The Tony Awards were only the second-gayest ceremony in town last week, as luminaries from the LGBTQ community gathered Monday, June 12 to celebrate the 29th annual Lambda Literary Awards.
Hosted by multi-genre artist Mx Justin Vivian Bond, the ceremony at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts handed out prizes to 2016’s top authors and books in 22 categories, as well as several honorary awards.
“I’m such a big fan of Jeanette Winterson that any ambivalence I may have had about accepting the daunting challenge of hosting the Lammys was swept away when I was told they would be honoring her and my friend Jacqueline Woodson,” Bond said afterward.
A parade of nominees, presenters, editors, publishers, and friends walked a red carpet for photos, then mingled at a pre-show reception in the lobby.
“I saw a number of my former students among the nominees and in the room,” nominee and presenter Sarah Schulman said. “Queer Mentorship is real, and it is productive, and it bonds us.”
The ceremony’s director, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, said his goal for the evening was to “create an embracing space that celebrates the perseverance and courage of queer writers.”
Michele Karlsberg, recipient of the Publishing Professional Award, said she was grateful for the honor. Karlsberg drives a substantial amount of the PR and marketing in the LGBTQ literary community from her Staten Island office.
“When I help one writer, I help a community,” she said.
Lambda Lit executive director Tony Valenzuela worked his way through the pre-show crowd, stopping to greet people and to impart the news that the City of New York has given a $100,000 grant to the LGBTQ Writers in Schools program.
The evening moved at a brisk pace. The presenters drew frequent applause and laughter for both their scripted and some off-the-cuff remarks. Presenters included Eileen Myles, City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, poet and editor Saeed Jones, comics Jes Tom and Tig Notaro, and many more.
Bond performed a mini-set of three songs, accompanied by Nath Ann Carrera on guitar.
Highlights of the night included the presentation of Visionary Award to Jacqueline Woodson by her friend and neighbor Cynthia Nixon (who’d taken home her own trophy the night before at the Tonys). Woodson, the author of award-winning fiction, poetry, and memoir, was honored for her outstanding body of work.
“She is the writer, friend, and citizen that these times demand,” Nixon said.
Woodson accepted the award with a quote from James Baldwin, saying, “Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can face.” She then talked about how necessary art is in these times.
The times (and the Times) weighed heavy on the evening. Presenter Frank Bruni said that he has been called “an enemy of the American people” as a writer for the “fake” New York Times. He gave the award for LGBTQ nonfiction to David France for “How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of how Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS.” In an unusual reversal, France’s award-winning film begat the book (which also won the Publishing Triangle’s nonfiction award this year).
Jeanette Winterson, the recipient of the Trustee Award for Excellence in Literature Award, received a double-barreled introduction. Sarah Schulman began by talking about how Winterson’s work showed her what queer literature could do, then A.M. Homes (late due to a family emergency) arrived on the scene to continue, praising Winterson as a writer and friend.
“Things need not be the way they are,” Winterson told the crowd. “Life is propositional. Life is a spectrum, not a binary.” She spoke of the experiences that made her a writer, and of her wife, who refers to herself as “post-heterosexual,” which drew a roar of laughter.
Betty Dodson, the author of “Sex for One,” stole the show when she presented the awards for LGBTQ erotica. Dodson, 87, looked at the category and announced, “You gotta add an ‘M’ for masturbators.” She also talked about her own struggles to publish her work, concluding, “I have become rich and famous for masturbating publicly.”
The “In Memoriam” segment drew sighs and applause as the faces of queer artists and allies from Gloria Naylor to Edward Albee flashed onto the screen. The last image, of the victims of the Pulse massacre (exactly one year before) left many in tears.
A few moments later, the audience rose to its feet at another emotional crescendo: when the Lammy was awarded to “The Wind is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde,” written by Dr. Gloria Joseph, the late poet’s partner. Joseph spoke movingly of the promise to Lorde she’d finally fulfilled. With funds raised from a Kickstarter campaign, the volume was brought to print by tiny Villarosa Media, a publishing house run by three generations of African-American women.
Cleve Jones, whose “When We Rise” won the Lammy for Gay Memoir/ Biography, also worked some tear ducts when he talked about how his planned date for the evening, the late artist Gilbert Baker, could not be there. He concluded his speech by saying: “I’m 62, I’m alive and healthy and ready to keep fighting.”
The final awards of the evening were for lesbian and gay fiction, and were presented by Masha Gessen and Ana Castillo (who had won a Lammy earlier in the evening in Bisexual Nonfiction for “Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo and Me”).
Out of the strong lineups of finalists, the winners surprised some and gratified others. Nicole Dennis-Benn took the Lammy for Lesbian fiction for “Here Comes the Sun,” and thanked her teacher, another of the finalists, Lucy Jane Bledsoe. In the final award of the evening, Rabih Alameddine’s “The Angel of History” took the prize for Gay Fiction.
Winners and nominees continued the party at Le Poisson Rouge, where the recently-freed Chelsea Manning made a surprise appearance. It was a satisfying conclusion for Mx Bond.
“She was really sweet and kind to everyone who approached her. Talk about grace!”
The complete list of Lambda Literary Award winners can be found at lambdaliterary.org/features/news/06/13/29th-annual-lambda-literary-award-winners-announced.