The themes of longevity and change certainly seemed to be on the minds of those who attended the 25th anniversary Lambda Literary Awards held on June 3 at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in the East Village.
Edmund White, the famed godfather of gay literature and a presenter at the ceremony, looked around at the crowd at the opening reception and commented, “Everything about gay life seems so much more exciting and visible than I ever thought we would be. It’s astonishing. It’s become sort of the cause. Everyone is cashing in on it. Every TV show.”
Reflecting back on what he remembers from early literary events in New York, he added, “We would not have had a crowd like this, and so many attractive people and young people."
Songstress Janis Ian, the evening’s headlining entertainer, mirrored White’s opinion. Speaking before the event as the crowd moved into their seats, she said, “I am astonished to see so many gay people in one place, feeling safe. I would never have thought this would have happened in my lifetime.”
Conscious perhaps that she was coming across as too serious, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter of the anti-prom cri de coeur “At 17” about high school insecurities and awkwardness, added, “So many Bulgarians, so little time. Use that as my quote instead.”
Even Kate Clinton, mistress of ceremonies, commented during her opening speech that nowadays, “You can’t swing a King James Bible without hitting someone coming out,” as she talked about the ongoing surge of personal revelations announced by celebrities and athletes. Still, she joked, though she has finally married her longtime partner Urvashi Vaid, she can’t say the word “wife” easily, calling her instead “my wi-fi hot spot.”
Nicknamed the Lammies, the awards program — which coincides with Book Expo America, North America’s largest book conference — recognizes achievement in nearly two-dozen categories.
Many winners thanked their partners or spouses. Among the most moving mention was that by J.M. Redmann, whose book “Ill Will,” published by Bold Strokes Books, won the Lesbian Mystery category. Holding up her hand, newly adorned with a gold wedding band, she announced, “This is the second best thing that happened to me today, because this morning, my partner and I — she put a ring on it.” Redmann added that with same-sex marriage laws being adopted by more and more states, gays and lesbians can be “the heroes in their own stories.”
Tony Valenzuela, executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, reminded the audience that part of the reasoning for choosing the Cooper Union Great Hall for the silver anniversary program was the building’s historic role in a variety of civil rights movements, including birthing the NAACP and hosting women’s suffrage events.
“Abraham Lincoln has spoken at this very podium,” Valenzuela said, tapping his hand against its surface.
Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir “Running With Scissors,” was the recipient of the Board of Trustees Award. He remarked how early in his writing career, gay and lesbian books were relegated to the backs of stores, while now “any store that wants to stay in business puts our books front and center.”
Still, some award recipients reminded the audience how far things still have to go. Author and playwright Cherrie Moraga received the Pioneer Award, and said that title was “a bad choice of words,” one she felt was “associated with a settler.” She preferred calling it the Vanguard Award, because “it means you’re out front, pushing at something, and you’re at war.”
Moraga spoke of mixed identities, saying that in today’s America, as the LGBT community advances, “what is forbidden is Mexican. What is forbidden is Chicano. What is forbidden is to be Indian.” She added that the audience should also “look at trans kids of color” to understand groups unrecognized not only by society’s mainstream, but by most queer people in power as well — including, she suggested, those who planned the Lammies evening. She urged everyone to remember when things were not as easy, because “it’s that discomfort that gives us the ability to know in our sights others’ discomfort.”
Other award recipients included John Irving, author of “The World According to Garp” and many other novels, who received the Bridge Builder Award and was a co-winner in the Bisexual category for “In One Person,” published by Simon & Schuster. Irving spoke of his son Everett’s coming out process. He shared that award with Cheryl Burke for “My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B.,” published by Topside Signature. Burke’s award was given posthumously and accepted by her widowed partner, Kelli Dunham, who called the evening a “miracle.”
The evening’s final category was Gay General Fiction, won by Benjamin Alire Saenz, for his book “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club,” published by Cinco Puntos Press.
A full list of award recipients and finalists is at lambdaliterary.org.
Other celebrity presenters included Randy Jones, the original Village People Cowboy, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, and performer Justin Vivian Bond.
The after-party was held at the Sky Room of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, with Honey Dijon as DJ.