Less than 20 years ago, Ellen DeGeneres hadn't come out, gay wedding announcements didn't appear regularly in major newspapers and 17 states and the District of Columbia hadn't legalized same-sex unions.
But there was Steven Petrow. In 1995 he published, The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette. He's been answering questions ever since — from LGBT and straight people alike — about new and sometimes perplexing social situations.
This week he announced the launch of a new advice column for The Washington Post called "Civilities." He tells All Things Considered host Audie Cornish that many of his letter writers are "well-meaning people who are very afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing."
We asked NPR readers on Facebook and Twitter to submit their own questions on LGBT/straight etiquette for Petrow to answer.
Joshua Shawnee is an openly gay pastor at a "small town church" in Shawnee, Okla.:
"Many of my older congregants — though they are very, very supportive — often refer to my partner as my 'friend.' I understand that for a certain generation in the South this is the polite and accepted way to refer to one's same-sex significant other. My partner, on the other hand, finds it a little offensive. What do you do when etiquettes are at odds?"
Petrow says it's the most common question he's asked. He advises the person to use the term they prefer until others catch on.
"The rule here is: If folks are married — opposite sex or same sex — the default is 'husbands' and 'wives' unless they chose to refer to each other a different way," he says. "Some couples, gay or straight, may use 'spouse' or 'partner,' still."
Diane Santiago, from St. Louis, Mo., wanted to know how to respond to questions about her gay teenage son's love life.
"When the question comes up — 'Who is your son dating these days?' — I always feel a little uncomfortable on how to respond to that. Can you shed any light on that for me?"
Petrow says it's important to make sure her son is "out to the world" — and ask what he would prefer.
"Otherwise it's really not her information to share, it's his," he says. "And I've certainly seen over time, people may be out to their family, they may be out to their friends — but not at work, or some other variation of that. So never assume that anyone is out, always ask first, then you should be fine."
Amanda Coyne of Columbia, S.C., wondered about etiquette around transgender identity.
"When is it appropriate to ask someone what gender pronouns they prefer to go by?"
Petrow says the best first step is to see if they give you clues.
"A lot of times someone will be clear in the way they're speaking about the pronoun or the gender identity that they have," he says.
But unless you have a reason to ask — don't.
"Don't ask just out of curiosity's sake and most of the time you can avoid having to go down that path by using the person's name," he says.
Matthew Richardson of Ann Arbor, Mich., wondered about requirements for his wedding invite list.
"I'm a gay man and intend to propose to my boyfriend this summer, and I'm not sure what to do about unsupportive family members. I'm unsure if I should send some sort of announcement, or just let them hear about it from other more supportive family members. What does one do in this situation?"
Petrow recommends sitting down with those people (and your partner) before the wedding and explain why marriage matters to you and the difference it will make in your life.
"More often than not, people will be persuaded to come around and support you. In the event, though, they don't, I think it's perfectly fine to leave them off your list and save that special day for those who really are supporting your relationship."
No matter the etiquette question, Petrow believes the answer always comes back to respect. "Respect and kindness underlie everything," he says.
U.S. postal workers took to the streets Thursday to protest in front of Staples office supply stores around the country. At issue is a decision to open Postal Service counters in Staples stores — something they say is siphoning away union jobs.
The postal workers' grievances come as their employer faces pressures to find new avenues of business.
Both the American Postal Workers Union and the leadership of the U.S. Postal Service lay claim to be fighting for the same cause: safeguarding the long-term future of one of the largest employers in the country.
The sharp disagreement comes over how to go about it.
Speaking at a protest in Washington, D.C., postal union president Mark Dimondstein says it's fine that the Postal Service wants to open counters in retail outlets, as it began to last year in Staples stores. The problem, he says, are the terms.
"Our demand on the question of the USPS-Staples deal was to put postal employees in those postal units," Dimondstein says.
Instead, the counters are staffed by Staples employees. And the Postal Service has made clear it hopes to keep expanding within the Staples chain and with other similar partners.
"Eventually these kinda deals are going to shift living wage jobs in the postal system to non-living wage jobs in the retail sector," Dimondstein says.
He claims consumers will suffer, too, because postal employees receive better training and offer better service.
"The people of this country deserve to have their postal services performed by well-trained, uniformed postal workers accountable to the people of this country to protect the sanctity, security and privacy of their mail," Dimondstein says.
How does he respond to customers who complain about long lines and surly service at the post office?
"That's on postal management, not on the postal workers," Dimondstein says. "And we agree that post offices should be staffed better. We're not happy about that either."
The Postal Service is in a financial bind, because for years it has run deeply in the red. To a large degree, that is because a congressional mandate requires the agency to pre-fund its retirement benefits many decades in advance.
But Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also notes that first-class mail volume — the service's bread and butter — is in sharp decline. And, in a video response posted this week, he defended these retail partnerships, saying it would help grow postal business, increase revenues, and preserve postal employees' jobs.
