Creative Nonfiction: Family, a Queer History

IMAGE BY: TAZ, April 17, 2006
ISSUE 2.1

by Kathleen Gullion

I wish I could say I was the first queer thing to happen to my family, but I’d be lying.

The first queer thing to happen to my family happened in the 1970s, when a gay man and a gay woman fell in love. They tied the knot with a tasteful ceremony in their own backyard. Adopted 2 kids. Probably had a white picket fence. Definitely had a poodle named Sarah.

They were my aunt and uncle.

By day, they were the perfect couple. Probably attended PTO meetings together. Definitely spent hundreds of dollars on professional family photos that hung in the living room.

At night, they’d tuck the kids in, smooch their greasy foreheads, and saunter off to bed, arm in arm. They’d open the door to the bedroom, in which you’d find a king sized bed smack dab in the middle. Egyptian cotton sheets carefully tucked in around the mattress, hospital corners. Goose feather pillows, fluffed. A hand made quilt, folded up at the foot of the bed.

So perfect, you’d almost think they never used it.

That’s because they didn’t.

If you lifted up the sheets, you could see the price tags, right there. But no one ever bothered to look.

My aunt and uncle cross the threshold into their bedroom, and disentangle their arms from around the other’s waist. They give the other a courteous kiss on the cheek, and part ways. My uncle heads left; my aunt heads right.

What you didn’t see when you first walked in were two doors. One to the left, and one to the right.

At the same time, the hands turn the knobs, and the doors open. Before stepping through, my uncle looks over his right shoulder, my aunt over her left. They smile. “Good night.”

They each cross the threshold into a bedroom, which connects to a house in another world, not unlike our own.

Let’s start with my uncle. It’s now morning; he’s waking up. He sits up with a hot cup of black coffee in his hand, watered down with a single ice cube, just the way he likes it. His husband stirs beside him. People confuse them for twins, and my grandmother will still call my uncle’s husband his “friend” even though they got married in Canada years ago.

Their home is covered in expensive art. My uncle makes a lot of money listening to other people’s problems. He hires two women: one to clean the house and another to dust off the art. They come every day at 9:30am sharp.

Of all the privileges my uncle can afford, these are the most special to him: the art and the woman who cleans the art.

He and his husband travel the world. They go to France, Brazil, islands in the Pacific. In Brazil my uncle will meet his second husband, but don’t tell husband #1 that.

I imagine he is a passionate lover, but I don’t imagine it too much, because he is my uncle after all. All I know is he has a deep, velvety voice, and is an excellent dancer, and that’s all I really need to know, because again, he is my uncle after all.

It’s always spring here, my uncle is always in bloom. Sometimes when he closes his eyes, he sees my aunt, but she doesn’t exist in this world. So he pauses for a moment but doesn’t dwell on her. After all, she doesn’t exist here, so what is there to think about?

Sometimes he goes dancing. It doesn’t matter what music is playing, he will dance. Sometimes he goes with his husband, and sometimes he goes with his friends. My uncle seems to know a lot of scientists, and sometimes he goes with them. They dance better than you think they would. His 2nd husband turns out to be a scientist. An environmental kind.

My uncle laughs loudly here. Sometimes my aunt can hear it in her world, and she smiles, because she knows, and she’s laughing too.

If we rewind the tape, we can see my uncle stepping through his door- remember? Let’s pause, and shift the camera to the right. We see my aunt. If you want to imagine, you can imagine me. I’ve been told we look alike.

We can see her stepping through her door. She closes the door behind her, and sighs. But the sigh is really a deep breath in, because it’s morning here, and she’s taking her first breath of the day. She has a cup of coffee in hand, watered down with one ice cube, just the way she likes it.

My aunt and uncle have this in common, and it’s actually why they fell in love.

In sleep, her socks have fallen down around her ankles. She pulls them up back to her knees. Her feet get cold when she sleeps. She needs the socks to keep them warm. She hates the way tight socks feel against her leg hair, pulling the hairs in all directions. But she hates having cold feet more.

Her lover stirs beside her in bed. They share a twin bed, because they’re college students at Smith.

