Lambda Literary Awards Now Open to All Authors, Not Just Gay Ones

The Lambda Literary Awards, first presented in 1989, exist to honor “the finest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans literature” written each year. Previous winners have included Kate Bornstein, S. Bear Bergman, Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, Adrienne Rich, Eileen Myles, David Sedaris, Michelle Tea, Alison Bechdel, and Ali Liebegott. It reads like a roll call of some of the most influential and interesting queer writers today. But the Lambdas haven’t always been reserved for queer writers; the policy was officially changed to reflect that the awards would be given to LGBT-identified writers in 2009. Some of the board’s statement on the decision at the time:

Today we continue to be excluded in heterosexual society as we have been historically. Our books are taken from the shelves of libraries all over the country and even from the website of this year. It is more difficult to be an LGBT writer now than it has been in many decades, more difficult to make any income from our written words, much less a living. Publishers have closed, stores have closed, the markets seem to be shrinking with each passing day. It seems more urgent than ever that LLF be as active and supportive a service organization as we possibly can be for our own writers, and that’s what we’re working on, with a Board that could not be more passionate in our commitment.

Not everyone was pleased with the controversial announcement. Now, as of a press release on Monday, that policy is changing again.

The release reads, in part:

After careful consideration of all [the] factors, the Board crafted a new policy designed to honor excellence in writing about LGBT lives. The new policy has three components:

LGBT authors will be recognized with three awards marking stages of a writer’s career: the Betty Berzon Debut Fiction Award (to one gay man and one lesbian), the Jim Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize (to one male-identified and one female-identified author), and the Pioneer Award (to one male-identified and one female-identified individual or group). Awards for the remaining Lambda Literary Award categories 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. The award judges will still be self-identified LGBT.

It’s a tough call, because all these considerations are true. It’s true that LGBT writers need support as much as ever, and that the places from which that support might be forthcoming are few and far between. Does it follow that “the finest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans literature” can only come from that self-identified group? It’s possible that it does. But the LLF seems to no longer feel like it can commit to that in print. If an awards panel of self-identified LGBT judges feels that the material has literary merit and is relevant to their lives and their community, how much does the author matter? It’s a little bit of a question of literary theory, but it’s maybe more a question of how important creative expression is to our community’s identity, and how much we have staked on telling our own stories.

The Awards have never been without their problems — for instance, only male- and female-identified award winners? For queer writing? (Which would they mark S. Bear Bergman as?) But it is a cornerstone of how we talk about and recognize queer literature, and the way we think about and categorize the art we create says something about our community. What is gained from restricting the awards to self-identified LGBT writers, and is it worth giving up for the principle of a non-exclusionary policy?

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. They got it right the first time. If it’s about advocacy and the story/the characters, why does it matter how the author identifies?

    That being said, the male-identified/female-identified bit is a slap in the face.

  2. Wait, so they have specific awards for gay men and lesbians, but no specific awards for the B and the T in LGBT? A gay or lesbian perspective matters, but a bisexual or trans* one doesn’t?

    • No, that was just an excerpt of their policy. There are 22 categories for awards, including bisexual and trans literature. You can read all of their awards guidelines and categories on their website.

  3. I kind of feel like the lambda awards needs to decide what it is they want to do. Do they want to recognize queer authors and shine the light on them as a social awareness group? Or, do they want to focus on literary merit of of a piece? I just feel like they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. The more they dilute it, confuse it, the less weight it carries.
    When I was in fifth grade I got the Blazer’s Reading Award. I was so excited. I thought I had done better than everyone in my class. I thought I was special. Turns out that my Teacher had a stack of them and gave them out to kids who read more than one book a month. It crushed me.
    At this point, what does it mean to win a Lambda Award?

  4. When I read this article I felt disappointed. I was happy with Lambda as it was before. The idea of awarding queer writers is an act of visibility for our community. Let straight writers have their awards and if they want to write about us fine. May be I’m too radical but sometimes i don’t feel like sharing certain things with straight people and when it comes to my reading I become a bit touchy. Oh well Lambda awards open to everyone? I’ll get used to it but I won’t pay as much attention to who gets it as I used to do.

    • In a real rainbow all the colours bleed together.

      If a straight artist can create something about queer people that speaks to us, why shouldn’t we embrace them? I want to tear down all the walls that keep us apart. That’s my radical queertopian dream.

      • I wish I could think the way you do, it would be more positive. It’s just that on that specific subject I just can’t. But I’ll try to work on it ;-)))

        • Yay for working on it! :)

          I’m bisexual, and I find it helps to remember that fuckloads of self-identifying straight people have some level of same-sex attraction but don’t know how to express it. If Kinsey’s anything to go on, a quarter to half of all straight people aren’t 100% heterosexual. (I like to imagine this is true, regardless of his methodology!) So if a straight person wants to write/talk about queer stuff, I figure, “Maybe they’re queer too! I’ll be totally nice to them and maybe they’ll join Team Queer or maybe they won’t but either way more pro-queer friends for meeeee!!”

          Yeah, that’s actually my internal thought process, exclamation marks and all. When I stage a military coup my vanguard will be carebears shooting rainbow lasers.

  5. I think this is a good thing. If we want recognition by society for our efforts in mainstream creative productivity, withholding the Lammies from straight writers is hypocritical. To me, excluding straight writers would be no different than if the Academy Awards or the Emmys suddenly decided that only straight actors could be awarded for playing straight roles, and vice versa. Many gay and lesbian actors that have broken into mainstream productions would be limited to only gay and lesbian roles.

    I’m not even sure that the new category of orientation-based Lammy awards is a good thing. What if the Oscars suddenly decided to come up with “best straight actress in a straight role” or “best lesbian in a lesbian role” awards? Would we applaud that or be insulted? I think probably insulted.

    Are you awarding the creative product, or the creator? If this is about promoting good writing on GLBT themes, then award the books, regardless of the orientation of the writer. Pioneer writer Ann Bannon of the Beebo Brinker chronicles was married to a man at the time she wrote her books in the 60’s, and remained married until the 80’s. In more recent times, I’m fairly certain award-winning novelist Blayne Cooper, who is with Bella Books, is a straight, married woman. If you’re awarding the orientation of the writer rather than the writing itself, then these two extremely-talented writers would have been left out and perhaps overlooked, and that would be a shame.

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