We may earn a commission through product links on this page. But we only recommend stuff we love.

Short Fiction Playlist: Five Queer Short Stories Featuring Pop Culture

Welcome back to another Short Fiction Playlist, a feature I love putting together even though it isn’t very popular. But here in the Autostraddle Literature section, we encourage people’s passions and niche interests as much as possible!!!!!

Today, I’m thinking about the hangups some people have about pop culture references in fiction. There once was a school of thought that pop culture detracts from fiction by tying it too much to a time period. The debate itself is dated, to be sure. And there ultimately isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a hard rule about it. I’m personally of the belief that novels and fiction can avoid specific pop culture references if the writer wishes, even as I personally tend to prefer fiction that includes pop cultures touchstones. That said, I myself wrote a book (my queer horror novelette Helen House) with zero pop culture references. An early draft made one reference to Riverdale, and I took it out. I was also ambiguous about where the story is set, and a lot of people have assumed it’s set in central and northern Florida, but it’s actually set in central and northern Michigan. To me, the story’s ambiguous sense of time and place heightens the horror and also replicates the sort of disoriented, fractured temporality of grief, which is a driving force of the narrative.

All this is to say that pop culture and its lack can function in fiction on more than just a random detail level. Stephen King uses pop culture for character development and naturalistic dialogue quite well. And the five queer short stories I’ve highlighted below do interesting, sometimes surprising things with pop culture. Let’s take a look.

“And Another and Another and Another Glass of Rosé” by Christopher Gonzalez, published in Catapult

But, no, we’re not rooting for love or justice, or for Chris Harrison to win at playing God. We’re rooting for great television. We watch in awe every week, our stomachs pickled with wine, our tongues dry. At the start of the season, a 750ml bottle could last a whole two-hour episode. Good vibes, good times. A few sips to settle us into the night, to loosen us up for the train wreck ahead. At the start of the season, a bottle could endure.

First of all, RIP Catapult magazine, home to so much great essay work and fiction by LGBTQ writers (as evidenced by the fact that it’s linked multiple times in this Short Fiction Playlist and often appears in previous playlists, too). What an immense loss for the literary community. So many incredible people lost their jobs (which was communicated in such a heinous way), and I’m bereft!

This short story by Christopher Gonzalez about a group of friends with a weekly ritual of getting drunk while watching The Bachelorette and the queer Puerto Rican guy in the group who actually auditioned for the show. The story is funny (“Let me be clear: I didn’t break up with my ex-boyfriend for a chance to be on The Bachelorette. It’s a common misconception. I’m not that level of trash. I prefer trash-lite.”) and incisive (“Whenever I am the only one—the only person of color, the only queer, the only single friend, or any combination of the three—I feel like a wind-up doll at the ready, alcohol the key to my talents.”) in its explorations of performance, desirability, and relationships. Pop culture, here, is baked deeply into the core of the story. The Bachelorette acts as a site of both projection and internalization for the narrator, as pop culture so often does. A crisp and bubbly story, like a good glass of rosé.

Check out Gonzalez’s short fiction collection I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat for more.

“Playing Games” by Marissa Higgins, published in Catapult

The game was a play on Sleepless in Seattle, which Michelle had never watched but associated with benevolent heterosexuality.

Had it come out sooner, this story could have easily been featured in the Short Fiction Playlist of stories with queer sex. It opens:

Megan told Michelle, the third woman she matched with on the dating app, that she had never been with a woman because she wanted an easy orgasm.

Even before Megan’s wife, Kayla, asked for a trial separation, Megan privately felt she’d gotten a little comfortable with her cunnilingus. The tongue pattern repeated itself, and though Megan came with some regularity, she started using her fingers while Kayla was gargling mouthwash. After she was caught twice with her fingers tugging up her hood, she blamed her antidepressants. Kayla blamed her disinterest in receiving oral on her rotations. The women told each other, Okay, then Sure, then nothing.

That’s a catnip of an opening for me!!!!! Plus, there’s a queer character named Kayla. Sold. The story is about a failing marriage between Kayla and Megan, who during their trial separation gets on lesbian dating apps not only to soothe her loneliness but also to get test subjects for the business she and Kayla sunk all their money into: Adventure Emporium, a scavenger hunt service Megan believes could be the next escape room boom. It’s rooted more in place than in time, set in Seattle. Enter: Michelle, a prolific cheater (on everyone she’s ever been with) and someone willing to fling herself all over the city for Megan’s Emporium experiments.

