settled for once and for all within 5-7 years. Texas will threaten to secede and I think we should let them. Remember the Alamo indeed.

I have my gay marriage crystal ball here on my desk and it says that it will be sooner or later, most likely due to a far-reaching decision by the Supreme Court. Seriously, from what I'm reading and hearing that's how I think it will become legal nationwide.

I just wanted to thank you for this play. When I saw it in New York after the transfer to Broadway, I thought that the scene in which the couple (Arthur and Perry I think) took turns triming each other's ear hair was the most intimate thing I had ever seen on stage. Ever.

Thank you for noticing. When I wrote this scene, I was thinking "no playwright has ever put such physical intimacy on the stage". You're the first person who has ever even mentioned it, including the original cast members and director!

What are the next projects you have coming up? I've read about IT'S ONLY A PLAY and ANASTASIA. Any details you're willing to share about what's next for you? Will you be writing a new Broadway play in the future?

We're doing a revised version of THE VISIT at Williamstown in August. Second Stage is reviving Lips Together, Teeth Apart on November 3. Anastasia has a workshop in August and then we'll see what the next step is with that project. A busy summer and fall, that's for sure. Thanks for being so up to date on what I'm up to!

I know you were married in Washington DC during the run of several of your plays at the Kennedy Center (which was a great treat, by the way). If I recall, Tyne Daly was one of your witnesses. Why did you choose to be married in DC as opposed to waiting for it in your home state?

We chose to be married in D.C. because we had spent so much time there during the Kennedy Center productions and were very fond of it. It was spring and the cherry blossoms were out. It just seemed right and romantic. We didn't expect NY state to allow us to marry so quickly after the big and stunning defeat in Albany the year before. We got tired waiting and we wanted to celebrate a wonderful 3 months in D.C. as much as our own happiness.

When a person transitions (say from male to female) at work, how should supervisors and employees handle such questions as, "Who is this new Cathy person I just saw on the org chart? Where did Bob go? Was he fired?" I assume that there are all sorts of complications regarding protecting someone's privacy, but if Cathy doesn't tell people that she used to be Bob, those questions will come up. Thanks!

Good questions and we will all find our way to answering them (and asking them) with dignity and respect for the parties involved. I don't think there's a Rule Book. Common sense and courtesy are always a good starting place.

I'll take a stab at this one. It's often best if someone is transitioning in the workplace to talk with a supervisor or even better HR early in the process. That can help pave the way and also allow company leaders to set the right tone of acceptance. But it's important to add that gays, lesbians and trans people can be fired at will in many states simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I come from a very "machismo" culture, where my cousin was forced into heterosexual norms without even knowing why it didn't feel right for him, because back in the '50s and '60s our culture didn't even discuss homosexuality. It took him two decades of psychoanalysis and two broken marriages to women before he finally realized he was gay. He's now happily married to a husband he loves dearly (a man who always knew he was gay), his now-grown children from his first marriage love their other dad as well, and both men are thrilled to have become Grandpas recently.

That's a great example of the progress, however slow, however painful, we are making in terms of accepting one another as unique individuals. I struggled almost not at all with my sexuality but I was lucky enough to get out of Texas at 17 and come to New York where I knew I would find lots of other young gay men. I did. I didn't read all those books about life in Manhattan for nothing. I am grateful every day I never felt "trapped" into being someone I wasn't. Luck of the Irish, I guess.

Most, if not al, of your plays have references or passages from operas. and in many ways, they deal with the emotions of operas - love, death, anger, fear. How do you see the relationship between the emotions in your plays and the emotions in opera. And what do we learn about dealing with the emotional upheavals in our lives? (And by the way, what was the passage you used in "Mothers and Sons". I didn't catch it.)

I fell in love with opera in the 6th grade thanks to an Ursuline nun who played records for us. I was attracted to opera long before theatre. Well, good opera is theatre, so I'd better clarify what I mean. I like big emotions and they are in most of my plays. I'm not a minimalist or a ironicist. I love people when they laugh wildly and cry wildly. I have trouble with the in-between stuff. Some day a smart critic will write a paper about the influence of Verdi and Mozart on my work rather than Albee or Pinter.

