First of all, I feel I must apologize for posting this on TUESDAY. I was originally going to call this blog “Countdown to MONDAY” (as a reference to my upcoming book, and as a nod to the schedule I promised myself I’d keep of at least one blog post a week…!) But I woke up yesterday convinced that it was SUNDAY. My son had had a sleepover so I slept past 6:30 a.m., a blessing that made me feel as if I were a teenager again. I was just pouring myself coffee when a friend called to say “where are you??” I had promised to meet him at the local tennis courts to work out. “SORRY!” I blurted out, gulping the coffee. “I’ll be right there!!!” And that’s how my day went…! C’est la guerre. Oui?

Today I took the train into the city, reading THE HORN BOOK Magazine ( ), and I was fascinated to read Ellen Wittlinger’s article, “Too Gay? Or Not Gay enough?” In it she laments the fact that the Lambda Literary Foundation ( has changed the rules for its literary award, so that it is granted to an author who identifies as LBGT, rather than a book that portrays the LGBT experience In explaining the shift, Ellen likens the new terms to those of the Coretta Scott King Awards, which are granted to African American authors and artists, rather than books that portray the African American experience. My understanding of the goal of the CSK awards is that they are intended to support and honor writers and artists who are part of a community whose artistic achievements have been (woefully) under-recognized. The Lambda Literary Foundation’s previous terms (Ellen goes on to say) were more like those of the Sidney Taylor Awards which recognize books portraying the Jewish experience without regard to the writer’s religion. The goal for this type of award, I think, is to encourage a broader inclusion of Jewish characters and themes in all literature, and to help identify such books to an interested audience.

From where I sit, both these outcomes are good ones: I think it’s a good, valid, and fair thing for any group to establish an award that recognizes the contributions of people in that group. I also think that it’s a fantastic thing to encourage the production of literature that reflects the true diversity of our culture, and speaking for myself, from a multiple-minority perspective, I’m only concerned with how real, how authentic the characters (and their settings) FEEL to me, which has more to do with the writer’s skill and empathy and sensitivity than anything else. (In other words, Ellen, you’re exactly gay enough for me!)

I guess, from my perspective as an editor and a reader, I also see, in practical terms, how far we have to go before our literature even begins to reflect the complex world of TODAY, let alone the comfortably integrated, harmonious world I wish my child to see. How else to explain why, in 2010, I had to ask an experienced and fantastically talented artist why it was that his sketches reflected a world that was entirely Caucasian. Was that his intention? I asked him. Was he making a comment on this world, that all the adults and children were white? (It wasn’t his intention, it turned out, and he was happy to have his cast be a great deal more diverse.)

How else to explain why, in 2010, in manuscripts that are submitted to me almost all the characters I see who are Jewish, seem to live in the shtetls of 18th Century Eastern Europe? (Except for those who are the victims of Nazis in World War II). Not that those aren’t perfectly reasonable times and setting to explore. But really? Are there NO JEWS in contemporary America who fret about going to the mall and finding the makings of a Haman or Queen Esther costume that is flattering to the figure as well as acceptable in a Purim carnival?

How else to explain why, in 2010, writers are still feeling compelled to send the gay ex-boyfriends of their protagonists to fiery deaths in auto-accidents?? Can’t the protagonist just cry on the shoulder of his best friend, eat too many donuts and make vicious comments about the ex behind his back? Even better; can’t they just fall in love and have it be amazingly wonderful and imperfect and full of insecure parties and hand-holding-while-watching-tv-sit-coms?

To be clear: I’m really not suggesting that these particular plot points are things “I am looking for.” It’s the natural inclusiveness that I long for, where what makes a character a “minority” is not portrayed as pathology, but shown clearly and precisely through the diamond-sharp lens of character specificity.

Is that too much to ask?

65 thoughts on “Inclusion

  1. Ellen’s article in HORN BOOK was terrific, and brought up many great points, as you do here. Arthur, keep asking. We’re getting there, but still have a long way to go.

    1. Lupe, I just have to say, this created a lovely image in my mind, of people making picnics and rappelling between the pages… 🙂 Cheers, Maia

      1. Lupe on my way down the page to comment on Arthur’s terrific post I have to stop to say that your comment is simply beautiful.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful, substantive piece. I wonder if we’re going to get to the point where proving one’s bona fides might get weird. As you mention, we are an increasingly pluralistic, hybrid-ish populace. Could an author or artist, due to any combination of factors, be deemed not gay or black enough for awards that require these sorts of criteria? That said, I kinda agree that both stances (i.e. written by/written about) have some validity, as we still have a long ways to go.

  3. Love “…where what makes a character a “minority” is not portrayed as pathology, but shown clearly and precisely through the diamond-sharp lens of character specificity.” Yes, please keep asking. Going to check out the Horn Book piece now.

  4. There are a lot more insidious things afoot than just sexual preference or racial identity. For example, a straight boy who decides to be an intellectual or artist often prefers to spend time reading, researching, or creating rather than playing football or some other tag of masculinity. They are likely to be threatened with “are you becoming gay?” I am working on my first book now with such characters and I have to worry every day, “Will the book get jerked from the hands of kids because the boys and girls in the book don’t fit the stereotypical plan laid out for boys and girls”. Or will it be considered a book on gay boys simply because many of the boys cry and hug (and boys are not supposed to have that kind of emotional response to things). Gender based stereotypes for both boys and girls do more than persecute gay/lesbian people. They force an insidious kind of violence to be perpetrated on straight boys and and girls, as a particular stereotypical cultural/behavioral model is crammed down their throats, so to speak. Because of the strong and punitive nature of gender issues, it makes it very difficult for a first time author writing something that touches these issues, outside of the normal anxiety of just wondering if one’s writing will be accepted in the first place.

    1. Rusty, I don’t think you have to worry. Sensitive boys (and strong girls) are a common occurrance in literature for young people. See Lisa Yee’s ABSOLUTELY MAYBE, Francisco Stork’s MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD and many, many others.

    2. Thank you for your perspective and book project that challenges the macho/cheerleader as the only acceptable ideal for young people. I have taught many kids and reared two, and I agree that the damage that stereotyping does is great. The only thing for it, in my opinion, is parents, other relatives, and teachers– and all adults’ efforts to counteract it– day by day, year by year, by taking whatever type of kid each kid is– seriously, respectfully, and lovingly.

  5. Hi Arthur (and all),

    Debbie Reese and I have been talking over the past day about Wittlinger’s column, so I was glad when she pointed me to your blog post this morning. I am still formulating my thoughts about all of this, but I feel secure in saying that I disagree with Wittlinger’s position and some of the comments made in (and in response to) your blog post. What follows isn’t a full response, but I hope it’s enough for now to “push” the conversation and keep folks talking and thinking.

