• Ambassador Rufus Gifford, left, and his husband, Stephen DeVincent, moments after their wedding in Copenhagen on Oct. 10. (Rufus Gifford)Source: Rufus Gifford
With the US Supreme Court legalising same-sex marriage this year, it's presented some etiquette problems for holiday greeting card enthusiasts in America. Just how do you address same-sex couples?
Steven Petrow

The Washington Post
11 Dec 2015 - 10:18 AM  UPDATED 11 Dec 2015 - 10:18 AM

Q: With the great progress made on the marriage-equality front, I'm now confused about how to address holiday cards to gay, married couples. It seems clear enough for two men ("Mr. and Mr."), but not so much for women. After fighting so hard for the right to be married, would they prefer to use "Mrs. and Mrs." as opposed to "Ms. and Ms."? This might seem like a minor issue. But I know it's important to my gay friends, so it's important to me, too.

A: Yep, it's true. The prophesied end of times finally has descended on America in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to legalise same-sex marriage. No, it's not the destruction of the family or the ruin of heterosexual unions, it's the Crisis of the Titles. How do we address married LGBT couples? Is it "Mr. and Mr."? "Ms. and Ms."? Or "Mrs. and Mrs."?

Now, without hyperbole. What appears to be a trivial question is really about the politics of being polite and inclusive (neither of which is trivial). It's timely, too. Americans will address 2 billion holiday cards this year, including those from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Among the recipients will be Rufus Gifford, U.S. ambassador to Denmark, and his husband of two months, Stephen DeVincent, a veterinarian. Gifford told me: "Having 'Ambassador and Dr.' feels so much more significant than 'Ambassador and guest or spouse.' Growing up, I never could have imagined a card being addressed like that. It's wonderful that it's become more normal."

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The Gifford-DeVincents are among the 96,000 LGBT couples married since the Supreme Court ruling in June, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. That's more than 1 in 10 of all marriages in the United States. Among same-sex couples, 45 percent are now married, up from an estimated 33 percent at the end of 2014. This prompted Gary Gates, a scholar at the Williams Institute, to tell me, "The speed of change makes it clear that the majority of same-sex couples in the United States will be married in the very near future."

That's a lot of newlyweds. And a lot of invitations and cards (even taking into account e-cards and other digital invitations). For the record, being a same-sex couple doesn't require any new etiquette rules when it comes to forms of address. Remember this: Same sex, same rules. When you don't know, just ask, "How do you prefer to be addressed?"

But here are the rules: On formal invitations to married men (such as for weddings, fundraisers and government affairs), the default is "Mr. and Mr." For example: "Mr. Jeffrey Fisher and Mr. Edward Cunningham" or "Messrs. Fisher and Cunningham." When a hyphenated name is created, use "Mr. Jeffrey Fisher-Cunningham and Mr. Edward Fisher-Cunningham." If Edward took the Fisher name, which is occurring with greater frequency, use "Mr. and Mr. Jeffrey Fisher." In less formal situations, follow this form: "Jeff Fisher and Ed Cunningham" (no rule exists about whose name goes first).

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Ditto when it comes to lesbian couples, where the default is "Ms. and Ms." The twist, of course, is the "Mrs." - that oft-despised title that Gloria Steinem railed against because it labels women as married, with no such distinction for men. Even so, a new generation has come of age, and as Kathryn Hamm, publisher at GayWeddings.com, told me, many millennial lesbians are "happily embracing becoming a 'Mrs.,' ironically, a term of empowerment for young women who were denied marriage rights previously."

Frankly, I've been surprised by the number of young lesbian couples choosing "Mrs. and Mrs." One newlywed, Jen Snook, 33, recently married to Lisa Dacey, 31, explained: "I don't feel strongly about it, but I do appreciate the acknowledgment of our marriage. When I've had to pick a salutation on forms post-marriage, I've gone with 'Mrs.' " I've also noted a rise in the usage of "Mesdames," as well as the plural of "Ms." - "Mses."

Why does this all matter? An anonymous Washington Post commenter inadvertently made the case when she complained that using "Mr. and Mr." is flaunting our sexual orientation. It's "yet another way of pointing out to the unsuspecting population" that you're gay, she added. And she's right. As Gifford reminded me: "There's an inherent visibility and positive element to [using the titles]. It's creating a sense of normalcy in something as traditional as a Christmas card or invitation."

Indeed, that's the new normal that we owe to the Supreme Court.

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.