"It gives customers more choices on where and when they can purchase postal products and services and help secure the long-term future of the Postal Service," Donahoe says.
About 100 union supporters registered their dismay in Washington, D.C., carrying signs and stopping lunchtime traffic.
Rich Shelley drives a truck for the Postal Service and works in Baltimore. He says the morale at his job has changed dramatically in the 17 years he's worked at the Postal Service. Now, he says, management cares more about the bottom line than delivering good service and instilling pride in its workers.
"The main thing is postal workers take an oath of office," Shelley says. "They're accountable to the American people, they're well trained in postal regulations and Staples workers are not."
He took to the streets Thursday, he says, because he wants postal work to be around for a long time to come.
One of the biggest challenges American hospitals face right now is moving to electronic medical records from old-fashioned paper files.
The switch is costing tens of billions of dollars, eating up tons of staff time, and it's especially tough for the country's 2,000 rural and small-town hospitals.
Rural hospitals are typically short on cash and people with information technology skills. So a lot of small hospitals are turning to bigger hospitals for help, and giving up some independence in exchange. The 10-bed Beartooth Billings Clinic in Red Lodge, Mont., is one hospital that did.
Red Lodge, a historic mining town just outside Yellowstone National Park, is about 60 miles west of Billings. On a recent spring day, the only thing slowing cars on Main Street in Red Lodge is a flock of wild turkeys strutting across the pavement.
Just days before, though, the road was covered with two feet of snow. Getting in and out of Red Lodge can be a real problem, as Dr. Billy Oley knows. He lives just a few miles from Beartooth Billings Clinic, at the hospital here.
"There was a time that the nurses won't let me forget," he says. "I drove my tractor to work one day because I couldn't get my truck here. I had to plow with the tractor all the way to the hospital, and I just kept it here."
On days like that, Oley and his patients are particularly grateful for his hospital's electronic medical records. He can share patient information instantly and securely with the big hospital in Billings and get expert advice whenever he needs it.
"We see a lot of patients who are able to not have to travel or see specialists, or do different things because we can just take care of it here," Oley says.
Sharing electronic records sounds simple. But for a lot of little hospitals doing that while meeting new federal digital standards means coming up with $1 million or more up front. That's a tall order, when the average rural hospital runs at a financial loss of 8 percent a year.
So the Red Lodge hospital became part of the bigger Billings Clinic system, in part to get help with IT. When hospitals align or merge, they give up some, or maybe all, control of their operations - everything from which records system they'll use to which doctors and services are available where.
But affiliating with a big network often has benefits and can improve the care available in small towns.
Scott Duke with the Billings Clinic system says a lot of small hospitals are weighing trade-offs like Red Lodge's in return for help for EMRs.
"To almost everyone we talk to, the EMR is right there" as a top concern, Duke says.
But for many rural hospitals it's a point of pride, and matter of survival, to stay independent, and make their own decisions about the future.
A four-hour drive west from Red Lodge, the little town of Anaconda, Mont., sits in a fold of steep mountains and lush forests. The hospital there is a scrappy independent, and a proven survivor. It's got 25 beds, and executive Meg Boynton says people in the area rely on it for everything from complex surgeries to routine care.
"We average about 36 to 50 births a year," she says.
This building opened in 1981. The year before, a giant copper smelter shut down, leaving a lot of empty buildings in town. The economy remains marginal.
Steve McNeece, the hospital's CEO, says it survives because they never get too comfortable. "Part of our goal and mission is to have a culture that embraces change and challenge," he says.
McNeece's hospital, unlike many in small towns, can find the $1.5 million it needs to finance the digital upgrade. He says it's an obvious improvement over the old way they used to transfer patient information. "Put in a manilla folder and put it on the patient's abdomen when they're in the ambulance going to Saint Pat's," he laughs.
Anaconda's hospital looks as though it's going to be able to adopt the latest information technology and stay independent. But its fate is still tied to bigger hospitals in the area. It only makes sense for Anaconda to use the same records system as the places where the hospital refers patients for more specialized care.
"That was really the main driver in our decision-making. From a patient care perspective, this seemed like a safe and wise decision," says McNeece.
Whether rural hospitals choose to do their digital upgrade independently, or partner with a bigger system, it's important they have a conscious digital strategy, says Brock Slabach, a vice president with the National Rural Health Association.
"We're very concerned about a digital divide that might be created going forward between the urban haves, if you will, and the rural have-nots," he says.
Slabach worries hundreds of hospitals aren't meeting new digital benchmarks as time to take advantage of federal help is running out. Starting this October, hospitals that don't meet digital records standards will be hit with financial penalties, which would make the digital leap even harder to pull off.
This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.
True fig lovers are well-practiced in the art of patience. We watch the calendar, dreaming of summer and the fruit's silky, sappy flesh. The season lasts through June and July, with another crop from August to October. And then we're back to almost eight months of oranges, apples and, if we must, Fig Newtons.
