As I stood on the stage of New York City’s hallowed Great Hall at Cooper Union, looking out at the 500 attendees, it struck me: This was the transgenderest Lammys ever.
Lambda Literary Foundation, the organization dedicated to nurturing, celebrating, and preserving LGBTQ literature, held its 25th awards ceremony June 3. I attended the New York gala as a newly elected Lambda Literary board member (the first transgender author to serve on the board) and was honored to fill in as a last-minute presenter.
It was an even greater honor to share the stage — where Abraham Lincoln once stood — with a half dozen other trans authors who joined Tom Léger, coeditor of The Collection: Short Fiction From the Transgender Vanguard, winner of the Lammy for Transgender Fiction.
In acknowledging the award, Léger noted that this was the Lammys' first Transgender Fiction award accepted by a trans author.
This awards season was just the third time the transgender category has been separated into both fiction and nonfiction (which happened because there were at least 10 nominees in each subcategory); the previous winners for transgender fiction were non-trans identified authors or editors.
Since Lambda Literary established a transgender award category in 1997, Léger maintains, half have gone to books that were primarily edited or written by cisgender rather than transgender authors. (It’s worth noting that Lambda Literary award guidelines don’t require submissions to be written or edited by LGBTQ authors, only that they have content relevant to LGBTQ lives.)
Still, this year was the first time that the Transgender Fiction award was both presented by and accepted by trans authors. The night was a momentous occasion for trans and genderqueer authors. In fact, never before had so many of us graced a Lambda Literary awards stage.
It wasn’t just the great contributors to The Collection — Imogen Binnie, Red Durkin, Ryka Aoki, Casey Plett, Susan Jane Bigelow, Adam Halwtiz, Terence Diamond, and Carter Sickels — who joined Léger onstage. And it wasn’t just me.
There was also Anne Enke, editor of Transfeminist Perspectives in and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, which won the award for Transgender Non-Fiction. The two 2013 Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Awards went to genderqueer activist Sassafras Lowrey and trans author Carter Sickels. Mx Justin Vivian Bond, the famous trans cabaret singer, presented another award. Transgender authors were also finalists in several nontrans categories, including S. Bear Bergman in LGBT Children’s/Young Adult Fiction and T Cooper in LGBT Non-Fiction.
It was, all in all, a trans-tastic evening.
In many ways Lambda Literary was actually founded to recognize and honor diversity. It was the first awards ceremony that specifically honored gay and lesbian — and later, bisexual and transgender — authors and their work.
And unlike so many other literary awards, it has always embraced genre fiction categories like mystery, romance, and erotica that have been bastions of LGBT interest. While these books are often best loved by readers, these genres are frequently discounted by those in the literati elite, who look down on such fiction as frivolous and mundane cousins to the real literary stars — playwrights, poets, and authors of serious fiction.
Lambda still honors genre fiction. And over the years the organization has also embraced diversity in other areas. The 25th anniversary awards ceremony demonstrated how far we’ve come. Presenters and winners reflected different racies, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities — including one visually impaired presenter who read the winner’s name via Braille.
The night was one of other milestones: Yolanda Wallace became the first African-American writer to win Lesbian Romance with her Month of Sundays. Chicano author Benjamin Alire Sáenz became the first writer to win two of the most hotly contested awards in the same year — Gay General Fiction for his novel Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club and LGBT Children’s/Young Adult Fiction,with his children’s book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. African-American author Mia McKenzie won LGBT Debut for her novel The Summer We Got Free. Etel Adnan, an 88-year old Lebanese-American woman, won Lesbian Poetry with Sea and Fog. Indian-American writer Thrity Umrigar’s The World We Found: A Novel took the award for Lesbian General Fiction. Ramón H. Rivera-Servera won the LGBT Studies category with Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics.
These changes haven’t occurred in a vacuum, and they represent not only a commitment to diversity but significant concrete steps in making the organization truly representative of our queer communities.
Lambda's current executive director, Tony Valenzuela, and the editor of the Lambda Literary Review, William Johnson, are both men of color and have helped make Lambda more welcoming to underserved LGBTQ authors (including those who participate in Lambda’s Writers’ Retreat for Emerging Authors).
Kathleen DeBold, Lambda Literary Awards administrator, also deserves credit for making the Lammy judging process more diverse than ever before. People of color were the majority on 10 of the 22 judging panels. The judges were also more diverse this year in terms of age, geographic location, background, profession, and their relationship to LGBTQ literature (i.e. whether they are fans, academics, booksellers, writers, editors, reviewers, journalists, etc.).
As for Lambda Literary Foundation’s board membership, we haven’t quite reached that level of diversity; while six of our 11 board members are women, one board member is African-American, one is Chicana, one is bisexual, and I’m the only transgender queer guy, who also happens to be disabled.
Unfortunately, we’re losing several key board members, which could have the impact of stalling our forward momentum. Or this loss could represent an opportunity to recruit more board members of color.
As always, there’s still much more to be done. We cannot rest on our laurels; having the first of something is never good enough. You have to also have the second and third. And there are many other milestones still waiting to be reached.
Some changes are relatively simple, while others will take time to develop and implement.
For example, we need to make sure that all representations of our community — including our annual memorial to authors who have passed away — reflects the full diversity of our colorful rainbow. In one of the most powerful speeches of the evening, this year’s Pioneer Award recipient, Cherrie Moraga, reminded the audience and Lambda about the limits of representation and the imperative for meaningful diversity within our literary and publishing worlds.
She also suggested that we rename our Pioneer Award the Vanguard Award. As a literary organization that recognizes the power of words to change the world, Lambda Literary could acknowledge that the term “pioneer” is not without cultural baggage. Indeed, it has negative connotations, especially among Native Americans and other First Nation peoples who experienced pioneers as colonialists who cleared their lands, “settling” it through genocide and environmental destruction. (Anyone who has ever shuddered at the f word should understand the power of not using certain words.)
We can continue to foster diversity among the subject matter and types of literature we recognize, for example, by establishing a new award category for Graphic Novels, an emerging literary form more and more of the young people in our community are embracing.
Lambda Literary could work harder to create real and meaningful relationships with minority communities. Lambda will have a booth at L.A.’s Trans Pride Festival June 21; we should increase our visibility at other cultural events as well.
Lambda Literary could collaborate more with other social change organizations, especially those with shared goals, those that serve similar communities, and those that work to improve the lives of our brothers and sisters and two-spirits of color.
Lambda can also continue to support accessibility to literature: mentoring emerging authors and publishers, encouraging the translation of LGBTQ literature to audiobooks for the visually impaired, hosting readings, even supporting literacy programs for marginalized youth.
And of course, we need to not only maintain but improve the diversity of our board by making Lambda Literary board membership an attractive opportunity for the gamut of LGBT leaders.
In 25 years, Lambda Literary Foundation has come a long way. But the road still stretches out in front of us, and the journey won’t always be easy. Still, Lambda Literary is determined that the next generation will be able to find themselves reflected in LGBTQ literature, whether it is pulled from a bookshelf or downloaded onto a mobile device.
Have suggestions on how Lambda Literary could become more inviting to all members of our LGBTQ communities? Let me know at [email protected]. I’m all ears. Even better, if you want to put your money where your mouth is and financially support Lambda Literary’s efforts, you can be the change by donating online at LambdaLiterary.org/Donate.
JACOB ANDERSON-MINSHALL is an author and lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Advocate editor at large Diane-Anderson Minshall.