BY MICHAEL LUONGO | America’s LGBT literati descended on New York for the 27th annual Lambda Literary Awards held June 1 in the historic Great Hall of Cooper Union in Lower Manhattan.
Writer Perry Brass said he has attended the awards from nearly the very beginning, commenting that the event “has preserved the glamour of the gay book world. You have so many talented people all in one room at one time.”
Tony Valenzuela, Lambda Literary Foundation executive director, said approximately 575 people bought tickets for the evening, making it the largest crowd in the group’s history.
Among the highlights for Valenzuela was that eight fellows from Lambda Literary’s writers retreat were finalists this year, the largest number ever. Another high point for him was the awarding of the group’s Pioneer Award to Rita Mae Brown.
“I remember that Rita Mae Brown meant so much to so many writers’ lives,” he said. “It was all the more special to have Gloria Steinem introduce her. They have been friends for over 40 years.”
Steinem, a leading feminist since the early 1970s, was exuberant in her introduction of the “Rubyfruit Jungle” author, describing her as “fan-fucking-tastic.”
Brown framed her remarks in the context of profoundly American principles. After reading the Constitution’s First Amendment, she said, “We are born of the Enlightenment… Jefferson dreamed of you. Fulfill the dream.”
Later, at the afterparty held in Scholastic Publishing’s Soho rooftop terrace, Brown returned to the theme of past presidents’ legacies, saying, “It’s interesting to be in Cooper Union where Lincoln gave his speech. That was exciting.”
She added, “I really enjoyed being at the awards and seeing all the young writers who were there. You pray it will help their careers.”
Writer and filmmaker John Waters received Lambda Literary’s Trustee Award for Excellence in Literature, presented to him by columnist Liz Smith. Smith reminded the audience that among Waters’ famous phrases was that “if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
That comment prompted Waters to say that a highlight of the event for him was that “I got to hear Liz Smith say the word fuck tonight.”
Recalling his career journey, Waters remarked that his only real job was working at a bookstore in Provincetown. He dedicated his award to the owners of that shop.
Comedian Kate Clinton once again served as the evening’s emcee, and she spared no humor in introducing Waters, Smith, Brown, Steinem, and a host of other celebrity presenters and award recipients.
Among the boldfaced names on hand was Janet Mock, whose book “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More” (Atria Books) was up for an award for Transgender Non-Fiction.
The category was won by Thomas Page McBee for “Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man” (City Lights/ Sister Spit). McBee thanked his mother, who died last year, saying, “I hope she’s watching this and excited not just for this but for everything going on for trans people right now.”
New York Times columnist Charles Blow won the Bisexual Non-Fiction Award for his book “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Actor Alan Cumming, who was one of the evening’s presenters, was also a finalist in the Bisexual Non-Fiction category for his book “Not My Father’s Son” (HarperCollins Publishers/ Dey Street Books).
Martin Duberman, who won the award for LGBT Non-Fiction for “Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS” (the New Press), joked that he received the award because, “I am by far the oldest person here, and they are probably thinking…” As he trailed off, he began to laugh. His remarks then took a serious turn when he reminded the audience that his book looked at “the very different way the white gay and the black gay communities had to deal with AIDS.”
“Privilege ended up where it usually does,” he noted.
Musical entertainment was provided by singer Toshi Reagon as well as by Lauren Patten from the Broadway show “Fun Home.” Alison Bechdel, author of the book “Fun Home” on which the show is based and the recipient of a special Board of Trustees award for excellence at last year’s event, was one of the evening's presenters.
Continuity was a theme that pervaded the evening, with many of those on stage remarking about the ongoing legacy of older writers influencing newcomers. When Tim Federle, whose book “Five, Six, Seven, Nate!” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) won the LGBT Children’s/ Young Adults category, he held up a copy of comedian Bob Smith’s book “Openly Bob” (HarperCollins) and dedicated the award to him.
Other speakers emphasized the diversity of the LGBT writing community. Danez Smith, who won the Poetry category for his book “[insert] boy” (YesYes Books), said, “Thank you to all the queers. And the black ones and the brown ones.” The visibility of queer writers of color, he said, “shows the power” of recent changes in the LGBT writing world.
Abdi Nazemian, who won the LGBT Debut Fiction category for his book “The Walk-In Closet” (Curtis Brown Unlimited), is of Iranian descent and commented that he was happy to receive the award because “there is not a lot of conversation about being gay and Middle Eastern.”
The Lambda Literary Awards are timed to coincide with Book Expo America, held this year at the Javits Convention Center. Several LGBT publishers participated in the Expo this year, including Cleis Press, Dreamspinner Press, and German publisher Bruno Gmünder. Next year’s Book Expo will be in Chicago.
More on the Lambda Literary Awards, including a full list of the evening’s winners, is at lambdaliterary.org.