    There are more LGBT characters featured in American children’s and YA literature than there have been in the past. But, as you and Wittlinger note, LGBT people continue to be woefully underrepresented in children’s and adolescent literature. I’ve tried to argue in some of my professional writing that mere representation of LGBT people is not enough. In a 2008 article, I write, “the time has come to move beyond accepting any representation and begin looking for depictions that reflect for gay adolescent readers the possibilities of who they can become” (p. 259). This is about who these readers can become, but also about who they already are today (Crisp & Knezek, 2010). Despite increased representations in literature, problematic depictions still abound. In your blog, you note the fiery car crashes, but I would also point to the all-too easy and prevalent representations of gay males who “cry on the should of his best friend, eat too many donuts and make vicious comments about the ex behind his back.” This particular trope of gay male sexual identity relies upon problematic literary constructions of the “female” (representations that have been widely criticized by feminist scholars and critics) and builds upon the stereotype of gay males as “feminine” (this perspective seems to be mirrored in the comment by Rusty in response to your blog–I actually think Rusty’s comments deal more with gender stereotypes than with the topic at hand, which is the representation of people with LGBT self-identities [also note “identity” as opposed to “preference” as is used in Rusty’s post]). Gay identity is not just about sex or romance–self-identifying as LGBT is about more than whom I sleep with. There are gay cultures, lesbian cultures, bisexual cultures, trans cultures and who better to write about those experiences and identities than those who self-identify as members of those populations? (After all, self-identifying as a gay male is not the same as self-identifying as a lesbian female). It is time to think more critically and carefully about the ways in which LGBT people are depicted. The Lambda Literary Award began by recognizing representations produced by any author and has now decided to focus on those representations created by “insiders”–those people who may know best how to create “authentic” and “accurate” representations. Those that may give the feeling you describe in your blog post. Of course, this is–and will continue to be–debated: articles and books have been written debating insider/outsider status and authorship.

    Here is what Wittlinger glosses over in her column: she argues that the award is now for LGBT authors. It is. But, the Lambda Literary foundation states that it is “rewarding and promoting excellence among LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives.” It is an award for people who self-identify as “insiders” writing about their own population. LLF has chosen to define LGBT literature as those books by and about LGBT people. This does not discourage authors from including LGBT characters in her books, however, simply because a book contains LGBT characters does not necessarily make it “LGBT literature.” For example, Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower has a gay-identified supporting character, but I would not consider it to be “LGBT literature.”

    Wittlinger writes that “there is a price to pay for being an ally,” and I am certain that there is. However, she has the privilege of choosing to be an ally. Those who self-identify as LGBT are regularly and routinely confronted with “sickish smiles” from people who “[move] away quickly once introductions were made.” During the festival in which Wittlinger experienced this discrimination, she got a little taste of the treatment LGBT people face on a daily basis. Of course, I am saddened that she experienced this–and amazed and disappointed that no one came to her talk or book signing even out of curiousity (i.e., “Do you know who that woman is? Me neither. Let’s go talk to her and see who she is.”) However, this is but a small taste of what LGBT people deal with everyday. Wittlinger later writes that “at this moment in history, as sexual identity becomes less of an issue in the culture, it seems strange to me that it’s becoming more of an issue for the Lambda awards committee.” I see heterosexual privilege here: it is easy for her to say that sexual identity is less of an issue. I am not allowed to marry my partner because he and I have the same sexual identity. In fact, in our state, we are not allowed to adopt children. We are not allowed to serve openly in the military. I am confronted with glares or laughter if I give him a goodbye hug in the airport. My neighbors have left anti-gay propaganda on my doorstep. Simply because I am gay, there are people I don’t even know who hate me. I am called a “fag” by strangers on a regular basis.

    I think it is outrageous for Wittlinger to claim that “as a straight author I am at a disadvantage when it comes to announcing my books to their intended audience.” For me, this is similar to a White author who claims discrimination for not being included in the “multicultural” canon or who cannot win the Coretta Scott King award. It is equally problematic for her to write that she suspects self-identifying as LGBT will “not [she suspects] be a problem for younger writers, for whom sexual identity seems to be more fluid. Maybe someday we’ll all define ourselves as bisexual and everyone will be eligible for a Lambda award.” This statement seems dismissive of the identities and the work of LGBT authors and the “melting pot” mentality she advocates seems ignorant of what it means (in contemporary US culture) to identify specifically as “bisexual” and, by extension, LGT.

    Wittlinger claims that “I was just too darn gay for that town.” The problem was that her books were too gay. It’s clear that her sexual identity was widely known–even the head librarian states he notified the district office that she was married to a man and had two children. She was not too gay–that treatment was not about her, it was about her books. LGBT authors face this discrimination about their books and about who they are as people. Wittlinger identifies half her novels in print as having LGBT content, which means that half her books depict normative sexual identities: she can be invited to schools and libraries on the basis or recognition of those books. It’s phenomenal that she refuses to censor answering questions as they arise about her LGBT books, but what about LGBT-identified authors who are indelibly linked to their identities–what about David Levithan or Nancy Garden?

    1. Thomas, thanks for your passionate and thoughtful response to my post. Your feelings are undeniable and you state them well.

      I’m sorry you feel that it’s stereotypical for a gay boy (or man) to cry on his best friend’s shoulder and to gripe to that friend about the jerk who dumped him, while eating donuts. I guess I just have to confess to stereotypical behavior then! (I will say also that in my experience with friends: straight boys, lesbians, and straight women have all participated with gusto in this self-same behaviors after difficult break-ups. LOL. As Carly Simon sings it: “It happens every day/after you break up/you say these words to your friends: ‘How could I have loved that boy he was so bad to me in the end?’/Well you make him a liar/turn him into a robber/it happens every day.” And who can argue with Carly? 🙂

      In any case, my point was only that in the “real” world, gay kids often have relationships with no larger consquences than straight kids. I.e. they fall in love, the break up, it hurts, they heal, life goes on. That happened for me — in the 1970’s!!

      And I’d like to see that more often; being an LGBT kid has its own huge challenges. But it also has joys and ordinary concerns. Often concerns that have nothing to do with their sexual identities. Let’s see the full spectrum.

    2. You are right that to truly write deeply about LGBT one would have to be gay/lesbian. Similarly, to write deeply about being an intellectual child and have a sexual identity crammed down your throat, you would have to be one. The point which I didn’t get across is that “tags” are harmful. Worse, is having your ability to, say parent, be determined by the tag. There are many tags that exclude people from being an adoptive parent: being to old, too young, religion, race, sexual preference, ….
      The core issue being debated implicitly in the culture is: should people be tagged and have their rights dictated by that tag. Unfortunately, the answer is absolutely yes, for a significant number of people. And I think, while it may make perfect sense for the Lamda Literary Society to change the rules, the author of the article’s implicit point, is that the change increased the strength of the tag.

  6. Prior to reading Wittlinger’s column, I read an opinion piece by Gary Y. Okihiro in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION called “The Future of Ethnic Studies” that provides some context for the insider/outsider discussion that is at the heart of Wittlinger’s column. Though the focus of his piece is on ethnic studies and the analysis of power relations that is at its foundation(s), he also discusses homophobia. I’m thinking through what he says and will share some of what he said here.

    The great threat to ethnic studies, Okihiro writes, is:

    “from liberals who have derailed the field’s radical challenges into a celebration of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, or into a transnational project that loses specificity and, some might add, responsibility even as it attempts to grapple with the ideas and realities of the present moment. No longer centrally at stake are the nation-state and its particular history and formations of conquest and extermination, land appropriation and labor exploitation, regimes of inclusion and exclusion, and expansion and imperialism. Deliberately blunted is the political edge of ethnic studies, with its focus on power and demands for a more inclusive and just republic (and university) through a dismantling of hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.”

