The twenty-third annual Lambda Literary Awards, LLA, (also known as the "Lammys") took place at New York’s School of the Visual Arts Theatre on May 26. This red carpet event brought out our finest in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) literature and publishing traditions.
Celebrities like Bryan Batt ("Mad Men"), former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, TV icon Stefanie Powers of the TV series "Hart to Hart," Miss New York 2010 winner Claire Buffie, Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally Kiss of the Spider Woman and the event’s master of ceremonies, stand-up comedienne Lea Delaria, all lent their star power in making the evening special.
This year’s LLA pioneers being honored were three-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee, 83, and Diamond Dagger Award-winning crime fiction writer Val McDermid, 56.
But as I sat in the audience listening to several speakers querying our present-day utility of the literary niche "gay writer" I wondered in our efforts to overcome heterosexism and to go mainstream in literature and publishing do we eventually want to get rid of our niche.
Were the speakers assimilationists or homophobes?
Or am I a relic stuck in the ghetto of "identity politics"?
"I’m looking forward to the day where it’s not ’gay books,’ it’s just, ’books,’" Lea DeLaria told the audience.
And Stefanie Powers told Entertainment Weekly reporter Stephanie Lee that "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," she said. "We all long for the time when nobody has to do that."
In our longing to enter into mainstream society, how far is too far before we not only lose our distinctive cultural identities, but we also potentially lose leverage from our communities and allies in our continued battle for LGBTQ civil rights?
For Edward Albee, however, these questions of LGBT genres in literature are, at best, a non-issue, and, at worst, absurd, and one he never deigned to tackle in his opuses.
In accepting his Lammy, Albee told us, "I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay. ...I’ve written a number of plays with gay characters in them, but I have never written a play that could be considered a ’gay play’ because I consider that a lessening of the creative act, to limit oneself to one’s own sexual practices as subject matter for one’s work."
But there was a time, during both Albee’s and McDermid’s, that gay themes were prohibited, and "...to those times when it took real guts to tackle gay themes openly and unapologetically, in one’s writing, risking one’s career and, up until the 1960s, a possible jail sentence," Don Weise, Publisher of Magnus Books, reminded LLA audience in his message as host committee chair.
And here at home in the U.S., many LGBTQ-themed books still have a hard time landing with big named publishing houses. Just ask Scottish-born writer McDermid.
"When I was first published in 1987, no mainstream commercial publisher would consider my book for a nanosecond. Only niche publishers catering to lesbians and feminist wanted books with big old queers taking center stage. Now, in the UK at least, pretty much every big house has starry lesbian authors headlining their catalogues. ...My latest book, Trick of the Dark, is chock-full of lesbians, and everywhere except in the U.S. it’s being published by all my usual publishers," McDermid said in an interview with Sinclair Sexsmith, who runs the award-winning personal online writing project, "Sugarbutch Chronicles: The Sex, Gender, and Relationship Adventures of a Kinky Queer Butch Top" at sugarbutch.net.
As an African American lesbian, however, I don’t have the luxury to entertain if I am a "writer" or a "lesbian writer" or a "black writer," because I write at the intersections of where my race, class, gender, and sexual orientation give visibility to my experience and authenticity to my voice.
In 2002, I attended "Fire and Ink: A Writer’s Festival for LGBT people of African Descent." It was an historic event that took place on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was delighted to be a part of the event because never have I been at a writers’ conference where all the participants were both black and queer. Many of us looked at each other and asked if this was really happening.
The goal of the event was to bring together LGBT writers, thinkers, teachers, and publishing and media professionals of African descent to discuss the position and importance of African diasporic LGBT literature.
The exclusion we experience from publishing houses and the literary world due to homophobia and/or racism, at best, departmentalizes our works as either black or queer; thus erasing the LGBT-of-African-descent literary canon, and, at worst, rendering us invisible and muting our voice.
Being both of African descent and queer creates a distinctive epistemology that shapes not only our identity but it also shapes our distinctive interpretative lens we zoom on the world about politics, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, arts, music, and, of course, literature.
Rev. Irene Monroe