But these figless days may be coming to an end.
Farmers in California, where more than 90 percent of American figs are grown, are locked in a tight race to do what has never been done before: produce ripe, fresh figs during the cooler months, when the trees typically shut down and shed their leaves.
"It's been a dream of mine to make figs more like strawberries, to grow them as close as possible to year-round," says fig famer Kevin Herman, owner of The Specialty Crop Company. It doesn't hurt that he can charge triple for the first figs of the year.
Herman's company is based in Madera in the San Joaquin Valley — the heart of the state's fig industry. But Herman also now grows figs in the perennially balmy Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. There, he is finding that figs can be coaxed into ripeness nine months of the year — and maybe more. The unique climate — warm through the winter — helps, but Herman is pushing the trees to their physiological limits by experimenting with pruning, fertilizing and irrigation schedules.
And it's working. Since planting his trees seven years ago, Herman has inched closer to the goal of the year-round fig, extending his season by a few more days each year. In 2013, Herman harvested figs almost into February — his latest harvest ever — and resumed on May 7. This year, thanks to extra dry and extra warm weather, he began harvesting his first "summer" figs on April 23.
A record? Not quite. It turns out a competing grower in the same valley beat him to the April harvest, picking his first figs the day before.
Fruit packer George Kragie, owner of Western Fresh Marketing of Madera, is selling those April 22 figs, and says they're the earliest of his career in fruit packing. Kragie declined to identify the farmer growing the fruit (to protect his business), but he tells The Salt the figs went to a small southern California fruit stand, where they are selling for about $7 for a half-pound package.
Some growers use an industry trick to help them get their figs to market before anyone else: They dab a little olive oil on the underside of their half-ripe fruit to make the figs swell up and turn black. They don't grow any sweeter, but they appear ripe, which is enough to sell them to wholesalers. Herman says he was about to start swabbing oil on his Imperial Valley figs when, early this week, "they started ripening on their own almost overnight."
While Kragie and Herman are competitors, they do share a long-term vision: getting fresh figs on the shelves all year.
"I'd like to keep people thinking about figs at all times, not just in the summer," Kragie says.
Herman believes year-round production can be achieved in California — though he says he has considered planting orchards in Mexico, where February-through-April production may be a likelier bet.
Kragie, however, says he and his farmer have experimented with a variety of growing methods, including hydroponic, soil-less systems in greenhouses. But nothing has worked, he says, in bridging the figless wintertime gap. He doubts that California fig trees will ever produce fruit in February or March.
That's why Kragie recently resorted to importing figs from Chile, where the harvesting season runs opposite to California's, peaking in February and March.
Until 2011, fresh figs were tough to import into the U.S. for commercial sale because of growers' concerns about introducing mites that would damage California's orchards. Kragie says he managed to bring in Chilean fruit by getting a permit and proving the fruit has been fumigated heavily with methyl bromide, which kills the pest.
Herman believes the imported Chilean figs could mess up the game plan just a bit. He has tried these figs, he says, and he wasn't impressed with their stiff, dry texture and flat taste. His concern is that such fruit will tarnish the reputation of all figs — even those grown in California.
Fig farmer Richard DeBenedetto, based near Fresno, has the same fear.
"The Chilean figs have been pretty lousy," he tells The Salt. "They've been inferior and that tends to impact everyone in the industry. It sucks down the prices of all the figs, even our high-quality ones."
But even as year-round fresh figs get closer to reality, not all fig lovers are thrilled. Sondra Bernstein, owner of The Girl and the Fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., says figs are her favorite fruit of the summer — and eating them in the winter and spring wouldn't be the same.
"If figs become available all the time, you'd lose the romantic part of waiting for the season and watching your tree as the fruits get bigger and start ripening throughout the summer," Bernstein says.
Already, many fruits that were once seasonal specialties — like grapes, cherries, peaches and oranges — have become available year-round, thanks to global transport, development of early- and late-ripening varieties and better greenhouses. Long-term refrigerated storage, too, can now keep fruits like apples in good condition for almost a year.
"We've become so spoiled by having these fruits all the time," says Louise Ferguson, a tree fruit specialist with the University of California. Figs, she observes, were until recently among the very last seasonally available fruits, along with persimmons and pomegranates. "Now, it seems figs might become just another crop we expect to have year-round."
If you decide you need to try one of the early figs, it'll cost you. Herman's Imperial Valley figs retail at more than $10 a pound, and Kragie's early figs are going for as much as $15 a pound at the fruit stand. (Compare that to most summertime figs, which sell for $3 or $4 a pound.)
"It's ludicrous," Kragie admits.
Worth the price? Not to Bernstein.
"I might want a fig more than anything in May, but even if they're from California ... I'm not going to pay for them," she says. "I can wait."