    In my view, he’s talking right to Wittlinger and established writers who engage in the celebration of diversity and multiculturalism. They are people with good intentions. That’s a given. And many are good writers, too. But! We all stand to gain so much more from books written by insiders. Why is the field so resistant to that development?

    Is Wittlinger REALLY going to suffer by not having her books considered for the award? How does her suffering stand when placed alongside the experiences of a gay writer? She takes a poke at how identity will be determined. Many in the field suggest that it is not worthwhile to deal with those who will misrepresent their identity for the sake of being eligible for an award, but, isn’t it worth the time to actually TALK about THAT, too? American Indian identity is a can of worms, but I think we have to open those cans…

    Tom Crisp does a fine job of laying out his life experiences. He doesn’t have to imagine or conduct research about what that life is like.

    I hope readers of this blog will go over to the CHRONICLE site and read “The Future of Ethnic Studies.” It has much to think over and apply to our work in children’s literature. Here’s the link:

    Debbie Reese

    1. Thank you, Debbie. I think it’s great to think these issues through; indeed, I suspect that was the motivation for the Horn Book in asking Ellen Wittlinger to write about what she did. It’s also very reasonable too, to debate the issue that is central to her argument which is that she, a straight woman, should be eligible for the Lambda Literary Award, which recently changed it’s criteria to make the award be one given specifically to an LGBT writer. (I do think it’s important to remember that the LLF did change this criteria and that their position on this issue has varied over time, indicating that there is not necessarily uniformity of stance even at the organization giving the award.)

      I don’t think it’s productive or necessary to create a division or hierarchy of preference about which writers create LGBT characters in general — those on the “inside” or the “outside.” As a reader I am concerned with the credibility of the CHARACTERS, the settings, the relationships because these are the things that affect my enjoyment of the story, not the sexual preference of the author.

      From where I sit, it’s the paucity of stories crossing my desk that contain LGBT characters at all (whether from writers who identify as LGBT or not), that is the first obstacle to getting those stories published. And the second is the powerful forces of book-banning that rise against us when these ARE published. (Book banners, by the way, don’t care if the author is gay or straight as far as I can tell. They came out in force against HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES and ANNIE ON MY MIND, much more than against Leslea Newman specifically, or Nancy Garden and I don’t think that would have made a bit of difference had those books been written by, say, Straight Picture Book author X or Ellen Wittlinger.)

      Every writer has to use his or her imagination. Even Tom Crisp, if he’s writing a novel, has to combine hs experience with his empathy and creativity if he wants to tell a story effectively. He can’t have BEEN every character in a book, even his OWN BOOK; he’s going to have to make a leap and create characters that are different from him or else he’ll be placing a truly impossible burden of limitation on himself.

      To me the challenge is to bring the story he imagines to LIFE. We need ALL those stories.

      That was definitely MY point in my blog post. 🙂

    2. @Debbie Reese: I’m loving this conversation–I think it’s really important. This is an interesting point. However, if GLBT authors write stronger books than allies because of their life experiences, then there is no need to exclude allies from the category because the Lambda, by definition, will always be won by someone GLBT, right?

      I would also like to respond to Arthur’s point about his desire to see more books with gay characters facing challenges that don’t necessarily have to do with sexual identity. I co-authored such a book–M or F?–and the response was fascinating. Reviewers didn’t really know what to do with a gay character who was comfortable being gay, and with a comic book that wasn’t trying to be overtly political. But the YA readers got it. Many teens are way ahead of us on this issue. Even my niece–a conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim–has a gay best friend.

      Anyway–I love all you smart, thoughtful people!

  7. This is a very interesting discussion that is relevant to my current undergraduate teaching in a faculty of education where diversity courses of some sort are required. One of them is Aboriginal education at the foundational level or Aboriginal perspectives which include in the pedagogy of incorporating aboriginal cultural processes and etc. across the curriculum so that it becomes integrated across the subject matter. This is bewildering to most students because they haven’t even considered the fact that Aboriginal cultures of the Americans have anything of value to offer. Their bewilderment turns to anger when I have them read Erdich’s Omakayas books to eachother to get the feel of life before residential/boarding schools, or ask them to visit a site of Aboriginal education or programming in the city or find on line resources about Aboriginal popular culture which is not part of their daily lives, etc etc. They become angry because they don’t know anything positive or everyday and ordinary about Aboriginal people because its a gap in their lives, in their education. It becomes increasingly critical that insiders write about their own experiences because empathy isn’t enough…we can’t just map from one moral regime to another, one legal regime to another, one religous regime to another, one heritage to another. in an era of diversity each voice is unique…there might be some commonalities but each voice becomes unique as a fingerprint…do we say…hey…there is a fingerprint…get the damned finger prints off my mirror…or do we look at the fingerprint and say…that is a unique pattern….

  8. Given the ever-increasing string of initials that define queer identity–the Lambda rules say you can be L, G, B, or T–it seems to me contradictory to get all essentialist about an author’s sexual orientation. But maybe my point of view is defined by my OWN orientation–a reader–than Lambda’s, which is more concerned with what writers–specifically, its member writers–want.

    1. @Roger: I also think it’s an interesting choice that the Lambda Literary Foundation has made. Of course, LLF has to be aware of modifiers like “LGBTQ” which include “queer” identities and are less essentialist in terms of identity categories. Their choice serves their new purpose of awarding exemplary LGBT content by LGBT authors. As you note, their choice to limit it to “LGBT” may also line up with the mission to meet the needs/desires of their writer-members. I’m going to investigate a bit more to see what I can learn about membership.

      Lots of really interesting perspectives on this thread (on all sides of the argument and in between). I’m enjoying reading the conversation and hope to contribute more soon.

  9. My point of view is defined by my identity as a reader, too, but a reader who is Pueblo Indian who knows that most books about American Indians are a mess. They’re that way for several reasons. Seemingly benign author bias and author ignorance generally result in racist and derogatory portrayals of American Indians, especially when writers write from a position that blindly heralds the United States as a glorious country, a position that justifies the wars against American Indians, a position that does not critically examine US government policies that sought to assimilate and eliminate American Indians and our ways of life.

    Writers will turn to research sources that were created by people with their own ignorance and bias, thereby creating a cycle of misinformation. As a result, it is difficult to create or see a sustained difference in how American Indians are portrayed in children’s books, particularly when there is such resistance to our voices, many of them overtly political.

    I see many parallels between our experience and that of LBGT people. We are living in an overtly anti-gay society with laws that govern what LGBT people can and cannot do. Because of this anti-gay climate, I think it is imperative that we ask–no, demand–books by LGBT writers that we can hand to young people who are LGBT. A terrific book by Wittlinger is a good one to hand to a student who is gay, but one by a gay writer affirms that student’s identity in ways that Wittlinger’s book just can’t do because she is not gay.

    We all believe in the power of words. Who writes those words can be equally powerful.

  10. I’m glad to see the article being debated, as I knew it would be. I’d like to respond primarily to Mr. Crisp’s comments.