There’s the aforementioned Sleepless in Seattle ref, but this short story also does a thing I enjoy very much which is convey that its characters are very Online without it feeling cringe. Organic references are made to “cheugy,” a meme, app culture, etc. The characters speak and interact in a way that feels very familiar to me as a very online millennial lesbian.

Higgins is set to release a novel with Catapult in 2024.

Pussy Hounds” by Sarah Gerard, published in Electric Literature

My first night on Tinder, I matched with the ex-boyfriend of a girl I knew from my MFA program. I’d always thought her boyfriend was sparkly. He had big, deep eyes like Matthew Broderick. I remembered him being a playwright.

In addition to having an excellent title, this story is a playful, surprising, and layered tale of friendship, sex, and art-making. It brims with pop culture references, Whitney lyrics interjecting dialogue at one point, the characters — a group of friends heading to a writing retreat where very little actual writing gets done — often speaking windingly about the pop culture and art (including their own work), their interior lives in conversation with these external things. They watch Mrs. Doubtfire (“We decided that it does not stand the test of time.”). A conversation about childhood crushes on Whitney Houston blooms into something else:

“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Whitney Houston,” I said. “I had a poster of her in my bedroom.”

“Yeah, but did you want to fuck her, or did you want to be her?” said Lit Wife.

“Both?” I said. “Neither?”

“Well, I wanted to fuck her.”

“That’s fine, but your metric is heteronormative. It puts me in the category of a cisgender male partner if I were to want to fuck Whitney Houston, because if I did, then I couldn’t also want to be her. That’s the problem with binaries—they don’t allow nuance. It’s also misogynistic. What if instead of objectifying her, I just want to talk to her? What about bisexuality or asexuality? What if I’m trans or nonbinary?”

“I think you’re thinking about this too much,” said Lit Wife.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

It’s a funny, frustrating (in a good way), feral story that plays to Gerard’s strengths. She has a new chapbook out called The Butter House (the first book I’ve ever blurbed!), and I’ve often recommended her novel True Love here on Autostraddle and shall again!

Past Lives” by K-Ming Chang, published in Nurture

There was an app my mother found and downloaded that told you your past lives based on the digits of your birthday and where you were birthed. According to the app, my mother was an emperor in her past life, my oldest brother was a gangster’s wife, and I was a fortuneteller.

I like to try to include at least one flash piece in every Short Fiction Playlist in case it’s all you have the time for. This, by the reigning king of Lesbian Flash Fiction K-Ming Chang, contains just one explicit pop culture reference, and that makes its inclusion feel so intentional and revelatory. The narrator buys her mother a new phone smartphone: “I showed her how to call home, how to download music, but she said she didn’t listen to anything anymore, not even her own name. And never ever music, she said. That’s how she got married, listening to music: she danced to He Will Break Your Heart with my father in a GI bar in Taipei and it saddled her with three sons and me too.” In just these tight few sentences, there are whole worlds, and the song anchors us not only to a specific time but also a mood, the characters, a sense of nostalgia and prescience all at once.

As with a lot of my favorite stories by Chang, this one features birds. Check out her most recent book, the story collection Gods of Want for more.

Pirates” by Kristen Arnett, published in The Yale Review

Naomi was making out with Captain Jack Sparrow on the sidewalk in front of the Applebee’s. They were groping each other and using lots of tongue. Naomi was making out with a pirate, but she was also dressed like one. That was their current employment. Hers as a part-time Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator in front of the Chili’s restaurant on the Orlando I-Drive strip, Carmen’s as a part-time Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator in front of the Bubba Gump Shrimp a little further down the same road.

This is not the first time I’ve linked a story by my fiancé in a Short Fiction Playlist, and it will likely not be the last! Tis simply my reality as a genuine fan of her work. This story has nothing to do with Pirates of the Caribbean itself but a lot to do with the very specifically central Florida theme park culture and work lives of impersonators. It’s funny (“The Captain Jacks weren’t supposed to interact with each other.”), sexy (“Captain Jack slipped her fingers into the waist of Naomi’s pants.”), and full of emotion (“Naomi could have said sorry, but instead she told Captain Jack that she didn’t think they should see each other anymore.”). The story touches on money, work, family, sex, and all the costumes we have to put on to navigate life. Aside from just being a great visual gag, all the references to “Captain Jack” create an interesting bifurcation between the characters when they’re at work, when they’re not, and the ways their affair blurs those lines.

Feel free to send any playlist theme requests my way! Have you read anything good lately? Are you a queer writer who recently had fiction published online? Hit me up!

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 847 articles for us.


Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!