This December one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received is: “What’s the proper way to address holiday cards and party invitations to same-sex couples?” In fact, more people than ever are asking that question because, as UCLA’s Williams Institute reported last month, 96,000 LGBT couples have married since the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality in June. That’s one in 10 of all U.S. marriages. That’s a lot of us, for sure.
Questions about same-sex couples debuted on the etiquette scene at least three decades ago, when Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) answered this question: “What should I say when introduced to a homosexual couple?” Her don’t-miss-a beat retort: “How do you do? How do you do?” One of the reasons I love this answer is that Ms. Martin’s advice gets to the heart of the matter: Situations change, but the principles of etiquette do not. The rules for addressing same-sex couples are the same as for opposite-sex ones, with a few twists. (For the record, these rules apply to all committed, co-habitating couples — regardless of sexual orientation or marital status.)
Here’s my take on some of the options:
Most gay and lesbian couples are keeping their own surnames, like my husband and me:
“Mr. Steven Petrow and Mr. Jim Bean”
(And you can relax about whose name goes first — when in doubt, let the alphabet be your guide.)
We also could be addressed with the abbreviation of “Messieurs”:
“Messrs. Petrow and Bean”
For a lesbian couple, the default is to use “Ms.” For example:
“Ms. Victoria Threlfall and Ms. Molly O’Neill”
In the case of a couple that has hyphenated their surnames, follow the example of my sister and her wife:
“Ms. Madelyn Petrow-Cohen and Ms. Julie Petrow-Cohen”
Or, especially because they have two daughters, they could be addressed as “The Petrow-Cohen Family,” which I think has a nice ring to it.
A fussier variation on the hyphenated option is, again, to reach out to the French and address them as the “Mesdames Petrow-Cohen.”
In the past couple of years I’ve noticed an increasing trend among both gay and lesbian couples for them to adopt what I call “retro-traditional” forms of address; that’s when one spouse takes the surname of the other. One California couple I know is addressed as “Mr. and Mr. Matthew Harris,” which they vehemently explained is not a reflection of unbridled patriarchy or spousal submission. I can see that for the Matthew Harrises, nothing says same-sex married like “Mr. and Mr.”
Surprising to many LGBT Gen Xers and Boomers, a new trend has also emerged among millennial lesbians who are embracing “Mrs. and Mrs.” For instance:
“Mrs. and Mrs. Jennifer Epstein”
Now don’t judge me, nor them for what appears to be an anti-feminist statement; it is one which I’m told emphasizes being married, no doubt like some of their own moms.
Here’s my final piece of advice: Unless you know otherwise, assume same-sex couples are keeping their names and address them as such. If you want to be sure, just ask.
Couples, if you’re changing your name, let friends and family know. For instance, when writing a wedding announcement, include a line that says something like: Bride A is taking Bride B’s name, or whatever moniker you’ve decided upon.
All that being said, it’s been quite a year, and I wish you a joyous new year—whatever name you go by.