    That vast majority of books honored by the Lambda award over the years have been by LGBT authors, so I imagine that those few straight authors so honored must have moved well beyond “mere re presentation of LGBT people.” Otherwise, why recognize them?

    Mr. Crisp says, “self-identifying as a gay male is not the same as self-identifying as a lesbian female,” and yet the award criteria don’t disallow the nomination of a book about a gay person written by a lesbian. Following your logic, how does a lesbian understand the gay experience better than a straight person?

    I am not unaware that my experience in South Carolina is one many LGBT people face much more often than I do. Of course there is still discrimination–I would never say otherwise–but I stand by my statement that things are better today than they were 20-30 years ago. In some states (mine!) gay and lesbian people can marry and adopt children, there are GSAs in schools across the country, and David Levithan can write books about hilarious gay football players which are read and loved by gay and straight teens alike.

    My assertion that “maybe someday we’ll all define ourselves as bisexual” was not meant to be flippant. Among my daughter’s 30-ish friends there is an ethos of not tagging themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, but rather being open to any possibility or person. I see this as a huge change in the culture.

    Finally, Arthur, thank you for stating it so clearly–an author cannot possibly have been every character she writes about. If I were confined to writing about middle-aged straight white women I would t urn off my computer! Writing novels is all about putting yourself into the heads and hearts of people who are NOT you.

    And Arthur, I’m glad I’m gay enough for you.

    Ellen Wittlinger

    1. “My assertion that “maybe someday we’ll all define ourselves as bisexual” was not meant to be flippant. Among my daughter’s 30-ish friends there is an ethos of not tagging themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, but rather being open to any possibility or person. I see this as a huge change in the culture.” — EW

      Yes, exactly. Coming out the late 80’s was a real pain, not so much from straight folks, but from the lesbian feminist community, which was intolerant of its bisexual members. These days many more folks are able to acknowledge a full range of human emotion and desire.

      I do see this as *very* different than cultural identification. I cannot “admit my inner Greek” and thus become Greek — I may move to the islands and perhaps become immigrant Greek over time, but I cannot simply acknowledge my Greek desires and become Greek. In contrast, many of us suppress our sexuality until a time when we feel safe – or something rocks our world enough that we allow ourselves to acknowledge parts of ourselves we couldn’t before. This is a self-definition, not a cultural stamp. It is who we find ourselves to be within.

      How exactly are we going to define who is and who is not “gay enough”? If a female author married to a male doesn’t seem to qualify, does she have to put forth her previous relationships? (We just got a little silly around here – my husband suggested that you had to be card-carrying, and then I thought of testimonials from previous lovers: “Yes, it was REALLY good, so she counts…”) Or if a female author is married to a trans-now-man author, or is trans herself, does she have to out that too?

      Do we have such a plethora of loudly identified Lesbian Gay Bi Trans (probably not queer, ’cause anyone who would write these books would have to be queer) authors that we can afford this infighting?

      When will folks clue in to the fact that “Ally” allows people in any given current state to support lesbian and gay and bi and trans relationships/people, without having to stamp themselves into a little box that might or might not fit? That plenty of Allies are as queer as the folks with whom they are allied?

      In the end, it comes down to the kids, for me. Kids need more good books about those sexual, romantic, passionate, and loving feelings and experiences that transcend male-female dichotomies. Kids are starving for these books. When you have folks like Ellen writing them, and when those of us who are GLBTQ can attest to what those books have meant to us, shouldn’t we all be allying to get those books into the hands of more kids who might feel a little safer than we did?

      The “you’re not gay enough” argument feels like a flashback 20 years… and not to one of our community’s wisest moments in time.

      Cheers, Maia

  11. Not to throw the cat among the pigeons, but let’s please consider WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, which surely — surely! — will be a contender in the category this year. Is David Levithan eligible, but John Green not? How does anybody wrap their mind around that?

    1. While this discussion is interesting discourse it does raise so many questions. I agree with Nancy’s question and would add, what if a currently apparently non-eligible author later recognizes that he or she is in fact gay or lesbian? And apparently if an author refuses to self-identify then that author is ineligible? While the Lambda Literary Foundation certainly has the right to set its own rules, as a current and former (and hopefully future) member of several literary award committees I shudder at the thought of having to ferret out the sexual, racial, ethnic, cultural, dietary, etc. habits for the authors whose books I am enjoying.

  12. When I was working at a gay bookstore here in Washington, D.C., I was told that the Q in LGBTQ stood for “questioning” and was intended to include people who were not sure what their sexual identity was. Maybe Ms. Wittlinger suggests (I believe her suggestion was at least partially tongue-in-cheek) will prove to be true, that in the future we will all be bisexual.

    Lyle Blake Smythers

    1. Another cultural shift is the separation of love/relationships and procreation. The choice to parent for LGBT couples is just that, a choice. I think in many ways, this one thing feeding back from the LGBT into the straight community: that not only can you chose carefully whether or not to have children but where the children you parent will come from. A huge shift compared to 100 years ago when children “just happened”.

  13. As a self-identified gay teenager, avid reader and blogger, and someone who fell in love with one of Wittlinger’s most celebrated novels, Hard Love, I found the article in question to be great.

    My issue with the entire thing is that I personally know many, many ‘straight’ authors of LGBTQ literature that try their hardest to research and look into the trials and tribulations of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or queer, and to represent that as best they can in their novels. While I understand that Lambda wants to focus on LGBTQ authors, I think that making the complete set of awards exclusive was a step BACK in terms of equality, and I know I’ll be argued with on it, but I have my reasons.

    These authors – they fight for our rights. They are double agents, in a way. They are straight and have husbands/wives and children. To most people, they seem to be society’s definition of a normal person. But, they spend their time writing about gay protagonists. They are a wonderful bridge that shows that, yes, being gay is hard and one cannot truly understand every inch of it unless they themselves are gay, but it is also something that can be understood by people that don’t have to go through it. I, in all honesty, loved that the Lambda awards highlighted authors like Ellen for their wonderful writing, and for their ability to portray characters realistically. They should have a chance at that. Because the Lambdas are pretty high profile in the book world, and people pay attention to them. Just because they are straight does not mean they should not be supported less for their commitment to making the world a better place.

    My conclusion may seem stupid, but why can’t they just make an award or two to celebrate those LGBTQ authors specifically for their hard work – and then focus on just the books for the others. Why can’t we make the awards a show of compromise, and honor both sides, and show both sets of authors that they are doing an awesome thing and deserve that award – deserve to be recognized for writing about people. What I really can’t understand is why the LLF feels that LGBTQ literature should be defined in part by the author self identifying as a member of the LGBTQ community. To me, that is not only saying that some of the best books out there are no longer LGBTQ, but it is missing the overall picture. The author is important, but it’s the CONTENTS of the book that matter. What if the book was about and written by an LGBTQ member, but it was actively flaming LGBTQ culture? Would it still be considered LGBTQ literature? I really find it odd that Lambda didn’t ask the readers what they think – what they feel like the awards should entail.

