Writers Gone Wild: Lambda Literary Awards Spark Debate on the Future of Gay Books

amos mac at the lambda literary awards, photo: Donna Aceto/Lambda Literary Foundation.

The winners of the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards were announced Thursday night in a ceremony at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York.

The Lambda Awards started in 1988 with the goal of celebrating LGBT literature and uniting the gay literary community. Whether or not they’ve been successful in that is a subject for debate — this is the first year there’s been both a fiction and non-fiction transgender category, and last year was the first year there was both a fiction and non-fiction category for bisexuality. As recently as 1992, the anthology Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out competed and lost in the Lesbian Anthology category. And in 2004, a transphobic book made the lists of finalists in the Transgender category until protests and petitions got it removed. But while the Awards can only represent a fraction of the queer writing out there and are flawed the way any other set of literary awards are flawed, they still represent queer culture getting attention and recognition, both from the community and from places such as the Wall Street Journal (blog), and that’s really important.

Eileen Myles photo by Donna Aceto/Lambda Literary Foundation.

So important that people started debating it in their acceptance speeches.

This year, several of the winners (and finalists) wrote cross-genre books that have appeal for gay audiences looking for gay books as well as for non-gay audiences looking for something to read. Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and crime writer Val McDerimd’s Fever of the Bone, for instance, were both by authors with best-selling histories, while other works, such as Eileen Myles’ (awesome) Inferno, fall more on the side of experimental. This variety, however, led to a cross-acceptance-speech-and-interview debate around the place of queerness and author identity in the texts. Edward Albee, who wrote plays including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” told the crowd that:

“A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. [...] Any definition that limits us is deplorable.”

His speech was reportedly not very well-received.

Ed Albee is a badass

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stefanie Powers, author of One from the Hart and a presenter at the ceremony, said:

“The gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities are in a position where they’re expected to fill a niche, to make a point of themselves. We all long for the time when nobody has to do that.”

And in an interview with the WSJ, Lea DeLaria, the host of the awards and a comedian and singer, said, “I’m looking forward to the day where it’s not ‘gay books,’ it’s just, ‘books.’”

Other authors emphasized the importance of continuing to support specifically queer content. In her speech, McDermind said:

“I grew up in a small town in Scotland. There were no lesbians anywhere. They were a bit like mermaids – you knew they were out there, but they were kind of mythical. I write so we don’t have generation of wee lassies growing up in small Scottish towns asking, ‘what’s a lesbian?’”

The two (simplified) sides of the argument are this:

+ Having and supporting queer content is important because of community and invisibility and persecution and the necessity of giving recognition to queer artists, versus

+ It would be nice to have a world where you can have books with gay content or authors that are considered “books” instead of “gay books,” because sometimes being a “gay author” or having explicitly “gay books” can be limiting.

What do you think?

Winners of the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards

Bisexual fiction: The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet: A Novel, by Myrlin A. Hermes (Harper Perennial)
Bisexual non-fiction:
Border Sexualities, Border Families in Schools, by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli (Rowman & Littlefield)
Transgender fiction: Holding Still for as Long as Possible, by Zoe Whittall (House of Anansi Press)
Transgender non-fiction: Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community, edited by Noach Dzmura (North Atlantic Books)
Lesbian debut fiction: Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)
Lesbian erotica: Sometimes She Lets Me: Best Butch Femme Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormina (Cleis Press) (read Autostraddle’s review)
Lesbian fiction: Inferno (a poet’s novel), by Eileen Myles (OR Books) (as seen in the first Autostraddle Book Club)
Lesbian memoir: (tied between) HAMMER!: Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, by Barbara Hammer (The Feminist Press) and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, by Julie Marie Wade (Colgate University Press)
Lesbian mystery: Fever of the Bone: A Novel, by Val McDermid (HarperCollins)
Lesbian poetry: The Nights Also, by Anna Swanson (Tightrope Books)
Lesbian romance: River Walker, by Cate Culpepper (Bold Strokes Books)
LGBT anthology: Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, edited by Kate Bornstein & S. Bear Bergman (Seal Press)
LGBT young adult: Wildthorn, by Jane Eagland (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
LGBT drama: Oedipus at Palm Springs : A Five Lesbian Brothers Play, by Maureen Angelos, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, & Lisa Kron (Samuel French)
LGBT non-fiction: King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes (The Feminist Press)
LGBT sci-fi/fantasy/horror: Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, by Sandra McDonald (Lethe Press)
LGBT studies: (tied between) Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, by Scott Herring )New York University Press) and Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, by Gayle Salamon (Columbia University Press)
Gay debut fiction: Bob the Book, by David Pratt (Chelsea Station Editions)
Gay erotica: Teleny and Camille, by Jon Macy (Northwest Press)
Gay fiction: Union Atlantic, by Adam Haslett (Doubleday)
Gay memoir: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, by Justin Spring (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Gay mystery: Echoes, by David Lennon (Blue Spike Publishing)
Gay poetry: Pleasure, by Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press)
Gay romance: Normal Miguel, by Erik Orrantia (Cheyenne Publishing)

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Carolyn is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, the Billfold, and other places. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 285 articles for us.

