Gentleman Scholar

What’s the Best Time to Tell a Gentleman I Have Herpes?

Also, should he unbutton one button of his shirt, or two?

Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

I am a married gay man. Occasionally, a new acquaintance notices my wedding ring and inquires after my “wife.” I used to tackle this with humor by saying, “Her name is Bryan,” but this embarrasses some people. How does a gentleman respond graciously in this situation?

As an aside, is there a proper term for one’s same-sex partner? I call him my spouse in public, as it seems neutral, if a bit cold. However, in private we call each other husband. Does the term matter, or am I being fussy?

Thank you for your question.

It’s not the style of your reply that provokes embarrassment; it’s the framework of the error. Surely you recall the classic chant: “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” Well, some of us who are thrilled to have queers here, among the lawfully wedded, have yet to get used to the small points of your presence. Our instincts are tuned to make assumptions that are, as the kids say, heteronormative.

It may be a little while before the average gentleman, corrected after making the flawed inference you describe, can simply emit a low-key, “Ah!” and dive back into the pleasant stream of small talk. He may need an extra second to dispose of his embarrassment precisely because he is wrestling with the urge to prove his sensitivity by delivering an overkill of apologies and by underlining the innocence of the mistake. Your stock answer is plenty gracious. Stick with it! A bit of levity often helps to ease such awkward moments.

A flavorless language unit, spouse is better suited to benefits-enrollment worksheets than to friendly conversation. I espouse referring to your husband as your husband.

* * *

My wife and I are divorcing after 21 years of marriage; our two sons will be in college when we file and complete the dissolution. My soon-to-be-ex-wife is telling our kids, friends, and family that, though circumstances are leading us to separate households, we will continue to spend time together.

I don’t plan to spend time with my wife after we’re divorced. I’ll see her at graduations, weddings, and other life events for our kids, but I’m not having drinks or dinner with her. We’re not watching the Super Bowl together.

She doesn’t want to be married to me, I get it, but why does she think I want to socialize with her after the divorce? What’s the expectation here?

Thanks for your question.

What are the expectations here? You must be civil and cordial. You ought to be the kindest you can be. But a divorce is not a picnic, and you have no duty to join your ex for any random clam bakes, fish fries, luaus, or such, unless she lives in suburban Philly, where, according to old-school protocol, it is necessary to attend her next wedding—but only if you bring Jimmy Stewart as your plus one.

What’s the real question here? You want confirmation that you’re not crazy? OK, you’re not crazy. You want a man-to-mansplanation of your wife’s behavior? She is putting the best possible face on what is conventionally understood to be a biographical blotch, an emotional trauma, a personal failure. You can rest assured that some of the friends she is informing of her plans to keep dating you, or whatever it is, are like, “Whaat?” A few of those friends are calling her self-delusional, surely, but you may not do so, nor publicly disparage her in any other way.

* * *

I have genital herpes. How does a decently attractive, successful 32-year-old woman broach this topic with a gentleman? Is this a “Hi, I’m Mary: I have herpes” conversation? Do I wait until the topic of sex comes up? Generally I am a confident, self-possessed woman, but with the STD and the inner turmoil it’s caused, I feel lost and sort of broken.

Thank you for your question, which is an advice-column evergreen because, as you surely know, every year about 800,000 people in the U.S. contract genital herpes, and every year zero people in the U.S. discover a cure for it.

That’s a tough break, but please don’t feel broken! Maybe chatting with a therapist about these feelings should be your first move. “Lost and broken” is not a good brand to promote out on the singles scene. Attracts the wrong sort of suitor.

I recommend discussing this just before the topic of sex comes up, late in the pre-foreplay segment of an enchanted evening. It is etched in my memory that a common prerequisite for engaging in foreplay with a new partner is to construct a pretense for going back to someone’s apartment. Because you will be most confident if you feel at home, I suggest that you invite him back to your place for a drink. You’ll find that the Harvard Cocktail makes for an effervescent nightcap, as does whatever beer happens to be in the fridge. Soon after delivering the drink, break the news straightforwardly.

Ideally, the sexually active gentleman is familiar with the essential facts of sexual health: If you’re lucky, you won’t need to dwell at length on transmission rates and drug regimens, and if your date is a good guy, he will not at all make you feel weird during this conversation, while settling on a course of action to be determined by his tolerance for risk and his interest in you.

On the other hand—and this isn’t even the columnist’s hand, but that of the friend he met for drinks hours after writing the foregoing—we have the testimony of a dude who had a years-long relationship with a woman who had herpes and who did not contract it himself. The other hand sets down its pint of stout to gesture at the ethical legitimacy of not saying a thing about your herpes unless and until you’re about to start enjoying a monogamous relationship and condomless coition.

* * *

Thank you so much for your column on undershirts. Can you settle an argument? My husband and I disagree on how many buttons should be unbuttoned on a collared shirt worn casually, with the sleeves rolled up. Do you just leave the top button undone, or the next one as well?

Thanks for your question. I regret that I cannot settle your argument.

Early in the pilot of Seinfeld, Jerry looks at George’s shirtfront and says, “See, now, to me, that button’s in the worst possible spot. The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt, look at it: It’s too high! It’s in no man’s land. You look like you live with your mother.” Late in the series finale, Jerry repeats this observation. Right now, I am almost not kidding when I suggest interpreting the entire series—63 hours of programming—as a commentary on the issue currently roiling your household. Because there is no standardized shirt-button stance, I’d need at least 63 hours to devise an algorithm that could credibly answer this question on a case-by-case basis.

My algorithm would allow, and even encourage, stylish outliers: The man who directed The Elephant Man always looks fantastic with no buttons undone, as befits an avant-gardist Eagle Scout; the man who directed A Single Man can always get away with three buttons undone, such is his command of the luxe and the louche.

The formula would account for the distance between the first and second buttons; the distance between the second and third buttons; the height, point length, and point spread of the collar; the cut of the shirt body; the nature of the placket; the breadth of the man’s shoulders; the distance from his clavicular notch to his xiphoid process; the texture, color, pattern, and density of his chest hair; his age; his sophistication; his presumption of airs of sophistication; and his Myers-Briggs type. The trickiest part of constructing it would involve adjusting for local standards of decency. The matter is one of “how much sex is being expressed,” as I was told the other day by a colleague who used to edit Christopher Hitchens.

Your domestic button battle has been fought to a draw. The tie goes to the runner, however, and the shirt does, too. I decree that, when your husband is in your sight, he must button his shirt however you, the spouse, think is cutest.