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A Dear Abby column about anti-gay discrimination in Tampa went viral. Was it real?

A photo of a Dear Abby newspaper column from 2014. [Universal Press Syndicate]
A photo of a Dear Abby newspaper column from 2014. [Universal Press Syndicate]
Published Mar. 1, 2019

If you killed time online this week, there's a chance you came across a viral Dear Abby advice column headlined "Hosts don't invite gay couples to social event."

In a weird synergy across media, it was a photo of an actual print newspaper clipping that digitally rose to the front page of Reddit, the sixth most popular website in the country.

The five-year-old column features a woman writing in to explain she and her husband have been excluded from neighborhood gatherings, after hosting their own party and excluding two neighboring gay couples because they don't agree with their "lifestyle choice." The woman asks Abby, "Who is the true bigot?"

Dear Abby's contentious response that "sexual orientation is not a 'lifestyle choice'," and that she found it interesting the couple was "unwilling to reciprocate the hospitality of people who welcomed you ... and yet you complain because you are receiving similar treatment," hit a nerve.

More than 2,000 people left comments on the column posted to Reddit's "trashy" section, after another user took it from an area of Reddit called "Murdered By Words," — a place for "well constructed put-downs, comebacks and counter-arguments." Posts that reach Reddit's front page are likely to get hundreds of thousands of views at least.

Locally, it started getting attention after someone on Reddit's "Tampa" page noticed the letter was signed "Unhappy in Tampa" and reposted it there with what appeared to be a sarcastic, "Go Tampa!" Locals debated over what neighborhood the letter came from, and one user even said they were trying to confirm it was where their parents live. Others suggested such a provocative letter posted to a site frequented by provocateur hoaxers was "probably fake."

It left us with questions, too.

Dear Abby: We saw that one of your columns went viral this week. Do you remember that column? Was that a real letter you received? Did it really come from Tampa? And do you really think those people's neighbors were right to stop inviting them to things? — Curious reporter in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Jeanne Phillips, also known as Abigail Van Buren, who has written Dear Abby for decades, called from Washington, D.C., where she was traveling, to answer.

After introducing herself with, "Hi, this is Dear Abby calling," Phillips said she remembered the column in question "quite clearly," even though it was published five years ago and she doesn't remember every column she writes.

It brought a bigger response than normal, even when it was first published. Dear Abby got feedback in the form of more letters, "most of it positive," and a good number of blogs wrote about it. Since then, it has had a "life of its own." This week was not even the first time it took off on Reddit or social media.

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It was definitely an actual letter she received, and definitely from Florida, Phillips said, though sometimes the credit lines on published letters are changed in order to protect the people who write them. Names are removed, and occasionally the city is changed, which means it wasn't necessarily from Tampa.

Dear Abby's offices in Los Angeles, which receive up to 10,000 letters a week, would not have saved contact info this long for the real "Unhappy in Tampa," not that they'd share it if they had. Dear Abby doesn't follow up with the people who write in to verify the content of their letters, she said, but they never publish anything they suspect is made up.

"Very rarely," Phillips said, "one might slip by us." For instance, years ago there was that time a woman wrote in to say that she'd wanted a vacuum cleaner for her birthday, but received a bowling ball from her husband instead. "Later I was told it was an episode of The Simpsons."

"The fake ones, though, the language is kind of flamboyant and flowery and over dramatic," she said. "The ones that are a couple frat boys having a laugh, you can pretty much tell."

She misses the days of snail mail, when people's handwriting, or tear-stained stationery, or the reek of cigarette smoke helped tell her readers' stories. "Email," she said, "has kind of sanitized it."

What about her advice to "Unhappy in Tampa"? She wholeheartedly stands by it.

"I'm delighted it made another round. ... I hate discrimination and I think this is a particularly regrettable form. Basic rules of etiquette dictate that if you accept someone's hospitality, you should reciprocate."

Would that mean the other neighbors were somehow wrong for not inviting "Unhappy in Tampa" and her husband to their parties?

"They hurt the feelings of those couples, and all their neighbors see that. So no, they're not required to invite them after that."

Read the entire column below.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.