A few years ago, while I was volunteering for a youth organization, a teenage girl and I were discussing queer YA books. “Have you read The Bermudez Triangle?” she asked. It was her top recommendation. I hadn’t even heard of it and hungrily ate up Maureen Johnson’s popular novel, the story of three girls the year before they leave for college. Two of these girls fall in love with each other, and the characterization of self-discovery, first love, kissing your best friend, being forced to define yourself (or not define yourself) in front of your family, it was all spot on, and remains one of my favorite portraits of queer teenage love. But I have to be honest here: I was surprised to find out that Maureen Johnson wasn’t gay.
In that moment, I probably felt a little bit the way the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Board of Trustees felt over the years as they worked to uphold their mission to “nurture, celebrate and preserve LGBT literature.” Here was a fantastic example of queer literature by someone who wasn’t queer. The book deserved to be honored. Or did it?
For as long as I can remember, the Lambda Literary Awards have been my go to place for the best queer books being published. I trust them to lead me to queer books of literary merit, new queer authors, and LGBT conscious publishers. And — full disclosure — I write book reviews for the freshly minted Lambda Literary Review. For the past two award seasons, I’ve been the girl on stage handing out the trophies to the winners once announced. I love the Lambda Literary Foundation and am glad for its place in the world.
For the last 20 years, the LLF has indeed honored both queer writers and queer books. Then, in a cringe worthy moment in 2009, Lambda Literary changed its tune and announced that their awards would be given only to LGBT authors of LGBT content. Books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle need not apply.
Lambda Literary has long had a sort of uncomfortably public identity crisis with their award policies. In 1993, Dorothy Allison was famously denied Lambda Literary Award nomination for Bastard Out of Carolina because it lacked LGBT content. The lesbian author’s debut novel meanwhile was nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, among others, and her short story collection, Trash, ripe with lesbian content, won two Lambda awards. Was Lambda just about LGBT content, or LGBT authors, or both?
The change to the policy in 2009 seemed to solidly declare that both were their mission, cutting non-LGBT writers who committed themselves to LGBT content from the conversation. The YA literary world in particular was up in arms about the decision. Brent Hartinger said the Lambdas were making themselves irrelevant. Gay YA wunderkind David Levithan’s novel Will Grayson, despite a gay protagonist, was ineligible because it was co-authored with hetero author John Green. And Ellen Wittlinger, whose incredible portraits of young queers in novels such as Parrotfish, Hard Love and Love & Lies, and had won Lambda awards and other honors, published a heated rebuttal to the decision in The Horn Book Review. She wrote about the countless times schools retracted their invitations to her when she said she’d talk about her books’ gay characters if asked. “I went to bat for you,” one librarian tells her. “I called the district office and I told them you were married to a man and had two children.” Wittlinger was appalled. She explained her commitment to LGBT content:
If a straight person writes books with queer protagonists, chances are it’s because there have been important queer people in their lives whom they respect and want to honor. People my age watched their gay friends and relatives suffer when they came out (an event that, at least for some young people, is now easier thanks to those who went before). For my own reasons, I identified with that pain and wanted to help alleviate it. My goal in writing my novels has always been to show kids that people — queer or straight — are more alike than they are different, and that the most important thing in life is to live authentically.
Now, exactly a year after Wittlinger’s essay was published, Lambda is back with another policy change: “Lambda Literary Awards … will be based on literary merit and significant content relevant to LGBT lives. These awards will be open to all authors regardless of their sexual identity.” So, we’re back to a world where books like The Bermudez Triangle get proper shout out, but a masterpiece like Bastard Out of Carolina would not.
Enter, again, the outraged literary world. Writer and activist Sassafras Lowery took to her blog yesterday to express her sadness for what the new policy implies about queer stories. “I tell everyone in my writing workshops that storytelling is social justice work, that only they are qualified to tell their stories,” Lowrey writes. “Now we have the most powerful force in LGBTQ literature telling us that our voices don’t matter, that they are not important or special, and that we need to make room for privileged oppressors to write about us — our lives, our community, and our families.”
It’s a rock and a hard place: Does Lambda’s current policy endanger purely queer storytellers, or does it make room for all outstanding examples of LGBT books?
What’s more, Lambda used this week’s policy upgrade to reiterate the three awards they give just to LGBT authors, each equally divided between “one gay man and one lesbian,” or “one male-identified and one female-identified author.” Cringe! Again!
“In other words,” Rose Fox commented on Publisher’s Weekly’s blog yesterday, “non-monosexual debut authors need not apply, and genderqueer and intersex authors as well as those involved in different-sex collaborations are not welcome at any stage of their careers. How can you even think of calling this a new policy of inclusiveness?”
One step forward, two steps back. In some ways, the Lammys have made great strides in the last couple years to recognize all queers: they introduced a Transgender category, and most recently, split the Bisexual and Transgender categories into fiction and non-fiction subsets, allowing even more books and writers to be nominated.
But if this week’s press release and the subsequent outcry are any indication, they’ve got a long way to go from being a strictly LGBT organization to a queer organization.
One of the awards in question — the Betty Berzon Debut Fiction Award — is an award with a cash prize, named for (and provided by) the late Betty Berzon, a lesbian writer and psychotherapist who was among the first psychotherapists to serve LGBT clients. There are only a small handful of cash awards for LGBT writers in this country, let alone debut authors, and the generosity of the Lambda’s Debut Fiction Award is paramount. And, let’s be honest, it is not a friendly time to be running an LGBT literary non-profit. One can assume that the donors who support the Lambda Literary Foundation have a say in these policies, their mission statement, and how it’s carried out. But policies that satisfied the queer community twenty years ago will not, fortunately, satiate today’s community, which has blossomed into a broad definition of queerness, of gender non-conforming peoples, of allies, of new generations.
Suggestions to LLF could include creating awards that honored allies’ contributions to LGBT literature, so both LGBT writers and our allies can be recognized without competing in this LGBT space. Monetary awards could be created to honor outstanding debut work by transgender folk, bisexual folk, and more. And, maybe someday, dare I say it, these important awards could celebrate great queer literature, free of gender and titles and labels, but just really fantastic queer books the whole world should know about. The fresh content at Lambda Literary Review seems to be heading this way, with more and more diverse content about queer writers, literary trends, culture and more. Here’s to hoping the Lambda Literary Foundation has 20 more years ahead of it, evolving for the queer community every step of the way.