Editor's Note: Steven Petrow's new column offers advice to LGBT community members and their straight allies on etiquette and social interaction. It will run the third Wednesday of every month.
Public displays of affection
Q: Can a gay or lesbian couple kiss in public? On the cheek or on the lips? How about holding hands? —Touchy Feely
A: Yes, yes, yes and yes! Of course, it depends where you are.
Ah, the PDA question (that's public display of affection for those new to the acronym). Here's a real-life story from my extended family: "Mary and I had been visiting my family for the holidays, along with my brother, sister and their spouses," e-mailed Vicki. "Like my siblings, we held hands from time to time and even kissed each other warmly—but certainly not open-mouthed! Late in the day, my mother took me aside and said sternly, 'There'll be no touching in this house.' I asked, 'Does that apply only to Mary and me or to everyone, including the family heterosexuals?' That stymied her."
The rules about showing affection publicly are the same for gay men and lesbians as they are for straight folks. However, the acceptable public behaviors we exhibit—regardless of our sexuality—are different, say, whether we're in a nightclub, bar or movie theater versus a church, classroom or a family dinner. Generally, hand-holding, eye-gazing and light kissing are perfectly fine in public; groping, tongue-kissing and touching below the waist are not.
- No matter what the rules: If you ever feel as though any public display may result in physical harm, refrain and leave the scene.
- Some of us have relied on overt displays. For instance, public "kiss-ins" as a legitimate means of political theater or free speech (so to speak). Right on! Again, just be sure to consider the context and your safety.
One caution: Think twice about talking back to your mother!
Note for straights: What's good for the goose is good for the gander. This is the basis for equality.
"Where did your children come from?"
Q: If one more person asks me in front of my children where they come from or whose they are or where did we adopt them from, I'm going to explode. What's the best way to deal with these very annoying questions? —Baby Makes Three
A: While probably well meaning, these kinds of questions can be annoying and belie a lack of understanding and sensitivity. Frankly, they're also an invasion of a family's privacy. Although millions of gay and lesbian households with kids now exist, this phenomenon is still, well, a phenomenon, and by that I mean something new and remarkable. Because our straight friends, coworkers and family members understand that biologically same-sex couples cannot reproduce (without the use of 21st-century technologies), they're puzzled and even curious about our progeny. Understand that to start.
So, what to say? Whose children are they? "They are ours." You are the child's parents (or one of them). Where did they come from? "They come from the same place all children come from." And then smile. If you still find yourself pressed, feel free to invoke your zone of privacy and say simply, "That's really a family matter, but thank you for caring."
In the case of adoption, it's also important to use the right language. Your son (or daughter) was born to his (or her) "birth mother" or "biological parents"—not "natural" or "real" parents. Even if, in fact, you did adopt the child, you should say plainly, "I'm his parent by adoption" rather than "adoptive parent," which sounds like a qualified or second-rate kind of mom or dad.
Finally, remember not to share too much information about your little one. Alas, not everyone (straight or gay) is as interested in your kid as you are.
Note for straights: Don't let your curiosity get the better of you. You don't like it when you're on the receiving end, do you?
Out on the job
Q: I've been partnered with my boyfriend for about five years and only recently put a photograph of him on my desk at work. I like to gaze at him during the day, but I've been surprised by how many questions I've gotten, like: "Is he your brother?" What's the best way to answer these curious coworkers, especially since I'm not really out yet? —One Foot In, One Foot Out
A: To be or not to be out, that is yet again the question. Although one of the basic premises of good manners is to make people feel comfortable, don't let etiquette be marshaled into an argument for keeping you in the closet. Displaying your boyfriend's photo is a good way to come out (at least partially) without shouting the dreaded, "Hey, I am gay!" Other ways include referring to a girlfriend or a same-sex spouse in casual conversation ("My wife is home with our kids..."), making charitable contributions to an LGBT rights groups and then asking your company to match, or attending the office holiday party with your partner. Obviously, there are many degrees to being out.
Before you come out at work, be sure you understand whether your company has nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, as well as local or state laws. Most states have no such protections, and you certainly don't want to be fired.
Finally, here's what you can say to "Is that your brother?" "No, that's my boyfriend, Stan. We've been together five years." Enough said.
Note for straights: No one likes to be asked, "Are you pregnant (or just overweight)?" While you can't always know the answer, know that there's often more than one.
Steven Petrow is a regular contributor to the Indy and the author of The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette. If you have a "Queery" for a future column, please send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.