The women of Smith are not allowed to have men in their dorm rooms after hours, 8pm to be exact. At 8pm every night, a woman in tweed knocks on my aunt’s door to make sure she is complying. My aunt always complies.

That morning, my aunt has taken all of her bras and put them in a cardboard box. She’s carefully wrapped them up in tissue paper, and written a note that says, “I won’t be needing these anymore.” She spent an hour perfecting the penmanship. She seals up the box, and addresses it to her mother. She thought about burning them instead, as some of her friends have suggested, but this was more her style.

In class, my aunt listens carefully to the professor and stares hard at her notes, perfecting her penmanship, not because she cares about Robert Frost, but because her lover sits across the room from her, and if my aunt looks up for even a split second, they’ll lock eyes and she will not be able to look away, and that wouldn’t be very good for her studies.

That afternoon, my aunt and her lover sit in a secluded place and share pickles, long dill spears. They lock eyes and now, there is no reason to look away. They have all afternoon, and their studies can wait until later.

I imagine she is a thoughtful lover, but I don’t imagine it much, because she is my aunt after all. All I know is she folds her dirty laundry before she washes it, and when you tell a joke, she laughs, even if the joke wasn’t funny, and that’s all I really need to know, because again, she is my aunt after all.

She calls my grandmother on the phone that evening. My grandmother tells my aunt about the green bean casserole she made for supper and then hangs up. This is the conversation they have every night. My mom is off somewhere, practicing the flute.

It’s always fall here, and my aunt is always surrounded by an autumnal, golden glow. She doesn’t think about my uncle, because she hasn’t met him yet. If she thinks about the future, she thinks about it for a moment, but doesn’t dwell on it. After all, the future is so far from now, so why think about it?

Her eyelids start to grow heavy, and she knows it’s almost time. She kisses her lover on the temple, and carefully steps out of bed. She pauses at the door, looks over her left shoulder, and whispers, “Good night.”

She steps through the door, and sees my uncle doing the same on the other side of the room. It’s morning. They both feel as if they’ve slept eight hours, and they haven’t even had a cup of watered down coffee yet. They smile at each other because they know, and they don’t need to talk about it.

They brew the coffee, they fry the eggs, they toast the bread. The kids come running down the stairs. They all tousle each other’s hair, and lick their lips in anticipation of breakfast.

I wish I could say I was the first queer thing to happen to my family, but I’d be lying.

My eyelids are growing heavy, and I know it’s almost time.

Good night.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer, director, performer, and theatre maker living in Chicago. Her work focuses on themes of  gender and sexuality, and she strives to create interdisciplinary work that transcends genre. She has directed and acted in numerous productions, and her original performance art has been featured around Chicago. She is currently working on adapting this essay into a short play that will be featured in Rhino Fest, a new works festival in Chicago.

The Off Beat: Contest in Creative Nonfiction

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The Off Beat is a publication of Michigan State University.

Word Limit: 4,000
Deadline: August 15
Entry Fee: $12
Prize: One winner will receive $250 and publication in the Fall 2016 print issue. We will feature the winning entry with an author interview on our website and social media. Finalists will be noted as well. All entries considered for publication.

Click here for more contest information.

How to Beat the Submission Game

Dear Reader,

So you want to know how to get your work accepted by literary magazines?

Firstly, follow the directions. As tedious as it sounds, read every bit of the Submission Guidelines (Writer’s Guidelines, Submissions, Submit) page. I even encourage you to read any About page you can find. Study the mission of the magazine/website. Pay attention to the parameters given to you for submission.

Read material the magazine has accepted and published. Sometimes this is tricky, because magazines want you to subscribe before they’ll let you read anything. You can get around this by reading any excerpts offered on the site. Sometimes they will post a part of the piece to entice readers to subscribe. Sometimes they don’t. In this event, you’ll be taking a risk if you submit blindly. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t. There are some facets of writing that continue to be the darlings of the literary world. If you write realistic fiction of any kind, your chances of being accepted change drastically. Genre writers, writers who experiment with form and structure, and those who employ elements of slipstream and magical realism are at a disadvantage by submitting blind.

Now you’re probably saying: I don’t have time for this shit. Then, you don’t have time to become a writer. There, we’ve solved that mess.

