Op-ed: The Lambda Literary Awards Are as Essential as Ever

By Tony Valenzuela

Originally published on Advocate.com October 09 2012 4:00 AM ET

On behalf of the Lambda Literary Foundation I want to thank The Advocate for giving us the opportunity to address issues raised by Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman in his guest commentary on October 5.

As your readers may know, Lambda Literary is the oldest and largest not-for-profit dedicated to nurturing, promoting, and honoring LGBT literature, the writers who create it, and the publishers who bring it to market. In fact, in 2013 we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the foundation and of the Lambda Literary Awards (the Lammys), whose transparency appears to be the primary focus of Steve’s article.

The Lammy Awards are Lambda Literary’s signature program, and the awards ceremony is a glamorous night during which LGBT authors, literary luminaries, and celebrities celebrate LGBT literature and honor the finest books published in the previous year. Among the distinguished winners are such notable authors as Dorothy Allison, Paul Monette, Edmund White, Leslie Feinberg, Essex Hemphill, and Audre Lorde. The work that goes into the selection of finalists and winners is enormous and extraordinary, a source of pride to the foundation and to the dozens of judges who volunteer their time and service.

Lammy judges are writers, academics, booksellers, editors, publishers, activists, and passionate readers. With my assistance, the Lammy Awards administrator selects judges who are grouped in panels with a chair overseeing each one. These panels review more than 650 nominees (by 2011’s count) in 23 categories, including Gay and Lesbian Fiction, Poetry, Mystery and Erotica, Bisexual and Transgender Fiction and Nonfiction, LGBT Children’s/Young Adult, LGBT Studies and LGBT Drama, among others.

While some award-giving organizations publicly reveal the identities of their judges at the start of their process, others, like Lambda Literary, reveal the names of their judges in the awards program the night of the ceremony. Lambda Literary keeps its judges’ names confidential until then in part to prevent the possibility of publishers, authors, and others of lobbying judges. 

Overseen by the awards administrator, the judging process is conducted with the utmost integrity. Our judges take very seriously the responsibility of selecting which books will go on to become one of five finalists in each category. To help our judges perform this task, the Lambda Literary Foundation board created uniform guidelines, which are posted on our website, and judges are asked to sign a conflict of interest form to disclose financial and personal relationships that could potentially disqualify them from judging in a category.

In Steve’s guest commentary, he points to an alleged conflict of interest involving Richard Labonte, Lambda Literary’s former awards administrator. During Richard’s three-year tenure as awards administrator, books he edited were nominated in the Gay Erotica category. To eliminate any conflict of interest, Richard was removed from administering that category — he was not involved in judge selection, panel formation, or any other aspect of judging in this area. Instead, I stepped in and performed all of those tasks for that category.

Steve’s piece also raised questions about the award categories themselves. Throughout the foundation’s history, its Lammy categories have evolved and expanded in keeping with the evolution of LGBT literature as well as the larger LGBT community. For example, we added categories to honor Transgender and Bisexual literature as these areas of writing began to flourish over the past 15 years. Similarly, we added a Debut Fiction award because the board felt it was important for Lambda Literary to foster fledgling literary careers. As a foundation we welcome and embrace change, especially if it helps us better reflect who we are as a community.

Another important change for the good of the foundation — and the community — is the awards ceremony is now covered by the media more widely than ever before, bringing greater visibility to LGBT literature both within and beyond the LGBT community.  The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post have all reported on the ceremony. We’re particularly grateful to the honorees and presenters who helped us attract media attention, including Armistead Maupin, Olympia Dukakis, Kate Millet, Larry Kramer, Terrance McNally, Edward Albee, Kate Clinton, Ally Sheedy, Ted Allen, Eileen Myles, Stefanie Powers, Wally Lamb, Frank Bruni, Emma Donoghue, and Jacqueline Woodson, among many others.

But the Lammys are just one pillar of the foundation’s work. Year round we advocate for LGBT literature through workshops, public programs, and speaking appearances. For example, the Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive residency program for queer writers. Equally important is our LGBT Writers in Schools program, which, as its name suggests, brings authors into classrooms to discuss the enduring importance of LGBT literature with young people. We also spearhead the Lambda Literary Review, an online magazine that publishes more LGBT book reviews and author interviews than any other publication in the world.

After 25 years, the foundation continues to evolve, improve, and reimagine itself to better serve the needs of the community. Because of this Lambda Literary remains as essential as ever, providing services to the community that no other organization does. We are the largest and most vital organization committed to nurturing and advocating on behalf of LGBT literature. I therefore invite you to join us in our important work by becoming a member. The foundation is only as strong as its supporters, and the furtherance of its work ultimately depends on you. You can learn more about the Lambda Literary Foundation at LambdaLiterary.org.

 

TONY VALENZUELA is the executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation.