Here's my best advice to straight people in various situations that seem to make everyone feel awkward. Thanks to my excellent BW Facebook fans for lots of these ideas.
Situation A: You know someone's gay and you're curious whether they're dating anyone. You know them well (maybe they're your kid, maybe your gay brother, lesbian sister, whatever).
What not to do: Say, "Do you have any new friends?" I hate it when people refer euphemistically to my partner/DGF as my "friend," especially when it's preceded by an awkward hesitation. Something else not to do: avoid it like the plague. Act as if conversation about their romantic life is totally off-limits, even though you'd talk about it if they were dating someone of the opposite sex.
What to do instead: Ask the question exactly as you would if they were straight, except switching the pronouns where applicable. "So, are you dating anyone these days?" is totally acceptable.
Situation B: You don't understand why your lesbian friend/daughter/sister/whatever is wearing men's clothes.
What not to do: Say any of the following: (1) "But you'd look so cute in something pink/frilly/fitted/from the women's department!" (2) "But you have such a great figure!" (3) "But those clothes are so masculine!"
What to do instead: Respect our choices. We are well aware that we're wearing gender nonconforming clothing. We're not doing it to hide our figure or because we think we're unattractive or because we want attention or because we don't know how to shop for women's clothing. We doing it because we are much, much more comfortable this way. Many of us actually hate standing out, but we wear gender nonconforming clothing anyway because it feels like "us." Wearing girls' stuff often makes us feel like we're in drag. It's awful. If you want to gift us with clothing, please choose something that goes with our style. If you're confused about our style, inquire further (or do not gift us with clothing).
Situation C: You don't understand how a same-sex relationship works (physically, emotionally, whatever).
What not to do: Ask, "But who's the guy?" or "How do you have sex?"
What to do instead: If you're genuinely curious, there's a plethora of info on the Internet about emotional and physical aspects of LGBT relationships. Don't put us on the spot with such heteronormative silliness. JFGI. Once you've actually made an effort to learn, your questions will be thoughtful and that will be obvious and most of us will be happy to chat about them.
Situation D: You call someone "sir," then you realize the person is female.
What not to do: Freak out. Or be awkwardly silent, as if it never happened.
What to do instead: Don't freak out. It's happened to us before, and it will happen again, and when you're butch it comes with the territory. It's fine to say, "I'm sorry," then move on. Chances are, we feel more awkward than you do. (But comping us a drink or a cup of coffee never hurts.)
Situation E: A lesbian couple announces that they're having a baby.
What not to do: Ask, "Where did you get the sperm?" or other details of how the pregnancy came about. That's on par with asking a straight couple, "Was it an accident?" Unless they offer it or you're really freakin' good friends, keep your curiosity to yourself.
What to do instead: Say, "congratulations!" Express joy. Attend the shower. Ask if they have a name picked out. The usual stuff.
Situation F: Two women are out to dinner. At least one of them looks like a lesbian. They're not holding hands or anything, though.
What not to do: Assume that they are on a date.
What to do instead: Make no assumptions. If they indicate they're together or hold hands or something, great--then treat them just like you'd treat a straight couple. But I hate it when I hang out with a female friend and people think we're together just because I look butch.
Situation G: A gay person of your sex compliments what you're wearing.
What not to do: Assume they're hitting on you. Become uncomfortable. Make sure to work in a reference to your own sexual orientation immediately, just to clear up any confusion.
What to do instead: Say thanks.
Situation H: You know someone's gay because a mutual friend or co-worker told you. But then the person himself or herself tells you they're gay.
What not to do: Feign surprise so the person doesn't think they're the subject of gossip. Or worse, say something like, "You don't look gay."
What to do instead: Nod politely or say (calmly) something like, "Cool." Ask about the person's significant other like you'd do if they were straight.
- Don't refer to our boyfriend or girlfriend as our friend. Don't say (of other gay people), "I think she lives with a friend." Unless, of course, she really does live with someone who is just a friend, and not a romantic partner.
- If you think someone might be in the wrong bathroom, don't confidently inform them that they're in the wrong bathroom. Instead, you have two options: (1) Say nothing. (Of course, if you think it's a guy and it's a safety issue, don't go with this option.) (2) Say something like, "Hi there," or, "Isn't this restaurant great?" or, "Do you know where the paper towels are?" to get the person to respond. If it's a guy, he'll realize you're not a guy and that he's in the wrong bathroom. If it's a woman/genderqueer person/other person who is using the correct restroom, they'll respond politely and you can go about your business.
- Some of us always knew we were gay. Others of us didn't. No need to do a triple-take when I talk about my ex-husband.
- Don't talk about equal rights as if they're an inevitability and we just have to "wait" or "be patient." In most states, we can legally be fired for being gay. We can't claim our partners on our taxes. We face huge obstacles to things like adopting kids, making a will, or visiting our partners in the hospital. It's absurd and unjust. In many places, we can get harassed--or worse--for being us. If your rights were stripped away, I bet it wouldn't be much comfort to know that things would get better in a generation or two. Don't just excuse our rage; join us in it.
- It's okay to invite us to a party, dinner out, whatever, even if we'll be the only gay couple there. As long as everyone's nice and doesn't have antiquated notions about sex and gender, it'll all be copacetic.
- You don't need to tell me that your uncle/friend/cousin/niece/neighbor is gay. It's 2012, so the fact that you know other gay people isn't a big shocker. Nor does it make me feel more comfortable. You can convince me you're an ally just by being your awesome, well-intentioned self and following the advice above. :)
Hope this helps. Straight readers: any other awkward situations you encounter with gay people and don't know how to deal with? Queer readers: any other situations that tend to come up in your lives?