A few weeks ago, a rejection email popped into my inbox. That’s not exactly unusual; dealing with a constant stream of rejections (punctuated, happily, with the occasional acceptance) is part and parcel of being a writer. Ordinarily, I glance over the rejection, update my Duotrope account, delete, and move on. But this rejection email caught my attention.
Clearly, it wasn’t a form rejection. The editor in question had taken the time to respond to my submission in an individual way, an unusual gesture in the world of literary journals. Oftentimes, editors are volunteers; always, they are pressed for time and handling multiple competing obligations. I read the email several times, each time hovering over the delete button. But several weeks later, that rejection email still takes up real estate space in both my inbox and my mind.
Let me digress a little, and let me tell you a little more about my relationship with literary journals.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been the Editor-in-Chief of Limestone: Art. Prose. Poetry, a literary journal with a 30-year heritage out of the University of Kentucky. I know well the precarious line between that which contributors perceive as helpful critique and that which they perceive as patronizing criticism. I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
Like most literary journals, Limestone’s submissions go through several reading stages. A piece submitted to Limestone will be read by at least one intern, more likely two, and at least one editor, more likely two or three. And, even though I have an editorial team that I trust (and usually defer to), I read every single submission that we receive. Every reader in the process is asked to make notes about each piece, pointing out strengths and weaknesses.
These notes are primarily for editorial purposes. They help us track the type and quality of submissions, any trends in form or content, and they help us root out any personal preferences or biases that might sneak into the process. We don’t ordinarily share these notes with a contributor—it would unnecessarily draw out an already slow process and, given the number of submissions we receive, would ultimately render that process unmanageable.
Sometimes, though, we do offer some feedback—for example, if a piece really struck us as interesting, even if we can’t publish it, we might want to encourage that writer to submit again, and offering thoughtful feedback is a way of reaching out, fostering that author-editor relationship. But sharing this feedback is a risky endeavor. While most writers are glad of the feedback, some see it as unnecessary critique, especially if their work is ultimately being rejected. For most journals, Limestone included, it is simply more expedient and respectful to send a straightforward—if impersonal—notification. So when in March, a literary journal (that I will allow to remain anonymous) rejected my flash nonfiction piece, “Cleaning the Floor Before Dawn,” I knew how much time and energy had been invested in my work.
The feedback, actually, was very helpful. The readers commented that they found my writing “fastidious and yet still a pleasure to read,” that it was “carefully observed,” and even that they wished it were longer. Ultimately, though, the readers felt that the ending was a little rushed and unearned. As it happens, this is certainly valid criticism and echoed one of my own concerns about the piece. I was grateful for the critique. None of these comments were mean, or unjustified; they were thoughtful and constructive. The readers had taken time with my work; they had considered it carefully and closely, everything that I would hope a literary journal would do.
But I went back, time and time again, to one comment: “Maybe,” the reader noted, “I just don’t believe it’s that easy for the narrator to cast aside his mania for order.”
“His mania”? Those two little words bothered me immensely, more so, if I’m honest, than the fact that my work had been rejected.
At first, I let the reader off the hook. I knew that this particular journal requests anonymous submissions and that my work would have been passed to the readers without any identifying information. So, reasonably, there was no way for any of the readers to know my name, my gender identity, or my sexual orientation. At first, I shrugged my shoulders and tried to let it go, but the more I thought about it, the more troubled I became.
The work I submitted, “Cleaning the Floor Before Dawn” is a very short piece, coming in at less than 1000 words, in which I talk—pretty vaguely—about my struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was a relatively short-lived struggle during my early thirties, born out of some upheaval in my personal life, and I’m glad to report that its worst incarnations are now behind me. But, it’s still something that manifests occasionally, especially when I’m anxious about other things. In this particular piece, I tell the story of getting up in the early hours, before dawn, checking the house for dust, for un-swept floors, un-wiped surfaces, things left out of place, and, finally, sating my anxiety by steam-mopping the kitchen floor. It’s a piece about my complicated relationship to domesticity.
