Too Gay or Not Gay Enough?

Several years ago, I was invited to an all-day reading festival held at a brand-new library in a mid-sized town in South Carolina. Four authors had been invited to speak and sign books, one for each age group. I was the young adult author.

At the lavish party held the night before the festival, I met the young, newly hired YA librarian who had invited me to visit, apparently without anyone else ever having read a word I’d written. I realized immediately that something odd was going on; people were giving me sickish smiles and moving away quickly once introductions were made.

Eventually the YA librarian confessed that she had something to tell me: she had spent the money she was given to publicize my visit on bookmarks for every middle-school and high-school student in the district. In her innocence, she didn’t realize that the district office had to vet everything handed out in the schools, and that they would not give out information about an author who wrote books about gay, lesbian, and transgendered characters. Hence, no publicity had gone out for my visit the next day.

She apologized profusely, and took me to meet the head librarian, an older man who had obviously wanted her to break the bad news before he got involved. Shaking his head sadly, he told me, “I went to bat for you. I called the district office and I told them you were married to a man and had two children.” I was stunned into silence by this bold admission of bigotry.

The following day, five thousand children and parents showed up for the reading festival. It was a huge success — the biggest crowd they’d ever had. Except, of course, no teenagers came to either my book-signing or my presentation.

This was a humiliating day, but, more than that, it was an infuriating one. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids in that school district who weren’t even allowed to know I was there — the queer kids who weren’t supposed to know that there were books written about people like them, and the straight kids who weren’t allowed to experience the kind of diversity that would make them more compassionate citizens of the world.

I was just too darn gay for that town, whether or not I was “married to a man and had two children.” And that wasn’t the only time I have been less than warmly welcomed. There is a price to pay for being an ally. For example, when schools invite me to visit, they sometimes ask me not to mention my “gay books,” by which they mean half of my novels in print. I agree to talk primarily about whatever books they prefer, but always with the caveat that if students have read other books of mine — including those with LGBT characters — and have questions about them, I will answer their questions. After which schools often suddenly “lose their funding” and must, sadly, withdraw their invitation.

I’m too gay for them, but, ironically, apparently no longer gay enough for the Lambda Literary Foundation, which has just changed their guidelines regarding their yearly award for LGBT books. Or, I should say, the award that used to be for books but which is now for LGBT-identified authors instead.

True, the Lambda mission statement hasn’t changed: “The Lambda Literary Foundation is dedicated to raising the status of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people throughout society by rewarding and promoting excellence among LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives.” However, in the past, straight authors have won Lambda awards a number of times. I’ve been nominated three times. I won the award for my YA novel Hard Love in 1999 and was nominated in 2007 for Parrotfish and in 2008 for Love & Lies.

What has changed is Lambda’s new policy statement, which now gives priority to LGBT-identified authors. Here’s how Lambda justified the change:

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 Amazon.com 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.

The guidelines also mention the “despair” felt by LGBT authors when an award they were hoping to win is won by a straight author. It seems to me that not winning awards is the condition of most writers most of the time. We all lose many more than we win. To have a career in the arts means you will be judged subjectively. You won’t always win, you won’t always like the person who does win, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. Unless, of course, you change the rules to limit who can play, which is what Lambda has decided to do by disallowing nominations of books by straight authors.

Writers tend to return to topics about which they feel passionate, subjects that touch them. For me, one of those subjects is LGBT teenagers. 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.

By focusing on the author’s sexual identity, the Lambda awards committee seems to be saying we are different, so different we can’t even write about each other in meaningful ways. That makes me despair.

Winning an award is not the bottom line here. What this new policy feels like to me is a misunderstanding of my intentions in writing the books I do and a rejection of my abilities as a writer. When I speak to students in Kansas City and Spokane (and maybe someday even in South Carolina) and when these teens read my books, I am sometimes the first author they’ve encountered who is willing to address the topics of sexual and gender identity. And they are hungry to talk about it.

Yes, there are more children’s and YA books with LGBT characters in 2010 than there were a decade or two ago, but the numbers are still appallingly low. If the goal is for all kids in all communities to feel good about themselves no matter their sexual or gender identity, authors should be encouraged to include queer characters in their books, not discouraged, which the new Lambda policy in effect does. Authors don’t decide what books to write on the basis of which awards they might win, but by telling straight writers we are no longer eligible for a Lambda award, the policymakers are discounting our work. They are effectively telling straight authors to stay in their own yard. I think any perceived benefit of that is outweighed by the losses.

A study published by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers in 2007 found that gay and lesbian youth were three to four times more likely to be bullied than those who identified as heterosexual. And according to GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national education organization), LGBT students are six times more likely than the general population to skip school, often because of the harassment they face there, and they tend to do worse academically because of it. The 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey estimated that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth attempt suicide up to four times more often than their heterosexual peers. For transgendered youth, some studies put the rate of attempted suicide as high as fifty percent. Along with others who write books with LGBT characters, the most moving letters and e-mails I receive are from kids who claim that reading one of my books saved their life. It seems obvious to me that the more queer books there are in the world, the more queer kids we reach with the message that they are not alone, the fewer LGBT kids become one of these grim statistics.

