Mister 'Manners'

Steven Petrow talks new book, crazy questions and the importance of LGBT etiquette for straight people

By Chris Azzopardi

For years, Steven Petrow's been answering your questions about gay and lesbian life - everything from social-media etiquette to surviving the holidays. Now, he's answering ours. The nationally syndicated writer, known for his "Queeries" column (which runs monthly in Between The Lines), recently released his latest book, "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners," an ultimate go-to guide for LGBT living. In it, you'll find real-world advice on coming out, dating, starting a family and entertaining with flair.

We caught up with Petrow, who talked about the most popular questions (sex ones, of course) and the best advice he's ever received.

Why did you start giving advice?

In the past five years, there's been this explosion of change both in our community and in the world. And because of my first manners book, folks tracked me down and started emailing me all kinds of questions - like, how do two grooms dress for their wedding? how does the child of two moms refer to his sperm donor? and lots of questions about coming out, dating and, yes, sex. I was answering them personally when I decided to start my monthly column. That was three years and thousands of questions ago.

I have to say I really enjoy trying to help LGBT people navigate through these new and uncharted waters - and especially young ones. Two-thirds of the people who visit my site - http://www.gaymanners.com - are 13 to 19 and just coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity. I take this advice-giving business pretty seriously.

Have people always come to you for advice?

(Laughs) Yes, friends have long said that I was wise beyond my years - but I also thought they were just trying to kid me that I was old. More seriously, I'd say yes, but with close friends I try to ask them questions that will help them figure out stuff for themselves. I don't pretend to be - and I'm not - a know-it-all.

What was it like putting this book together? How long did it take?

You should ask my partner. Actually not! From soup to nuts this was nearly a three-year process and it took center stage in my life. It was hard - and yet the second most rewarding professional project I've ever done; top on that list is "Dancing Against the Darkness," my first publication, one of the earliest books about the impact of the AIDS epidemic.

How much of your advice comes from personal experience?

That's a curious question. I did tons of interviews with various experts. I also relied heavily on my Facebook fans and friends so that I had a lot of input into my thinking. But sure, some of the advice came from my personal experiences - but often it wasn't what I did, it was more along the lines of what I wish I had done. In case others haven't told you, I'm far from perfect.

What are the hardest questions to answer?

I'd say these fall into two categories. The most challenging - and wrenching - to me are those from young gay people who feel alone, are being ostracized, even bullied. From my own life experience, I have such empathy for them and do my best to connect and suggest local resources that might be helpful right now.

The other "hard" questions are those from people who don't want to take responsibility for their actions and write hoping I'll lay all the blame on their boyfriend or girlfriend, even their parents. For these people, it's always someone else's fault. Guess what, it's not.

What are some of the craziest "queeries" you've received?

I'm not sure if you mean the question this way, but I get a lot of queeries from straight people and I'm sometimes just amazed about the things they ask. Questions like: "Who's the man in the relationship?" Please, that's no one's business - and, by the way, not everyone is a pitcher or a catcher.

I get a lot of sex queeries, too, like an early one about "the etiquette of fellatio." I'll spare you the answer here, but believe me, I've learned a lot about the human experience. And I wasn't especially naive!

How is this book different than "The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette"?

That little book, "Gay Manners," came out in 1995. Sixteen years ago, it reads like it's a century old. This was before online dating and personals, chat rooms, instant messaging and even widespread cell phone use. I wrote it before "Ellen," "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye" and "Boy Meets Boy"; before " The New York Times" and the 200 major dailies began publishing gay and lesbian wedding announcements; before Massachusetts and California voted thumbs up on same-sex marriage. In other words, a lot has changed!

What are you most commonly asked about?

The big three: Coming out. Relationship issues. And weddings. Hands-down.

Why are gay manners important for people who aren't gay?

It's not as though they inhabit different universes and it's not as though we set the table differently or treat our houseguests better, or worse. But when you read the traditional etiquette books, LGBT people are practically invisible. That's why we need a book like this to help with our modern-day dilemmas. And the same is true for straight people. I've gotten questions like, "What do I say when someone comes out to me?" "Thank you for telling me. That's wonderful to know." "Is going to a same-sex commitment ceremony different that a straight one?" "Not so much overall, but definitely in the details - and in most states gay can't legally marry." Straight folks want a guiding hand because they don't want to say or do the wrong thing.

What's the best advice you've been given?

You may find this incongruous for someone who's just written a book about manners, but a beloved professor of mine in graduate school always reminded us: "Break a rule every day!" At least I know now what rules I'm breaking.

Steven Petrow

7 p.m. June 21

Schuler Books & Music

2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing

7 p.m., June 22

Common Language Bookstore

317 Braun Court, Ann Arbor

http://www.gaymanners.com

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