I have a problem with stereotypes, but, realistically, I know they continue to exist and that they’re sometimes wily and pervasive, and sneak up on even the most aware of us. And anytime I mention stereotypes, it’s always with a disclaimer of some kind. So, hesitantly, I admit that in stereotypical terms, this piece would be considered feminine. I didn’t write it as an intentional stereotype; I wrote it from my experiences.
But if I pretend, for a second, that I didn’t write this piece, that I stumbled across it in a literary journal or some-such, I’d see a piece about cleaning, something that’s generally considered to be part of the female sphere of domesticity, and about OCD, a mental frailty or, perhaps, more gently, vulnerability, that, again, is generally equated to women.
I don’t mean to suggest that men don’t suffer from OCD, or mental illness in any other form, but simply that there’s a long-rooted tradition of associating women with diminished or defenseless mental health and men with a robust, indestructible mental heath. We know intellectually and experientially that this isn’t true, but these stereotypes still exist. My point, though, is that, on the face of it, this appears to be a piece of writing about female experiences.
Until, that is, the reader comes to the following passage:
“Soon, the sun will come up and I’ll see the dust dancing in the light. Soon, the house will waken. My wife will brew coffee, scatter grounds on the countertop, leave a splash of coffee puddled next to her mug. My daughters will leave their beds unmade, toothpaste in the bathroom sink, and their dirty breakfast dishes on the kitchen table.”
Because of the introduction of a spousal relationship, here is where, for the first time, the reader is invited to consider the gender and sexual orientation of the speaker. And here is where the reader—at least the one for this particular literary journal—stumbled. Because this is where the stereotypically feminine nature of the piece conflicts with the fact that the narrator has a wife. And, apparently, it was easier for the reader of this piece to imagine a male speaker occupying the domestic sphere than it was to imagine a same-sex relationship.
I suppose I should be pleased. I consider myself a feminist—an intersectional feminist, if I want to get specific—a champion for women’s rights, for equality, for the breaking down of barriers and binaries that suggest, among other things, that housework equals woman, that domesticity is uniquely feminine. It’s the 21st century, and we all know, for goodness sake, that this isn’t—or shouldn’t—be true anymore.
Whether it is or isn’t is a discussion for a different day, but mostly, we’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that a man can mop the floor too, even if it isn’t our default setting. And, by presuming the narrator—me—to be a man, this particular reader was, in essence, saying yes, yes men can and do occupy the domestic sphere. They can and do make bread, clean kitchen countertops, put away books, vacuum carpets, and, in the context of this short piece, men can suffer from mental health problems. I should be pleased.
Except that this, for me at least, came at a price: the erasure of my sexuality, the erasure of my family. The erasure of my hard-fought marriage to my wife.
I am very comfortably out as a lesbian. I’ve been with Susan—my wife—for almost ten years, and we’ve been married for almost three. I make a point of being open about my marriage to a woman. In the classroom, I casually drop the words “my wife” into conversation early in the semester. Being openly out is a responsibility I take very seriously; despite the massive advances in LGBTQ rights, it is still crucial for young people to see openly gay people living successful, positive lives, to push back against the culture of secrecy and the “gay martyr” narrative that is endemic in pop culture.
I’m equally open about my sexual orientation with new acquaintances. It is especially important for me to be out, in part, because I don’t fit the “standard lesbian” stereotype. I have two biological daughters, I was in an eleven-year heterosexual marriage, and physically, I present in a feminine way. Although I bristle at this notion, the truth of the matter is that I would pass as straight without so much as a second glance. My determination to be out is the only way I can counter these stereotypes.
In the literary world, though, being out is a more complicated endeavor. Perhaps, I should say, not more complicated, for goodness knows that as much as I’m out there’s always someone willing to put me back in the closet; certainly, then, a differently complicated endeavor. To make sure, to the extent that I can, that my out-ness is consistent and present even when I’m not physically around, at the end of my bio, I share that I live in “Lexington, Kentucky, with my wife and teenage daughters.” Given that my first name is generally considered feminine, it isn’t difficult for a reader to deduce, then, that I’m in a same-sex marriage.
All this, of course, presumes that someone reading my work has also, or will also, read my bio.