But what do I look for when I read these magazines? Look for content: are these pieces largely contemporary or do they deal with historical moments? Do they deal with specific places? Look for genre: are there elements of genre in these pieces? Look for style: are these pieces voicey, traditional, experimental, long, or short? Look for sentence and paragraph length (I’m not kidding). Look for any repetitions of plot and theme. Finally, compare these elements to your own piece. Will your piece differ from the aesthetic of the magazine? If yes, don’t submit it there. If your piece seems to align with a good deal of the aesthetic elements of the magazine, submit it!

I’ll give you an example of two different places to submit: McSweeney’s publishes satire. From their blog posts, nonfiction pieces, to their fiction, McSweeney’s is an outlet for comedic (and primarily satiric) literature. In this case, there is no doubt. They are transparent in their intentions, and the work they choose to publish is easily identifiable from the rest. But not all can be distinguished so well. American Short Fiction is a more elusive beast. Upon a review of the excerpts from four or so stories, their aesthetic becomes more clear. They seem to prefer more traditional pieces of both contemporary and non-contemporary value (though they all feel nostalgic in a way). They also seem to prefer third person narratives. There’s nary a first person piece in sight.

Tips for cover letters:

Address the letter by the name of either the main editor (Editor-in-Chief) or the name of the editor that handles specific submissions (Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, Nonfiction Editor). Be aware that these positions and the faces that inhabit them are ever-changing. So always check before you submit. Never assume the same person is working in the same area or at all. If you’re concerned you’ll get the wrong person (by some change in leadership) then simply put Editor. I’ve found by being a reader and also submitting my own work, that addressing the cover letter with the first name of the editor in question gets particular attention. At the magazine where I currently read, if a cover letter seems in any way to indicate a personal relationship with our editor, we are to flag it. Flagging it means it gets to the editor faster for review. As a submitter, my pieces seem to get reviewed much more quickly when I title the cover letter with an editor’s name (or maybe I’m just imagining it, you never know). My rejection letters also tend to seem more personalized (as if someone actually took the time to write it rather than copy and paste a form).

Your cover letter should never be more than about two hundred words – in my own personal opinion. Any longer and you’ve added unnecessary information or you’ve begun to sound arrogant. You don’t need to list the one hundred places you’ve been published. Only list the top three to five. If you’ve never been published, don’t mention that. If you’ve only been published once, make sure you do mention it. Never indicate the amount of times you’ve been published if it could be to your disadvantage.

Your cover letter should in some way indicate that you are grateful for the reader’s time. A short, “I’m honored (excited) to share this piece with you” will do.

If you’re an undergrad, don’t mention that. If you’re a master’s student, only mention it you have nothing else to say (some editors and readers are just snobs; it’s a sad reality). However, keep in mind that if you’ve completed an MFA program, that is a credit to your name.

Don’t lie. That’s really all I have to say on that.

I’d like to say don’t be boring, especially in your first few pages, but experience has taught me that boring is a literary genre and one that prevails in the publishing arena. Perhaps that’s just the consequence of preferring to write epic fantasy and science fiction – a story about someone brushing their teeth and contemplating existence seems dull. To illustrate my point: I once wrote two short stories (that are indeed realistic fiction), and I wrote them in the span of three hours. I didn’t even look back at them before I submitted (mistake). They were both accepted by the same magazine. Now, the story I’ve been writing for five years which is arguably speculative fiction continues to be rejected.

The world of publishing is a precarious place, both predictable and yet wildly unpredictable in its taste. Never become too discouraged by the onslaught of rejection. Simply become smarter about where, when, and why you submit!

Sincerely,

Alexandra Stanislaw

P.S. Devise is currently seeking contributors to examine literary magazines for their aesthetic preferences (think The Review Review). Those interested should email deviseliterary@gmail.com with a cover letter, resume, and relevant writing samples to apply.

Black Warrior Review Call for Submissions

Black Warrior Review is accepting submissions now until March 1st.

Visit their submission page for more information.

BWR operates out of the University of Atlanta and was first established in 1974. Work from their contributors appears in the Pushcart Prize series, Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, New Stories from the South.