    I understand there is a lot of politics and views on this. Obviously Lambda had their reasons, and it’s great they want to showcase LGBTQ authors. But some of the best authors I know are straight and deserve an award just as high profile. The fact that they once had it, but now they don’t, is really annoying. As a reader, and as a gay teen, I never gave a shit (pardon the language) about the author’s identity – I cared about how they pictured a gay teenager. And you know what? I found Ellen Wittlinger’s lesbian character Marisol to be one of the most open, honest, and REAL LGBTQ characters – especially considering it was written almost ten years ago. Her main male character, while straight, was sexually confused and flexible as well – making it a double whammy. Yes, she did have one slightly stereotypical character, but you know what? I’ve seen gay authors use just as many stereotypes. LGBTQ Lit should not boil down to who the author is, but who they write about, and the overall message they are sending to their readers. I understand why Ellen wrote that piece, and she has every right to feel offended, especially considering she received a Lambda award before the conditions changed.

    In the end, it isn’t about Ellen, though. It’s about how Lambda is working towards making the LGBTQ community strong. As a community, we need to be close and honor each other – but we should also honor the people outside that support us. Again, why not make awards for BOTH? Why not, with all of this controversy, honor BOTH sides of the community, instead of choosing one or the other?

  14. How deprived the reading world would be if there had never been a very tardy rabbit or a pig that could converse with a spider. Right now I’m working on a ghost story which, by some lights, I should put away until I’m truly dead.

  15. I feel like I have to weigh in here (hopefully with some brevity, because I imagine I could go on for hours on the topic.) I have to say that I find the Lambda’s rule change to be ridiculous, offensive, wrongheaded, and deeply unfortunate. And I say this as a two-time winner and as a Lambda donor. As Arthur notes, I find it particularly misguided because they are shifting the rule, dishonoring previous non-LGBTQ winners, and they are doing it under the guise that the publishing environment is more hostile to LGBTQ writers than it has been in decades, which is profoundly untrue.

    I absolutely agree with Tom that we need more diverse representation of LGBTQ characters in our literature. Absolutely. Where I disagree is with the thought that these books need to be written exclusively by LGBTQ authors. As an editor, an author, a teacher, and a gay reader, I say whoever can create a good, complex, meaningful story about the LGBTQ experience should be valued. Period. And, yes, LGBTQ writers should be encouraged. But they should be encouraged to write whatever stories they want, queer or not.

    My first novel, BOY MEETS BOY, won the Lambda. I feel I can very safely say that it be the book that it is if it hadn’t been for me reading Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. They still have a profound effect on me. Although I would love (dearly) to claim Francesca as a gay man (and she is probably as close as one can get to being a gay man without actually being a gay man), she is not. And the idea that her books are any less valuable to the LGBTQ canon of literature and, more important (MUCH more important), to the lives of teen readers (LGBTQ or otherwise), is just plain wrong.

    I think it is a mistake to think that, as writers, our writing is “indelibly linked” to our identities. I absolutely understand what Tom means when he says that, but I think he is mistaking the role of the author and the role of the writer. The role of the author is what you do when you take the book public — and, yes, I certainly don’t shy away from the fact that I’m gay. But that’s a choice. Some LGBTQ authors don’t make the same choice, and that’s fine. And some non-LGBTQ authors have to defend their LGBTQ books just as fiercely as we LGBTQ authors do. (In the past few years, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle have had to be at the barricades to defend their books just as much as I have, if not more.) Again, though, this is the author role. The author does not write the book. The writer does. And I truly believe that the writer’s identity, while certainly influencing the truth of his or her work, does not (and should not) determine it. And it is the writer, not the author, who should be awarded for his or her achievements, because it is the literary merit of the writing, not the identity of the author, that should be judged.

    Finally, to what Nancy brings up: Will Grayson, Will Grayson is very much a book that has two dads. And both of those dads raised it equally. I’ve seen it firsthand: a straight guy can write a multidimensional gay character just as well as a gay guy. If not better. And I’ll let you in on a secret. We gay guys? We can write pretty good, multidimensional straight characters, too.

    1. So well said, Mr. Levithan. As a gay writer of non-gay material, I agree with every one of your points. True awards should be reserved for recognition of the work, not the author. That’s not to say that authors can’t also be recognized and encouraged. But if the goal is to promote good works—and it seems to me that’s what the world always needs more of—it’s good works that should be recognized.

  16. Hi Arthur! I was led to your blog through a link on Debbie Reese’s web site. I asked Ellen this question on Facebook: what if a lesbian wins a Lambda and then later marries a man? does she have to give the award back? (Does it mean she wasn’t really a lesbian?) (No. I’ll answer that question for us.) Sexual identity is fluid – for some of us – in a way that other identity pieces are not. I will always be half Slovenian – but throughout my life I have identified as different letters of LGBTQA…. (and I too, found reading Wittlinger’s “Hard Love” to be a profound experience.) Thanks to everyone for the civil tone of this discussion. Ummm… also want to point folks to a fabulous Horn Book essay by Kathy Isaacs: “Building Bridges from Both Sides.” It looks like it isn’t currently available on the web but maybe Roger could add it to the Horn Book site.

  17. I think Ms. Wittlinger’s right and Mr. Crisp is right, too.

    This is a hard question with no right answers and the people giving the award have a right to determine the criteria for the award. If somebody wants to give a literary award limited to people who had measles as children or spend over 50% of their discretionary budget at independent bookstores, and they can afford it – well, they can, and anybody who gets those awards should take them and be glad. Yes, there’s problematical things about the way Lambda does this award now and y’know what? There were problematical things about the way it was done before, too. There’s always going to be problematical stuff in the award selection process. None of us really knows which option is going to be best for American society as a whole or LBGTQ society as a subculture and 100 years from now historians will still be having legitimate differences of opinion about it.

    I’m a middle-aged white married lady, myself, and I want to write about Indians and black people and gay people and Hispanic people; and I don’t want them to all be support characters for my white straight people. But I’m also skin-cringingly aware that, hard as it is for me to sell a book, it is even harder for Indians and black people and gay people and Hispanic people to do so. And this is partly because the power base in publishing lies with middle and upper-class white people from the East Coast.

    I expect most of them want to be inclusive and diverse, but they make a lot of assumptions about who reads, what a book is, and what people are like that are not true. Most of them don’t even recognize that they’re making these assumptions. We all have prejudices we mistake for facts and we can all marshall evidence to support them. Even if a powerful individual within a publishing company can see through the distortions of these expectations, the inertia of the organization and the corporate culture works against real diversity. There isn’t a single subgroup of people who can’t complain about how they’re treated in modern literature. How many fat people appear on book covers? When did you last read a book with a blind character in which blindness was just one thing the character had to cope with and not the point of the book?

    We’re all discriminated against by somebody. And it hurts to be someone who doesn’t feel like she’s part of the problem to be treated like she is. But it’s an imperfect world. Our solutions are going to be imperfect, too. All we can do is the best we can do.

  18. Ellen—I am being presumptuous here, hoping that I can call you Ellen and that you will call me Tom—thanks for taking the time to address my posting. I’m glad to have the opportunity to have this conversation with you and everyone else. I’m addressing this to everyone, but hope I address your thoughts and perspective here.

