A History of the Lambda Literary Awards

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Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

Lambda Literary nurtures and advocates for LGBTQ writers, elevating the impact of their words to create community, preserve our legacies, and affirm the value of our stories and our lives.”

So reads the Mission Statement of Lambda Literary, the parent group of the Lambda Literary Awards. Are they upholding those values in their literary awards? I’ll take a look back to the origins of the awards, the judging process, and the main controversies that have come up over the years to let you decide for yourself.

The Origin Story of the Lambda Literary Awards

First awarded in 1989, the “Lammys,” as some refer to them, are awarded every year by Lambda Literary. In the 1st Lambda Literary Awards, 14 categories were awarded:

  • AIDS Literature
  • Gay Debut Fiction
  • Gay Fiction
  • Gay Mystery/Science Fiction
  • Gay Nonfiction
  • Gay Small Press
  • Lesbian Debut Fiction
  • Lesbian Fiction
  • Lesbian Mystery/Science Fiction
  • Lesbian Nonfiction
  • Lesbian Small Press
  • Poetry

As you can see, the categories were much more GL than LGBT. Of those original categories, only two remain as-is in 2022: gay fiction and lesbian fiction. The others have either been moved on from entirely, as happened with AIDS literature, or absorbed into other categories, like LGBTQ Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror.

In addition to the primary awards listed above, there are also several special awards. In year one, they were “Editor’s Choice” and “Publisher Service.” Both of these categories were retired in the 11th Lambda Awards and new categories have been added over the years.

Lambda Literary Award Categories Throughout the Years

The most recent awards, the 14th Lambda Literary Awards, have very different categories than those in the first year. In some cases, fans and critics of the awards had to fight to get appropriate awards added. For example, you can read about the successful campaigns for bi and trans awards in the controversy section of this article.

There were 24 awards in 2022:

  1. Bisexual Fiction
  2. Bisexual Nonfiction
  3. Bisexual Poetry
  4. Gay Fiction
  5. Gay Memoir or Biography
  6. Gay Poetry
  7. Gay Romance
  8. Lesbian Fiction
  9. Lesbian Memoir or Biography
  10. Lesbian Poetry
  11. Lesbian Romance
  12. LGBTQ Anthology
  13. LGBTQ Children’s or Middle Grade
  14. LGBTQ Drama
  15. LGBTQ Erotica
  16. LGBTQ Comics
  17. LGBTQ Mystery
  18. LGBTQ Nonfiction
  19. LGBTQ Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror
  20. LGBTQ Studies
  21. LGBTQ Young Adult
  22. Transgender Fiction
  23. Transgender Nonfiction
  24. Transgender Poetry

As you can see, there were separate categories for fiction and nonfiction in both the bisexual and transgender categories. This is not always the case. In some years, not enough titles were submitted in each category to warrant two separate lists. In those cases, there was a single category for bisexual fiction/nonfiction and a single category for transgender fiction/nonfiction.

To confuse the issue further, in some instances the judges were presented with a merged fiction/nonfiction category but chose to award works separately in each category. For instance, in 2013 the judges were given works in a single Bisexual Literature category for the 25th Lambda Literary Awards. They chose to award two winners: In One Person by John Irving won for fiction and My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B by Cheryl Burke for nonfiction.

Eligibility Criteria for Lambda Literary Awards

A work must meet two sets of criteria for the main award categories: general eligibility and category-specific eligibility.

General Eligibility Requirements for the Main Award Categories as of 2022

Works must have been published in bound or collected format in English between January 1st and December 31st of the year for which they are being considered and have been available in bookstores or online in the United States in that year. For example, for the 34th Lambda Literary Awards cover 2021, winners are announced June 2022 and must have been published at some point during 2021.

Note that works translated into English and works by self-published authors are eligible.

Works that are ineligible include those that were published exclusively on subscriber-based sites. This includes Wattpad, blogs, newsletters, and Patreon. Authors who publish in this way can become eligible by later publishing an edition online or in acceptable ebook format.

Other ineligible works include reprints of books that were previously published in the United States and modified versions of books that were previously published in the United States.

The Awards are Open to Authors of Any Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity

In 2009, those behind the curtain at the Awards decided that only authors who identified as LGBTQ would be eligible to win awards. In 2011 they reversed this decision and instead decided to honor LGBTQ authors with special awards.

LGBT authors will be recognized with three awards marking stages of a writer’s career: the Betty Berzon Debut Fiction Award (to one gay man and one lesbian), the Jim Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize (to one male-identified and one female-identified author), and the Pioneer Award (to one male-identified and one female-identified individual or group). Awards for the remaining Lambda Literary Award categories will be based on literary merit and significant content relevant to LGBT lives. These awards will be open to all authors regardless of their sexual identity. The award judges will still be self-identified LGBT.

As of 2022, the Betty Berzon Debut Fiction Award and Pioneer Awards are no longer given. However, the Jeanne Córdova Prize, established in 2018, is given to a lesbian/queer-identified woman or trans/gender non-conforming nonfiction author “committed to nonfiction work that captures the depth and complexity of lesbian/queer life, culture, and/or history.”

Category-Specific Requirements for the Main Award Categories as of 2022

To be eligible for a specific category, a work must have a prominent character related to the category for which it is being submitted and/or cover topics that are significant to the category for which it is being submitted. It must also meet the literary category.

