I was often disappointed when I first came out by my own behaviour and that of others regarding how to show interest in another guy. That challenge, however, was nothing compared to what to do when you are not interested. Is it true that queer people are more afraid of interpersonal rejection compared to heterosexuals? I don’t know the answer to this, but I was amazed at how dishonest or disrespectful we (including myself here) can become when we want to disengage from someone without intentionally hurting their feelings.
Although this is just one example, it speaks to two skills that are important to develop: assertiveness (standing up for your rights) and etiquette (“rules governing socially acceptable behaviour” ). Etiquette is what most of us refer to as having good manners. I decided to write this column about gay etiquette, despite the few references I could find regarding the topic.
In fact, I could not find a single psychological journal article on the subject and only found two books through an amazon.com search. I have not seen the newer book  so I will use the book called, The essential book of gay manners and etiquette (1995) by authors Petrow and Steele as my single reference. Although one can certainly argue against some of their suggested practices (as I do), I suggest that the intent of etiquette is to be socially appropriate, polite, honest, and fair. With that it mind, these “rules” are not appropriate in all circumstances.
1. Dating Protocol – Petrow and Steele recommend that you give at least three days notice when setting up a date. On a first date, schedule it for a weekday instead of a Friday or Saturday. The expectations are lower and it is easier for either person to end the date early (that doesn’t mean either of you are a schmuck – it just acknowledges that first dates are often stressful for one or both persons). They recommend you keep expectations low and that you not rush things. When you are ready to make a move, ask first: “May I kiss you?” or “May I hold you?” Easier than having the guy purse his lips so hard together that you get a powerful signal to “BACK OFF!” (this happened to me once).
If you are meeting somewhere, how long should you wait? Petrow and Steele recommend 20 minutes. If you haven’t heard from them, feel free to leave – you have given them ample time to arrive. If they arrive after 20 minutes, they are the ones being rude.
Another rule is to not make a date unless you intend to go through with it. If you have a good reason to break the date, let them know your reason. If not, but you still want to break the date, do what Petrow and Steele recommend: Be honest and say something like, “I’m sorry, Mike, but I don’t think it’s going to work out for us. I’ve decided to cancel our plan for Friday.”
2. Looking for Love – Don’t waste your time with those who are not looking for the same thing as you. Seek out others who are also looking to establish a long-term relationship. Petrow and Steele recommend that you both agree to holding off on having sex. If you feel more than just lust, you will enjoy the sex more and you will send the message that what the two of you are building is more than just sexual compatibility.
Hold off the first time you want to say, “I love you.” You want to ensure you mean it before you say it. What if you are asked, “Do you love me” and it seems too early? The authors recommend you say something like, “I like you a lot, but I am not ready to call it love yet. Do you understand?”
3. Dealing with Offensive and/or Homophobic Comments – An offensive or homophobic comment is made – what do you do? Petrow and Steele recommend confronting the bigot or homophobe “head-on,” either publicly or privately, or by talking to their boss if in a work situation. If a gay joke is made in your presence (or any joke putting down women, Jews, or any other minority group), let the person know you don’t find it funny, tell them the joke is based on stereotypes, and that it is offensive to all people. Then take your leave.
Although I think their advice is sound, are there times when you have to temper your expression of distaste a little? At an intimate dinner party, for example, direct confrontation may come across as attacking and as a real mood killer. It might also preclude future invitations (which may or may not be without consequence to you).
4. Dealing with Egotists and Know-It-Alls – So you’re at a party and someone has an ego that just doesn’t stop. What do you do? Changing the subject won’t work because the egotist will find ways to get back centre stage. Petrow and Steele suggest you either (a) tell a very long story or (b) get away as quickly as you can. Know-it-alls will always win in a discussion (at least they think they have) so best advice is to let them correct you, smile, graciously thank them, and say goodbye.
5. Displays of Public Affection – Are we entitled to show public affection the same as straights? Petrow and Steele say the rules are the same, so it’s okay to hold hands, gaze into each others eyes, and engage in light kissing. I am convinced that is the way it ought to be, but are we there yet? It depends on where you live. Perhaps I am jaded and paranoid, but a light kiss in rural Alberta may be followed by a hard punch to those same pretty lips from an onlooker! Safety first, etiquette second (my rule).
6. Dealing with Unaccepting Family – Families vary in their response to one’s coming out. Petrow and Steele recommend that if your family is not accepting, create your own extended family and your own traditions. If you can’t live at home, stay with a friend, sibling, or relative. My advice is don’t come out to your family while you are under their authority (while a minor or otherwise needing their care) if you believe they will have a harsh and rejecting reaction to your disclosure. Disclosing who you are can wait until you are independent.
7. Dealing with Unwanted Advances – Petrow and Steele advocate being honest, and that does go a long way. If someone you are not interested in asks you out or makes a sexual advance, simply say “no thanks” and carry on with the conversation. I remember running into a guy a few weeks following a date and he asked, “Why haven’t you called me?” I was caught off guard but I did manage to utter, “I’m sorry but I am not interested in you that way.” That seemed to satisfy him and he left me alone after that. You could also say something like, “I am not romantically interested in you,” or “I am not attracted to you.” We have all had that experience before and the honest approach is better than making up lame excuses.
8. Behaviour in Bath Houses and Sex Clubs – Petrow and Steele do not believe you ought to talk when making an advance in a bathhouse or sex club. Introductions are unnecessary. Instead, approach the guy you’re interested in and touch him. Likewise, if a guy touches you, move away if you are not interested. If he persists, grasp his hand and firmly move it away. If others try to join you and you don’t want that, move their hands away too. Sounds so simple – and it works.
9. Invitations to a Commitment Ceremony (including same-sex marriage) – Should you invite everyone in your family, even if some members are homophobic? Petrow and Steele say “no” – only invite those who can really honour the commitment you are making. Makes perfect sense really. The last thing you need at such a special moment are others who are secretly sabotaging your deepest commitments.
Especially if are new in your queer identity, you might want to purchase either or both of the books listed below in the reference section. It is not easy to be socially appropriate, polite, honest, and fair at the same time, while also ensuring that your own rights are protected (being assertive). It is worth learning proper etiquette, however, as it will earn you respect from those who know you well and from those who don’t. You will also be demonstrating the familiar Golden Rule (treat others the way you want to be treated). A little respect goes a long way in life.
Dr. Alderson is an associate professor of counselling psychology at the University of Calgary who specializes in gay and lesbian studies. He also maintains a private practice. He can be contacted by confidential email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by confidential voice mail at 605-5234.
1) Definition retrieved June 22, 2008 from wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn
2) Curzon, D. (2007). The big book of in-your-face gay etiquette. San Francisco: IGNA.
3) Petrow, S., & Steele, N. (1995). The essential book of gay manners and etiquette. New York: HarperCollins.