    I agree that good writers can write strong LGBTQ characters regardless of their identities as “insiders” or “outsiders.” It is important to think about whose story is being told in the book—a book that is told from the perspective of a heterosexual-identified protagonist with queer secondary characters is different from a book told from the perspective of a queer-identified protagonist. Simply because a book has LGBTQ characters does not necessarily make it “LGBTQ literature.”

    When I stated that “mere representation is not enough,” I should be clear that this applies equally to all authors and books: there are queer-identified authors who are not successful in creating nuanced, “authentic” LGBTQ characters. LGBT people (here, I am removing the “Q” because LLF has chosen not to include it—including the “Q” as either “queer” or “questioning” would have substantially changed this conversation) can create excellent heterosexual characters and straight-identified authors can create excellent LGBT characters. In the world of queer theory, some of the brightest stars would be “categorized” as being heterosexual.

    I agree that it would be a problematic to argue that only straight people can write straight characters or only LGBTQ people can write LGBTQ characters. David’s absolutely right when he says “We gay guys? We can write pretty good, multidimensional straight characters, too.” Part of the reason LGBT people can successfully write heterosexual characters is that many of us grow up reading about nothing but heterosexual people (maybe this is changing, but my students—who are generally practicing K-12 teachers—are still terrified to bring LGBTQ literature into their classrooms). I, for one, did not read a book with a self-identified queer character throughout my years in K-12 education. Self-identifying as heterosexual situates someone within the culture of power, it is the dominant form of sexuality in the US. As such, media reflects this identity far more than LGBTQ identities. Some LGBTQ authors write really good straight characters because they have friends, co-workers, and heroes who are heterosexual and because they have done some “research” in terms of knowing the ways in which heterosexual “culture” works (we can’t help but do this “research,” we are saturated with it at all times). Many authors who are not queer-identified write nuanced LGBTQ characters because they have firsthand experience with members of that community (heroes they want to honor, friends, caregivers, and so forth) and because they have taken the time to “do their research.” I wish I had Jacqueline Woodson’s article “Who Can Tell My Story?” in front of me. She writes (I’ll probably butcher this) that before someone tries to tell her story, she wants them to sit at her table and taste some of her experiences. Creating nuanced, “realistic,” multi-dimensional characters takes talent, insight, and understanding. I have no doubt that Wittlinger has the very best intentions in writing her books—and the comments on this post testify to her success in reaching an audience. Further, LGBT people cannot do this work by ourselves and we need strong allies who are willing to stand with us and demand stronger representations. Ellen, I’m glad you’re out there and I’m grateful you’re an advocate.

    Arthur, I stand right with you when you say, “Let’s see the whole spectrum” of LGBTQ people. You are absolutely right. I don’t deny that there are lots of gay-identified males who would eat donuts and cry after a break-up. My concern is that in literature about gay males, we seem to see the same “types” of characters again and again: as two examples, the confused jock and the “feminine” gay guy. Are there gay males who fit these “types?” Absolutely. But when these same depictions are seen again and again across literature and all media, that’s where misconceptions and stereotypes can grow. Looking across the body of gay adolescent literature, there are so few depictions outside of those that utilize these “ways of being a gay male.” When I said it’s a “stereotype,” that’s what I was trying to convey. I don’t want to take up pages here really going into what I think makes these “types” so problematic. At the risk of being self-promoting, I’ve tried to explore these character types—the confused jock, the “feminine” introvert, and the “queer and proud” male—and what makes them problematic (and useful) in my article, “The Trouble with Rainbow Boys” (published in Children’s Literature in Education in 2008). Levithan’s books are fantastic in terms of exploring some of the myriad of ways in which people can identify as LGBTQ (or refuse any identity).

    Nancy’s raising the case of WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON is an interesting point. In looking at the criteria for the Lambda Literary award, I suspect that: (a) the book will not be eligible because the authors are not both LGBT identified or (b) the LLF will assume—should the book be submitted for consideration—that both authors are LGBT identified or (c) LLF will decide that one “insider” author is acceptable. I personally hope that this book will be submitted because I would like to see how LLF responds and negotiates this space.

    LLF has decided that they want to be thought of as an award for literature ABOUT an underrepresented population BY members of that underrepresented population. Like Debbie, I don’t understand why there is so much resistance to this. It’s about credible characters and it’s about insider voices. It’s important that “our” voices tell “our” stories because unfortunately, we do not live in the world that Wittlinger (and many of us) would like to see: one in which we are beyond identity categories and sexuality, for everyone, is fluid (Ellen, I think this is what I think you are intending in re: the “bisexual” statement in your column—more on this in a minute).

    In the world today, unfortunately, people are still discriminated against—regularly. In sharing my personal experiences, I did not mean to imply that things are not better than they were 20-30 years ago. But, I get concerned when I hear “outsiders” talk about how much better things are for LGBTQ people. It may not be fair, but the simple fact that you are an “outsider” may position to measure or gauge this differently than an “insider” might.

    I tried to share my personal experiences with discrimination because I thought they would help make modern, daily homophobia a “reality” (it happens to lots of us…sometime, it happens a lot of the time!). Take the case of Constance McMillen, the Mississippi teen whose school would rather cancel the prom than allow her to attend (in a tuxedo) with her girlfriend. It appears that the school (allegedly) eventually sent McMillen to one prom with a few other students while the rest of the school attended a “secret” prom at another location (this is the claim, anyway). Or, take the case of Ceara Sturgis whose school refused to print her picture because she was dressed “like a boy.” These are but two recent cases and I would encourage folks to look at the new GLSEN report to see statistics on homophobia and homophobic abuse in American public schools. Homophobia and discrimination are pervasive issues.

    While it is pleasant to think about how things have changed over the past 20-30 years, we are still nowhere near where we should be—and need to be. Ellen, I still find it problematic when you write, “And Arthur, I’m glad I’m gay enough for you.” I hear heterosexual privilege here—just as I did when I read your comment that eventually, everyone may self-identify as “bisexual” and then everyone would be eligible to win the Lambda Literary Award. It is precisely this type of thing that reiterates for me why it is so important to privilege insider voices and perspectives. If someone who self-identified as White were to say, “I’m glad I’m Black enough for you,” we would not stand for it. We shouldn’t stand for it when it’s about LGBT identities either.

  19. This has been very interesting, and I especially appreciate Debbie Reese’s pointing out the parallels to the case in ethnic studies. I think that comparison is quite appropriate. I also do agree with David Levithan, though, that a writer need not share the identity of their characters. As a writer, how else could I feel?

    On the other hand, I’m also a lesbian, and this situation can’t help but remind me of how difficult it has been to maintain spaces FOR queer women. (I use the word queer deliberately.) Many times, others object to this because it does exclude people who are not queer women. But the point of those spaces is not that they exclude others; it’s that they INCLUDE specific people — people who may need a space just for them to feel safe and to fully express their identities. There is a genuine value to creating spaces that celebrate a group of people who are, everywhere else, discriminated against. I think that LLF, at its heart, may be attempting to do this.

    Simultaneously, I agree with what Brent Hartinger wrote on AfterElton (and was included in the Horn Book as a sidebar): this does make the Lambda award less prestigious, because it will be less competitive. And yet: Aren’t there other awards for LGBTQ books, given by mainstream organizations, that can fulfill this purpose? E.g. the ALA’s Stonewall Award? And their Rainbow Project, which compiles lists of LGBTQ books of note. If the LLF wants to limit their award to LGBT authors, that’s a choice they can make — knowing the consequences.