17 Comments

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    I feel like it comes down to whose interests are more important: the authors’ or the readers’. Maybe the author really just wants to write a “book” because calling their books “gay books” is limiting to them, but what I as a reader really need is a “gay book” because there aren’t enough of them yet and I won’t be able to find them if they aren’t thought of/presented as “gay books.” I think maybe what the audience needs is more important than what the author wants, but then I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was an author.

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    Great article! I am not sure I see the need for the dichotomy between the two points of view.

    Having queer content in ‘mainstream’ books does increase visibility and recognition, by making queer lives and authors accessible to an audience that includes both straights and queers. Most people I know are straight so a story that happened to have some queer content would be a more accurate reflection of my life than a ‘gay book’ anyway.

    On the other hand, if a writer feels that their book is going to best be written primarily about queers or queer storylines, then writing a ‘gay book’ or a ‘lesbian book’ is going to result in the author creating the best piece of art they are able to. This too reflects many of our experiences: coming out, falling in love, being queer in the workplace, relationships with our families and those of our lovers…

    Both types of book advance the interests of queers and reflect queer life and experience, albeit in different ways, so why not recognise and celebrate both for what they contribute?

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    I think both opinions are legitimate and even reconcilable.
    Really I was wondering though if anyone knows of any good books by asexual authors or with prominent asexual characters. I have an asexual friend in my GSA who is feeling kind of lonely and is looking for things to read.

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    One of my lecturers gave a poetry reading lately, and interestingly enough, she was asked whether she preferred being called a gay/queer/lesbian poet or just a poet.

    1. She is an amazing poet, you should all go read her books –> Sophie Mayer.

    2. Her response was that she loved being called a gay poet by members of the LGBTQIA community, but hated being called it by straight people. She said that when straight people call her it, she feels as if it’s them saying ‘oh, there’s no point reading this, you/I won’t like this, because it’s _gay_ poetry, not for me’ and labelling it away into a little box away from their world.
    However, to be called it from within the LGBTQIA community…well, I forget the exact wording, but the meaning I took from it was an idea that her words were hitting the mark and an acknowledgment of shared… viewpoints? concerns? ideals? Kind of the LGBTQIA community owning/claiming her. (This is my understanding of her words; she actually used a very long example.)

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    I used to think that being gay didn’t matter that you really should “transcend our self” when writing. That, I have decided is crap because I can not take the gay out of me anymore than I can make myself taller. Being a women in writing already makes me a minority, being a homo on top of that makes me a minority of a minority so I feel I have no choice but to yell loud and make art no one can ignore. No one can take writing away from me just as no one can make me straight.

    Writing is the only thing I have come back to again and again. Writing is life, I truly believe that writing saved mine. I was in middle school when the character called Pat came out on Saturday Night Live. Pat had no gender. The whole sketch revolved around trying to find out Pat’s gender with out asking out right. SNL called him/her “it” as the funny neutral pronoun. He/she had some punch line I can’t remember, like “I’m just Pat!” Pat was fat, wore a Western shirt, pleated khakis and had ridiculously permed hair. He/she was always happy and went through life without a care in the world to the point of seeming crazy (as no one who looked like that could possibly be happy looking like that); it was only the sane, gender normative characters who were human in their confusion and funny in their blundered attempts to get the secret out of Pat. Of course, people started calling me Pat at school, as, sadly, the only difference between Pat and I was that I did not wear pleated khakis. Kids wrote PAT on my locker. They scratched out my name on the roster and wrote in Pat so that substitutes would look for Pat and find me. They called my house looking for Pat, my mother would hand me the phone saying “The phone’s for you, it’s a BOY?” she was always confused why anyone, let alone boys would call me. I couldn’t explain that they were not looking for me, they were looking for Pat, and no matter how I saw myself, I would be nothing more than the fat, deranged Pat to everybody else. I am just Caitlin, and with out writing, middle school might have killed me. I had to create a narrative where I didn’t care what was said about me, I had to find other words to define me because, as I saw it, I could either accept their words, or come up with my own. I am beautiful. Just being able to write a simple declarative sentence is an act of rebellion, one I feel happy to make every day

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    I kinda agree with Albee, being gay is not necessarily the most important defining factor in who I am or where my point of view comes from. I would in referencing myself say “I am a _____ who is gay” and not say “I am a gay ________” for the most part.

    And I don’t see the two sides as really being dichotomous, you can support queer content and still have books or authors that are considered for more than just being a “gay book” or a “gay author”.

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    Having transgender categories doesn’t mean an awful lot if trans people haven’t written the books (which is the case in the Whittall book). Should Henry James have won awards for women’s fiction because he wrote books with women in them? Should Mark Twain have gotten an award for African-American fiction because he wrote Huckleberry Finn? I’m glad cis writers are interested in writing about trans characters, but I hope no one’s presuming that’s some form of actual self-representation by our community.

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