SAN FRANCISCO – For years, rumblings have surfaced on the Internet, conjecture about her casual references to "sexual orientation" and "respect." Now, Dear Abby is ready to say it flatly: She supports same-sex marriage.
"I believe if two people want to commit to each other, God bless 'em," the syndicated advice columnist told The Associated Press. "That is the highest form of commitment, for heaven's sake."
What Jeanne Phillips, aka Abigail Van Buren, finds offensive and misguided are homophobic jokes, phrases like "That's so gay," and parents who reject or try to reform their children when they come out of the closet.
Her views are the reason she's being honored this week by Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national advocacy group that provides support for gay people and their families. The original Abby, Phillips' 89-year-old mother, Pauline, helped put PFLAG on the map in 1984 when she first referred a distraught parent to the organization.
Jeanne Phillips, who formally took over the column when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease five years ago, has continued plugging the group, as well as its affiliate for parents with children who identify as transgender, and a suicide hot line aimed at gay teenagers.
"I'm trying to tell kids if they are gay, it's OK to be gay. I've tried to tell families if they have a gay family member to accept them and love them as they always have," she said Friday.
PFLAG director Jody Huckaby said Abby is the perfect choice for the first "Straight for Equality" award, part of the group's new campaign to engage more heterosexuals as allies.
"She is such a mainstream voice," Huckaby said. "If Dear Abby is talking about it, it gives other people permission to talk about it."
Alert "Dear Abby" readers may have noticed that the youthful attitude Phillips promised to bring to the column includes a decidedly gay-friendly take on most matters.
In a March 2005 column that touched a nerve with some readers, for instance, Phillips came down unequivocally on the side of scientists who say sexual orientation is a matter of genetics, not personal choice. She advised a mother who had cautioned her 14-year-old daughter to keep her feelings for other girls secret to "come to terms with your own feelings about homosexuality."
Last year, addressing a groom whose gay brother refused to serve as best man or even attend the wedding because he did not have the right to marry, she made it clear her sympathies lay with the boycotting brother.
"Accepting the status quo is not always the best thing to do," she wrote. "Women were once considered chattel, and slavery was regarded as sanctioned in the Bible. However, western society grew to recognize that neither was just. Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have recognized gay marriage, and one day, perhaps, our country will, too."
Phillips, who lives in Los Angeles, said she isn't worried that aligning herself with gay rights advocates will cause newspapers to censor or cancel the column, which appears in about 1,400 newspapers.
Her outspokenness on gay rights issues has never caused a strong backlash, said Kathie Kerr, a spokeswoman for Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes the column. It's possible some editors choose not to run the segments dealing with homosexuality, but if so they have not complained to the syndicate, Kerr said.
"We get brouhahas all the time, and they haven't been about Dear Abby," Kerr said.
Phillips realizes not everyone agrees with her on gay rights; she and her husband "argue about this continually," she said. He thinks civil unions and domestic partnerships "would be less threatening to people who feel marriage is just a religious rite." She thinks anything less than full marriage amounts to second-class citizenship.
"If gay Americans are not allowed to get married and have all the benefits that American citizens are entitled to by the Bill of Rights, they should get one hell of a tax break. That is my opinion," said Phillips, who speaks with the no-nonsense tone of someone who is used to settling debates.
Right now, Abby, as Phillips prefers to be called, is working on a reply to a woman who wanted to know whether she should include childhood photographs of her transgender brother-in-law in a family album. The woman is worried what she will tell her children when they see pictures of their uncle as a little girl.
Phillips' guidance to Worried Reader will be simple, she said: Include the photos, of course. Silence is the enemy. Answer any questions the kids have honestly — Uncle John was born with a body of the wrong sex, so even when he was called Jane he was really John inside.
Phillips said that while it might be tempting to devote an entire column to why she thinks jokes invoking homosexual slurs are in poor taste, she does not plan to spell out her views on gay marriage in print any more directly than she has already.
"If they are my readers, they know how I feel on the subject," she said. "I don't think I'm a flaming radical. I'm for civility in life. I'm for treating each other with respect, trying to do the best you can."