For example, to qualify for the LGBTQ Erotica category, the work must feature LGBTQ characters or topics and must quality as erotica.

Requirements for Special Awards

While the general awards are open to authors of any and all sexual orientations and gender identities, the special awards are given for more specific criteria that might reduce the number of eligible authors.

The Judging Process

I spoke under cover of darkness and promise of anonymity with a prior judge of the awards. They judged fairly recently (less than a decade ago). I will be slightly changing some details and redacting elements that would help identify them. I wasn’t kidding about the cover of darkness!

Here is what they said about the judging process:

“It was back in 201X, so I’m not sure how much has changed. The Lambda Awards reached out to me and I was on the [redacted] category with [a few] other people. We had to read all of the books submitted in full. We had 30 titles submitted. Books started to come in October and were all in by January. We had to have a long list by Feb 1st, a short list by March 1st, and a winner by March 15th.

We were given a sample review sheet to rate books on with categories for language, characterization, plot, style, originality, editing, research, clarity, adherence to genre, and editing, but we didn’t have to use it (and I know I didn’t). We had a video call to discuss after we’d all read the books.

We all submitted our top 12 for the long list and the ones we were unanimous on automatically made the list, then we discussed the others. In the video call, we talked about our final winner and short list. The info I was given said usually there are several calls to finalize the order. The impression I got was that each category had quite a bit of leeway in how they make the decision, but that the two top considerations are the LGBTQ representation in the story and the literary quality.”

You can also read the Lambda’s “official” Judging Guidelines, but it has not been updated since 2012.

Lambda Literary Awards Controversies

Over the years, the Lambda Literary Awards have repeatedly been disrespectful of various queer identities.

That Time Bisexual People Spoke Out and Were Deemed Lesbians by the Lambda Literary Awards

In 1992, Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out was nominated. The problem? It was forced to compete in the Lesbian Nonfiction category. Despite the many requests by those in the bi community (and our allies, I hope), the Lambda did not add any categories for bisexual writers until 14 years after they’d been giving out awards — in 2002!

Poetry by a Bisexual Poet Wins in the Lesbian Poetry Category

In 2005, Directed by Desire: Collected Poems, written by June Jordan, a bisexual woman, was forced into the Lesbian Poetry category. It went on to win, but one has to wonder how much of an honor it is to give an award to a work that’s not even part of the category for which it’s being awarded. Unfortunately, we will never know how the poet felt because the award was given after her death.

The Lambda Literary Awards Finally Create a Bisexual Literature Category — in 2006

Even when they did add a bisexual category in 2002, they merged it with the transgender category into a single “Transgender or Bisexual” category in which fiction, nonfiction, anthology, and poetry from both groups had to compete in a single category. In 2003, there was again no place for bisexual literature to complete, a trend which continued for several years.

It wasn’t until the 19th Lambda Literary Awards, given for works published in 2006, that there was a separate bisexual literature category.

The Awards Have a History of Disrespect Toward the Trans Community, Too

In 2004, a book by J. Michael Bailey was a finalist in the Transgender category. There were a number of issues with this. For one, four trans women involved in the research filed complaints against him — two for sexual misconduct and two because he had not obtained consent to include them in his book.

There was also significant transphobic content in the book itself. The trans community protested, gathered many thousands of petition signatures, and demanded answers from the Lambda Literary Awards. The judges for the foundation looked at the book again, agreed that there was transphobic content, and subsequently removed its inclusion as a finalist.

Less than a year later, the executive director involved in approving the book for inclusion resigned and Charles Flowers took over. He claims to have “completely overhauled” the nomination process to ensure no similar issues in the future.

An Author Loses Her Lambda Nomination Due to Her Response To Transgender Critics

In 2022, Lauren Hough was submitted for consideration in the Lesbian Memoir category for Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing. It was soon removed from contention after an uproar over a series of tweets in which Hough defended a friend’s forthcoming book from accusations that it was transphobic. Lambda Literary had this to say about removing the book:

“In a series of now-deleted tweets, Lauren Hough exhibited what we believed to be a troubling hostility toward transgender critics and trans-allies and used her substantial platform — due in part to her excellent book — to harmfully engage with readers and critics. As an L.G.B.T.Q. organization, we cannot knowingly reward individuals who exhibit disdain and disrespect for the autonomy of an entire segment of the community we have committed ourselves to supporting.”

Cleopatra Acquaye and Maxwell Scales, Lambda Literary’s interim co-executive directors

What is the Future of the Lambda Literary Awards?

There is no question that the LGBT world has changed since these awards were introduced in 1989. Based on the controversies it has been involved in, and its refusal to add clearly needed categories for years and years, there is also no question that the Lambda organization has not historically been ahead of the curve in keeping up with those changes.

As evidenced by the removal of Lauren Hough’s book, those behind the scenes of the award now do seem to be more willing to listen to the community and follow their lead. But is that enough?

This is of course up to each reader to determine. Personally, I have loved many of the books on the most recent lists of finalists and winners. I would hate to see incredible authors lose this platform for reaching their base. But I’d also hate to see those same authors disrespected by the awards that should be hurting them. My hope is that those who are leading the company are more sensitive to the needs of the LGBTBQI+ community than leaders of their past.