    I’m curious to know what those in the publishing industry think of the Stonewall vs. Lambda vs. Rainbow List. Is there some perception that one is better than the other?

    (Full disclosure: my book, ASH, was a finalist for the Lambda award this year, and was on this year’s Rainbow List.)

    1. good points Malinda. And I loved Ash btwj! I confess that Ilm not very familiar with the ALA awards in the GLBT category, and Il; interested to find out how effective any of these awards are at increasing the attention for books with GLBT content. Any booksellers or librarians out there who can speak to their nfluemce on purchasing decisions. I know I personally purchased ALL the Lambda nominees to read….

      1. I’m so glad you enjoyed ASH! 🙂 And I’m very interested to learn you’re not as familiar with the ALA awards. I do wonder if that’s the case across the industry. I know the Rainbow List is pretty new, so maybe that’s part of it.

  20. In the adult categories, for Lambda to honor only those authors who self identify as LGBT is fine. But in the children’s/YA category, we have to look at the bigger picture. Are we trying to encourage more LGBT authors? That’s a good goal. But I think a more important goal is to offer our youth a solid body of books in which LGBT characters are represented, so LGBT kids can see themselves, and straight kids can develop tolerance.To this end, I believe the Lambda Award in the children’s/YA category. At least, should not exclude straight authors.

    1. Great points David. I suspect that the LLF decisions (and their comment about the increasingly hostile publishing environment for LGBT books refer mostly to adult books to begin with. My friends who are editors of adult books have said as much – referring to the decline in LGBT independent bookstores and other factors.

  21. Tom,

    I have written books from both the perspective of a lesbian and a transgendered main character and also books in which lesbian and gay characters were secondary. A good writer needs to get inside the heads of all her characters, so I don’t understand the distinction you make here.

    You argue that LBGTQ people grow up surrounded by heterosexuals and have “friends, co-workers, heroes” who are straight and that’s why they are able to write convincing straight characters. Cannot the same apply to those of us straight people who live in communities like Provincetown and Northampton, MA, who had GLBT family members and friends? Why are we not able to understand in the same way you understand straight society?

    One of the things that most bothers me about this conversation is the “insider/outsider” debate. Framing the question in this way seems to argue that we are all one thing or another–gay or straight, Black or White or Native American–Jewish or Catholic or Muslim–as though there were no commonality underlying all these differences, something which at bottom, at our core, makes us more alike than different. How do we expect to teach tolerance to our children if we insist on highlighting only our differences? I am a GLSEN member, I do read the statistics on homophobia–of course we are not where we need to be. I just don’t see how labeling your allies as “outsiders” helps the cause.

    And finally, I’m sorry if you found my final comment to Arthur offensive. He said it first in the original blog piece as a joke. I was only referring back to that.

    Ellen Wittlinger

    1. Yes, in some ways we are are alike. We are all human, and as such, have the same needs. But in some ways we are very different, and what we create reflects that difference.

      We are talking about art—in this case—literature. When we think about other kinds of art, do we have a different set of criteria for determining its value? If, for example, you wanted to buy a painting that depicted something about American Indians, would you choose a painting by a gifted artist, perhaps Frank Howell who is not American Indian, or would you get one by T.C. Cannon who was Kiowa, or, R.C. Gorman who was Navajo?

  22. I am finding this conversation enlightening and fascinating. I find myself agreeing with one point only to agree with the counterpoint in the next. Surely Tom Crisp is right that those of us who are not of the minority need to be mindful of our privilege. But I also agree with Ellen Wittlinger and others who are concerned about setting up an insider/outsider dichotomy.

    There is a call for more diversity in the kidlit world, and clearly much of that diversity can and should come from typically under-represented writers. Yet if we scare off a certain portion of the writers by telling them (us, me) that we aren’t qualified to write about certain other groups of people, we are only creating more barriers.

    By the same token, should gay writers, for example, only write about gay character and gay stories? One of my favorite books of David Levithan’s is The Realm of Possibility, which would be a fairly slim book if all the straight characters had been cut out.

  23. “LLF has decided that they want to be thought of as an award for literature ABOUT an underrepresented population BY members of that underrepresented population. Like Debbie, I don’t understand why there is so much resistance to this.”

    Tom, the CSK award has always been for African American authors of books on the African American experience, and has the added, even more restrictive requirement that they be positive books on the African American experience. Although there are constant conversations about whether these requirements might be changed, the award laid out its goals at its inception. They want there to be more insider voices. They support the authors and illustrators so that kids can see that they, too, can write their own stories. Nobody gets to tell the CSK committee to change their requirements or to change their goals. But CSK never says that the books written by non-African-American’s aren’t as good, they just say they aren’t eligible.

    What you and Debbie Reese have said is that insider’s write BETTER stories. I think that’s wrong and more than that, I think it’s destructive. I care about books and I care about the people who read them, especially about the people who need the best books possible on highly charged subjects and what you are promoting makes for less good books. I know you don’t agree, but that disagreement is the source of all my resistance. I believe it may be the reason for other’s resistance as well.

    The LLF hasn’t even said as much as you and Debbie. What the LLF said in their letter clarifying the change in requirements is that they are reserving the prize for members of their community–because otherwise, the feelings of their members will be hurt, and that is more important than choosing the best book. None of us can tell them how to award their prize. But we CAN say that they’ve reduced a major literary prize to something far less significant. They just moved the Lambda Award a lot closer to the “The Best Book Published by a Member of the Friends of the Tucker Creek Public Library.”

  24. I’m coming late to this discussion, but I appreciate what everyone has offered.

    Like Ellen and others, I’m also ill at ease about the insider/outsider distinction. As a writer, I want all of my characters to be uniquely themselves. Some seem to suggest here that I could write “from the inside” about 40-something freckled women from Iowa. But the thing is, there are LOTS of people like that. We’re not the same. And, just as two 40-something white women should not be identical in a novel (and are not identical in real life) any Jewish, lesbian or Asian character would be her own person…and not like any other Jewish, lesbian or Asian character. We all have similarities and our unique differences.

    By the way, I’m proud to be from Iowa, where gay and lesbian marriage is legal, and, as long as we’re talking stereotypes, you can throw “Flyover Country” into the mix.


  25. I disagree that the LLF’s decision regarding eligibility is going to make the award “less prestigious” and I think that this suggestion takes away from the LGBT-identified authors who will win that award in the future. I also don’t think it’s fair to criticize LLF for deciding to change its earlier criteria—lots of organizations do this as their needs, demographics, or “the times” change. The LLF began awarding its children’s/YA award when there were even fewer representations available than the abysmal number available today (we now have, what, maybe 300-400 picture books and YA novels total?). As small as those numbers may be, there is now a body of literature upon which to build. There are increasing numbers of books that include LGBT characters (in either supporting or leading roles) and in some ways, it has become “trendy” to have an LGBT character in a YA novel. Perhaps the LLF decision signals a move away from a “representation at any cost” mentality toward thinking about establishing a genre of “LGBT literature” that focuses on literature by LGBT people, about LGBT people.