People will likely draw parallels between the new configuration of the Lambda awards and the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Book Awards, given annually for the best children’s books by African American authors and illustrators. The idea for the CSK, first awarded in 1970, was to bring attention and visibility to African American authors and illustrators, who had been largely overlooked by the mainstream award committees. But times have changed. African American authors and illustrators Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Paul Curtis, Jacqueline Woodson, Kadir Nelson, Marilyn Nelson, and Jerry Pinkney, among others, have swept up ALA medals and honors from the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz committees in addition to winning multiple CSK awards. Some have begun to wonder if there is still a need for the Coretta Scott King Award. Or should the King prize perhaps now be opened up to writers or illustrators whose subject is African American life, no matter their own heritage? I think this is the direction we ought to be heading. (There is precedence for such an award: the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, for instance, have always focused on subject rather than author. Their mission statement is to reward “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.”)

Curiously, the Lambda awards have long been given without the restriction that only LGBT people were eligible, yet now, as queer authors become more visible in the mainstream, Lambda has reversed its decision, claiming that “it is more difficult to be an LGBT writer now than . . . in many decades.” But is it the LGBT authors who are discriminated against, or is it the LGBT content? And isn’t it more difficult to be any sort of writer in an era when publishers are cutting back their lists and laying off editors, bookstores are closing, and nobody has enough marketing money? I would argue that as a straight author I am at a disadvantage when it comes to announcing my books to their intended audience and that the Lambda nominations have been one of the primary ways I’ve been able to overcome that disadvantage.

The new Lambda policy explains how they will define LGBT. They won’t. “The writers and publishers are the ones who will be doing the self-identifying,” they say, throwing up their hands over the messy policing of the new rules. “If the book is nominated as LGBT, then the author is self-identifying as part of our LGBT family of writers, and that is all that is required.” I suspect that this will not be a problem for younger writers, for whom sexual identity seems to be more fluid. Maybe someday we’ll all define ourselves as bisexual and everyone will be eligible for a Lambda award, but at this moment in history, as sexual identity becomes less of an issue in the culture, it seems strange to me that it’s becoming more of an issue for the Lambda awards committee.

The Lambda Literary Foundation isn’t saying straight people can’t write queer literature, but by restricting our recognition they are saying they don’t value or appreciate how well we do it. True, they state on their website:

We celebrate those who support our writers, those in all the allied areas of our literature: our readers, publishers, booksellers, publicists, agents, etc. We celebrate straight allies of every kind and always have throughout our history, with the Bridge Builder Award, Small Press Award, Publishers Service Award, Editor’s Choice Award, among other awards and acknowledgments, and we’ll continue to do so.

But of the awards mentioned, the Small Press Award and Publishers Service Award obviously don’t go to authors, and, as far as I can tell, the Bridge Builder Award and the Editor’s Choice Award haven’t been given since 2004. It’s hard to even find mention online of who has won these awards; the list of award winners on the Lambda site doesn’t include them. And it is precisely that listing that publicizes both nominees and winners.

I’m disappointed that an organization like Lambda has decided to judge people on the basis of who they are rather than what they do. Isn’t this what LGBT organizations have been fighting against for decades? It’s legitimate for the Lambda foundation to want to honor its own, but what is the point of discouraging your allies, of telling them they are no longer part of your “family of writers”?

Amicus Curiae

YA author Brent Hartinger posted this response to Lambda’s guidelines on the website AfterElton.com:

The foundation is certainly free to make this move . . . But personally? I think it’s a bad idea. Basically, it guarantees that future Lambda award nominees and winners are going to end up being less good.

How so? By eliminating the sizable number of non-GLBT-written GLBT books, there will be fewer submissions (which always affects quality).

Think about this: the reason why books by non-GLBT people sometimes win these awards is because the panels of judges (on which I’ve served) think they’re the best.

Worse, over time, the fact that the books will be less impressive, less “outstanding,” will slowly diminish the clout of the awards themselves. In fact, by even making this announcement, the foundation is communicating to the world that they’re a restricted group, marginalizing their own award and further reducing its clout.

The Lambda Foundation will get their end result: more GLBT people will win Lambda awards. But the price they’ll pay is that the awards themselves will mean less and be taken less seriously by the industry and — I’ll say it — even by our own community.

Ironic, isn’t it? But what do they say about the road to hell and good intentions?

From www.afterelton.com/print/200998/lambda-award-should-you-be-gay

From the July/August 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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About Ellen Wittlinger

Ellen Wittlinger’s most recent book is the middle-grade novel This Means War! (Simon). Her YA novel Hard Love (Simon) won the 1999 Lambda Literary Award as well as a 2000 Michael L. Printz Honor Award.

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