The aria is Mand S is L'amero saro costane fromMozart's Il Re Pastore. It is on almost every soprano's recording of Mozart arias. The one you heard at the Golden is sung by a young Irish soprano who did Master Class in London last year. It was recorded a capella expressly for this production.

I just want to remind all of you that this wonderful play must close on June 22nd. If you go to the top of the chat you'll see the link for the official Mothers and Son web page where you can find information about purchasing tickets.

Terrence, I know you've said you wrote this play with Tyne in mind. What drew you to her for the role of "Mrs. Gerard"?

Tyne is a great stage actress. She is fearless. She does not beg for sympathy. She makes Katharine a moving, tragic figure (for me anyway) precisely because she is so resolute in her unwillingness to be wrong or re-define her notion of love. She is stranded utterly alone, though I think there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the play for her. None of the cast or director or producer or me are in agreement abot what she is going to do "next"

Alas, not until gay Irish groups are allowed to march openly in all St. Patrick's Day parades.

Somehow we have survived that.

I'm counting on Pope Francis to sort those Queens Irishmen out.

This is a logistical question, but when will the Mothers and Sons play script be available? I have been dying to read it and give it to my students after seeing the play. Thank you to everything you've contributed to the American theater over the past 50 years. You are truly a legend and a marvel!

Dramatists Play Service promises to have the script out soon. It will also be included in an anthology of my work that Grove is working on. That one's probably a year off but it will have 10 of my favorite and best plays with a special introduction to each one.

Thanks for your generous words about the work.

Steven, thank you for this opportunity. Mr. McNally, thank you for your moving and wonderful play. My husband and I attended a performance in late March. One of the (many) things that struck us about the play was the way in which Cal talks about the importance of the term "husband" to defining his relationship. My husband and I find ourselves repeating lines from the play ("the reservation is in my husband's name") often as we remark on the same thing. You really seemed to understand that in the way you wrote the play. Is that something you ever imagined ten or twenty years ago? This play felt so current and timely and "now," partly because of your deft handling of the ways we define and describe our relationships now.

Cal struggling with the "h" word is completely autobiographical. The first time I used it in public was in Boston about 7 years ago. (Of course we weren't legally married then.) I referred to Tom as my "" and my face got pretty red. It didn't take long to get used to it, however. Especially now that it's legal I use the word every chance I get. Already it gets absolutely no reaction from anyone! Life marches on.

In many ways Mothers and Sons seems a gay 101 primer for straight families. I'm thinking about the conversation between Katharine and Cal about the use of the term "husbands," when Katharine says that being "gay is a choice" and Cal says it wasn't, and even when she asks "Is one of you the father?" I mean you even bring up Manhunt!

Thanks for your accurate comments. And thanks for not asking me how I know about Manhunt!

Have you ever appeared onstage in an opera? My husband, who can't carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, was a supernumerary for more than a decade, and loved it so much!

No, but I continue to dream of the day when I appear on the Met stage as a supermerary.

Unfortunately, the expect you to show up at rehearsal. I just want to stand next to Jonas Kaufmann.

While we are discussing your latest play, are there plans to tour it?Maybe with Tyne? I certainly hope so, so that more people can see and and more importantly, FEEL this brilliant play.

I will share your thoughts with the producer. I would love that. But tours have bcome almost non-existent since I began writing plays. The best, I would imagine, I can hope for is Tyne for a limited run in 3 0r 4 "major" cities.

Thanks to Terrence McNally for joining the "Civilities Chat" today. What a pleasure in every way. Also, thanks to Terrence's husband Tom Kirdahy for making this possible. And, of course, one more reminder: Tony-nominated Mothers and Sons must close on June 22nd. Get your tickets online via the link at the top of the chat.

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.
Terrence McNally
(Photo: Michael Childers)

Terrence McNally was awarded the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. He is the winner of Tony Awards for his plays LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! and MASTER CLASS and his books for the musicals RAGTIME and KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN. In 2010 the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented TERRENCE McNALLY’S NIGHTS AT THE OPERA, a three-play festival of his work.

Last season GOLDEN AGE opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage One at City Center and the Pearl Theatre premiered his new play AND AWAY WE GO at their new home on 42nd. St in early fall. His newest play MOTHERS AND SONS premiered on Broadway this Spring. It is his 20th Broadway production. [More at]
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