In the absence of that bio, though, as in the case of my anonymous commenter, how do I stay—or even come—out of the closet? I’m a nonfiction writer, and produce work of varying kinds. I’ve published memoir-based narratives, lyric essays, flash nonfiction, and more journalistic, research-based work on women’s health and violence against women. Naturally, in my memoir-based work, my family features fairly extensively.
But I don’t place signposts next to any relationship signifiers. I don’t place yellow “caution” tape around the word “wife,” so that the reader will know that there’s something “different” about this wife. It would be awkward, clunky, and frankly weird if, every time I wanted to refer to “my wife” I referred instead to “my same-sex wife.” Why would I do that? It’s already unwieldy enough to make sure that any time I mention “Susan” in a piece of work, I make it clear that she’s my wife, rather than simply a close friend. I refuse to take that extra step, to draw attention to the “same-sex” modifier as if it were solely my responsibility to do so.
This isn’t just to be difficult, or to make a stand. Nor is it because I’m committed to elusive, slippery writing. It’s simply because a piece of work might demand a certain treatment, a certain style, one that hinges on less-is-more, on the distillation of an experience into as few words as possible. I’ve written long-form pieces in which it is abundantly clear that I’m queer, and in which such clarity serves the narrative style of the piece. But many of my pieces, particularly those I consider more experimental, demand compression. They start in medias res, thrust the reader into a moment, into a mood, and draw out that one moment, that one thought, inviting the reader to share a created intimacy. To add back-story or to slot in signposts misses the point. It would be akin to adding parenthetical explanations or asides to a poem—acceptable in an academic environment, but when I’m immersing myself in Carol Ann Duffy on a lazy Sunday morning, do I really want to read an explanation of who, what, why, when, and how? Do I want that experience to be interrupted? Likewise, do I want my reader to be interrupted in their experience of my writing? The answer, of course, is no. I want their brief moment with me to be seamless and slick, and I’m content, as a writer, to know that they may leave my piece with unanswered questions. After all, when did we, as readers, ever expect to have all our questions answered?
And so, I include my wife, and sometimes I explain that I, too, am a wife—because it fits—and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, I mention my children, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I mention that I’m a British ex-pat. Sometimes I don’t. The presence or absence of this information—whether in an essay or a vignette—shouldn’t matter. After all, that’s why editors request bios in the first place—so that the reader can fill in these blanks, should they so desire. So that the work itself can stand alone. So that it can be appreciated and tacitly understood that the writer chose to include or exclude information for artistic reasons.
But is it, at the end of the day, solely my responsibility to locate the reader, to orient them to the who, what, why, when, and hows? I continue to ponder this question. If I want to be out as a writer, do I have to label myself specifically as a queer writer? Because that’s not the only part of my identity that informs my writing. Should I only write about uniquely “queer” experiences, to make it clear that I’m queer? What if I want to write—as I often do—about everyday life, about universal experiences? Can I only do this if I’m willing to sacrifice the visibility of my marriage? And, do I even want to identify myself as queer in the first place?
I don’t know how to get around this problem, then, at least not without drawing strange attention to it in my work. I don’t have a solution. And it seems, as I draw my experiences together, that what I’m asking for is in its essence contradictory. I want same-sex marriage to be marriage. I want it to be ordinary, everyday, un-noteworthy. I want “wife” not to indicate, routinely, the presence of a “husband,” and “husband” not to indicate, routinely, the presence of a “wife.” And yet, I want it to be understood that I am in a same-sex marriage. I want my marriage to be visible, even as, on a societal level, the normalization of same-sex marriages renders it increasingly invisible.
CATHERINE A. BRERETON is a freelance writer and the former Editor-in-Chief of Limestone: Art. Prose. Poetry. Her work appears in over 50 national and international publications, the most recent of which can be found in Electric Literature, Prairie Schooner, Narratively, The Establishment, Story|Houston, and Litro. Her essay, “Trance,” was recognized as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2015. She is a nominee for a 2016 Best of the Net award, and the 2015 winner of The Flounce’s Nonfiction Writer of the Year award. Originally from England, Catherine moved to the United States in 2008. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Kentucky. Catherine lives in Lexington with her wife and their teenage daughters.