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Lambda Literary Foundation marks 25 years of LGBT writers
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Charlsie Dewey
2013-05-28

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On June 3—when the Lambda Literary Foundation hands out its annual Lammy awards to authors in 22 categories for their contributions to the LGBT canon of writing—it will also celebrate its own 25-year history of honoring and supporting these writers.

The organization began in 1987, when gay bookstore owner L. Page (Deacon) Maccubbin established the Lambda Book Report, a review periodical focused exclusively on books published by LGBT writers.

"It was a time where gay bookstores were popping up all over the country," explained Tony Valenzuela, executive director of LLF. "Starting in the '70s, there had been an explosion of LGBT, especially gay and lesbian, but really of LGBT publishing and bookstores.

"There were so many LGBT books coming out and nobody was reviewing them. That was an important service to gay and lesbian authors. Around the same time he felt like the best books of the year should be honored so the first Lambda Awards were held in 1989 for books published in 1988. That was the beginning of the Lambda Literary Foundation."

Hundreds of writers have received Lammys since 1989, including Paul Monette, Dorothy Allison, Edmund White, Jeanette Winterson, Colm Toibin, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Adrienne Rich, Nichola Griffith and Tony Kushner.

The Awards have grown from an initial 14 categories to the 22 categories being recognized this year. Categories have altered over the years, reflecting changes within the LGBT community as well as outside of it.

"When Lambda got started AIDS literature was really central to the community and that's when we had an AIDS category and then that AIDS category dropped off as the epidemic became less central and less of a crisis in our lives," Valenzuela explained.

Bisexual and trans writing categories have also been added, the latter in 1997.

"I do feel like there have been, especially in the last decade, trends that I have seen," Valenzuela said. "YA (young adult) is definitely not a trend in that it is passing, it's a genre that is emerging for LGBT writers and it's huge. It's one of our categories that receives the most book submissions."

He reflected on changing society at large saying, "Some of the books that used to be very controversial like "Heather Has Two Mommies, "those books were always on banned book lists, but now the major publishers, many of them are putting out LGBT YA books every year. That is something that wasn't happening in 1989."

Although society and the publishing industry may be becoming more accepting of LGBT focused writing and LGBT writers, there are still plenty of discouraging stories being swapped about agents encouraging writers to make their books less gay or to keep LGBT characters in supporting roles.

"An organization like LLF is so important because we are promoting and celebrating authors and books that make our lives central to the story and there is a strong market for that," Valenzuela said.

"Lambda Literary Foundation's place in the LGBT literary community is pivotal," said writer Dorothy Allison in an email to WCT. "Writers write and will write even under the most arduous discouraging situations. But it remains a challenge to address our most personal and challenging issues in any deep and considered way.

"We do that best within a community that we recognize and value—and Lambda helps young writers to develop a sense of that. I always ask young writers who they are writing to—and for—and sometimes against. But it is one thing to write to challenge bigotry and hatred and quite another to memorialize or record from within this complex history. Often the best work builds on other books, and other writers—and you have to know those intimately or at least recognize their existence."

Allison has been a Lammy recipient for her work and has also served as an instructor for LLF's Writer's Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices, started in 2007.

"It astonishes me sometimes to meet young would-be writers and find they do not know their own history," Allison explained. "I will mention a book or a writer and they might stare at me blankly, not having heard of either.

"The Emerging Writer's Retreat and the LGBT Writers in Schools programs [another LLF program in its pilot stage] counter that directly. And frankly it brings to the contemporary queer imagination writers who I loved and treasured and lost decades ago—those who helped shape the literature we now have."

The United States has never seen a civil-rights movement move faster than what the LGBT-rights fight has in the last four years, Valenzuela said, pointing out the place that books have in that process.

"Many of us believe that literature plays an important role in telling our stories complexly," Valenzuela said. "A lot of LGBT organizations are civil rights focused and their work are around campaigns and changing laws and changing attitudes, and we feel like, at LLF, that the arts does that too.

"For a lot of people what brings them out into a community is a book. The first time they read Dorothy Allison for example. Or people of my generation, the first time they read Edmund White, or even Paul Monette or Armistead Maupin. Those books changed lives.

"We still believe that is true and we see it. We know that our authors get letters from kids ... that say 'your book made me realize that there is a life for me.' That is still happening. There are a lot of readers out there and a lot of people that the arts are where they find meaning."

LLF has evolved over the years from an organization focused solely on published and established writers to one that now also focuses on beginning and emerging writers. Valenzuela said that LLF now addresses the needs of writers at every stage and he hopes the organization will be able to add more services for all writers as it continues to grow.

During the last few years the organization has seen positive success from its efforts to strengthen its financial footing. Valenzuela points to a doubled membership, increased submissions by nearly 300 and a growing reputation within the industry for its awards.

To help celebrate its history LLF will also release its first eBook, "25 by 25", later this summer. The book includes 25 of the most famous LGBT voices, each with an introduction provided by an emerging voices fellow.

The Lambda Literary Awards will be held in New York City June 3. To learn more about LLF, visit www.lambdaliterary.org .


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