Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gay book prize accused of discrimination

by Kaite Welsh

As most of the literary world gears up for the Booker prize, new guidelines for another prestigious award are causing controversy. The Lambda Literary Award is presented every year to an author whose book deals with LGBT issues and characters. Whilst in previous years authors of any sexual orientation were allowed to enter, now submissions for the award, which open on Thursday, are restricted to “LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives”.

The move has divided readers of all sexualities. For a large number of gay readers, objections to the new guidelines are seen as an issue of entitlement, of straight writers impinging on one of the few spaces open to gay and trans authors. These authors are seen to be appropriating gay culture and issues from a position of heterosexual privilege, which would negate the veracity of their writing.

Katherine V Forrest, Interim Trustee of the LLF and herself an openly lesbian author of several classic science fiction novels, says that the decision was taken partly out of “consideration [of] the despair of our own writers when a heterosexual writer, who has written a fine book about us, wins a Lambda Award, when one or more of our own LGBT writers may have as a Finalist a book that may be the only chance in a career at a Lambda Literary Award.”

Regardless of the ethics of the award’s new guidelines, it cannot be disputed that the market works against writers who identify themselves as gay, bi or transgender, and the effect of the current economic climate on independent publishers and booksellers has hit the queer literary community hard.

So when an award designed to promote LGBT experiences is won by a straight author, it is natural for the gay and trans communities to feel slighted – as though their experience wasn’t good enough, was only valid when filtered through the perspective of someone who may have observed these issues but has never lived them.

But there is another problem that Forrest does not address – that of authors who are reluctant to reveal their sexual or gender orientation, even if it means losing the opportunity to have their work lauded by their own community. According to the new rules, by submitting your novel for the award, you are effectively outing yourself and many writers, regardless of their subject matter, are not ready or able to take that step.

Catherynne Valente, whose work has twice been shortlisted for the rival Spectrum award, says that she has “serious reservations about an award committee becoming an arbiter of what is and is not LGBTQ. Many authors are not out and their experience is no less valid.” She herself identifies as bisexual but admits that she in the past she has not “always felt comfortable disclosing my sexuality in professional circles".

Awards like Lambda are necessary not only for the writing community, but for disadvantaged groups as a whole. They tell people that their experiences are not only worth writing about, but worth offering prizes over. They up the standard of writing, and award authors who present marginalised people in a positive light. Whilst restrictions on the entrants in order to preserve a safe space for gay writers makes sense, the LLF would do well to consider the sections of the LGBT community that they are inadvertently excluding.


At October 8, 2009 at 10:35 PM , Blogger Emily Rutherford said...

I remember that some member of the awards committee was quoted as saying something like (I'm paraphrasing) "This prize is designated for LGBT writers, but we're not going to decide who/what 'counts' as LGBT." That seems to me to be a reasonably fair way of going about this; you don't have to sleep with a certain set of people to fit under the queer umbrella, and I get the sense that the awards committee is aware of this.

At October 10, 2009 at 11:36 AM , Blogger Courtny said...

I like that quote, Emily. I think that's the best way to go about it - give the award to an author who themselves identifies as LGBTQ.

Yes, it does reward being out...but people who are out have taken a big risk and may not be able to get other awards because they're out - so it makes sense to me to have this prize for them.

On more random note, I participated in a Catherynne Valente reading in New Orleans and she was totally awesome.


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