    Ellen asks me a great question in her last post: “Why are we not able to understand in the same way you understand straight society?” For me, it’s about both understanding and about cultures of power. There are “straight”-identified people who have queer-identified parents, siblings, children, friends, heroes, and so forth. There are those that live in communities like Provincetown and Northampton or San Francisco. I know that my sister (who is straight-identified) “gets” some of what it is like to be a gay male simply because she and I have always been so close—when I was ridiculed or mocked, she felt some of the pain. She is now an “ally,” standing up to those around her when she sees homophobia or heterosexism. But, she’s not an “insider.”

    I would argue that it’s pretty hard for LGBT folks NOT to have an understanding of heterosexual-identified people (after all, we are mostly exposed to heterosexual books, movies, television shows throughout our entire lives…we see lots of different representations of lots of different heterosexual people. In fact, it’d be pretty hard to NOT be exposed to heterosexual culture even if I tried my best to avoid it). The reverse is not always true. It’s about understanding and about power. Peni Griffin says above that as much as she would like to write about traditionally marginalized people, “I’m also skin-cringingly aware that, hard as it is for me to sell a book, it is even harder for [“minority” or underrepresented populations] to do so.” I’ve been clear that I self-identify as a gay male, but I am also White, middle aged, and middle class and those qualities of who I am position me within the “culture of power.” Simply by self-identifying as “heterosexual” positions a person within the dominant culture.

    As David Gale notes, in adult categories, LLF does only honor “insider” authors, so I continue to wonder why is it so problematic for those of us in children’s/YA literature to have the same. Gale has some points about why to leave the award open to all authors, but, while I agree that it is important for heterosexual-identified readers to become accepting of LGBTQ people, more than anything else, I care about those kids who need to see themselves represented in books.

    I graduated from high school in the late 1990s without having been exposed to a single book with LGBTQ characters. When I began studying children’s literature in college, I actively searched for depictions of “people like me.” I bought any children’s/YA book with LGBTQ content that I could find. What I realize now is that I was searching for a character that was “like me.” Upon its release, I bought Levithan’s BOY MEETS BOY. I was a PhD student and purchased it while accompanied by a friend to whom I was not “out.” I remember tucking the book between a copy of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and another book, hoping that my friend wouldn’t go rummaging through my bag to see what I had purchased. That evening, I sat in my on-campus apartment and read the entire thing through without a break. Everything was heightened. I still remember (and can “feel”) the worn, white recliner in which I sat and the light of the sun fading in the window behind me. I remember forgetting to breathe as I turned the pages. I finished BOY MEETS BOY and I wept…because after 24 years, I saw the first representation of myself in literature.

    But the story doesn’t end there.

    As happy as I was to see “myself” in a book, equally important for me—although I recognize the author is not the characters or the book—was knowing about Levithan: was he “someone like me?” It was so important—not only that I had a “good” representation, but that the representation was created by someone who knew firsthand what it was like to be gay. I remember feeling frustrated because I couldn’t find the information I wanted right away…and then gradually, I saw hints at Levithan’s identity in his articles and interviews. Finally, I remember reading the introduction to his collection (with Billy Merrell) THE FULL SPECTRUM and seeing him use the word “we” (“we know who we are”).

    Although defining the Lambda Literary Award as being about LGBT people by LGBT people may look essentialist on its surface, it’s about “our” people telling “our” stories. It matters that we have good books and good characters, but who creates those depictions also matters.

    1. Hm…I understand what you are saying, but at the same time, as an LGBTQ teenager myself, I think you’re looking at it in a really close-minded way.

      I was much like you. Until this year, actually, I never read an LGBTQ book for teens. I got to read the Rainbow Boys series and The Geography Club, as well as other books, and yes, they were by what you would call ‘insider’ authors. But you know what? I didn’t care so much about what they wrote about. I cared about the fact that someone like ME was a published author and wrote such excellent stuff. I actually got more excited when I realized that some of my favorite authors like Gregory Maguire and Clive Barker were gay, because they were subtle about it. They wrote fiction with straight characters, and you know what? I think that made it even better. Because it proved to me that I could be both successful as an LGBTQ person, and that I could write about whatever I want and have it be good.

      Again – why did you have to do it for all of the awards? Saying the stories are just ‘ours’ is, to me, really dumb. These books have helped many non-LGBTQ teenagers become more accepting and tolerant towards other people. Saying a book is written mainly for a certain group of people, while seeming to be true, is not. While I see why it’s personal for you, YOU are not the prime example of a gay teenager. Face it, in the world today, I think a lot of gay teenagers, while needing these books, really DO NOT CARE about the identity of the person writing them. Because it isn’t a big deal. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Yes, they should be recognized, but the sexual orientation of a writer doesn’t matter.

      My concern is that you are saying that YA LGBTQ should be about the insiders. I think it was better before. Our community shouldn’t be about insiders and outsiders to begin with. The people that arent’ gay but support us are just as a part of it as we are, and they have just as many issues and experiences surrounding it.

      I am a teenager telling you straight up that I am not worried about being represented in literature. I can see tons of books being published every year that are building on this. If you are so concerned about what people like me are going to think, why aren’t you realizing that we would rather NOT have it be exclusive. We want people to realize the LGBTQ community is an open one, and part of making that possible would be showing that authors of all types – gay or straight – should be honored for writing great characters. Because, unless you make a separate set of awards for those straight authors, you are sending the message that they aren’t as important, and that their work is not as important. That’s what I get from it, and as a teenager, I dont’ think that’s a message you should be sending to people my age.

      Just my two cents on the matter.

      1. Also, by ‘you’ I do not mean YOU specifically. This is more aimed at the LFF in general, although I think some of the opinions are definitely off of your views specifically. Ultimately, you are entitled to your opinion on the matter, but I am just really saying that I think that the LFF should be about books before the authors. As an author, one’s first realization should be that the book – ie the culmination of work and creativity – is more important. Yes, an author is indeed important, but the book is more important because it represents both teh author, their creativity, and what they believe should be written.

  26. If the LLF truly wishes there to be a diverse representation of LGBTQ characters, then why do they eliminate from mention those straight and bi authors who put so much effort into creating characters and worlds where there is equal representation? If we all wrote only about characters with our sexual orientation and race, there would be no diversity in our work.

    It is true that the LGBT community suffers hugely. It is also true that Ellen Wittlinger does not have to deal with that on a daily basis. However, ought we exclude those who build bridges, not only for adult LGBT authors, but also for the children who follow in their footsteps? If children feel like they must be gay or straight, just so that they can be shoved into little boxes, how will they learn to create a happy medium? If children feel that they will not be accepted in the gay community if they are straight or bi, or in the straight community if they are gay or bi, how will they learn to unite the two? The choice that the LLF made does not further diversity, rather it limits it.

    — Ciara A. Cheli-Colando, 11

  27. I would be interested in exploring the differences and similarities between ethnic studies and LBGTQ studies, honestly. Much seems to be made of the “insider/outsider” status as being an artificial, ‘close-minded’ thing, and I think a lot of that stems from the *difference* between ethnic studies and LBGTQ studies. In ethnic studies, I don’t think anybody really debates the veracity of ‘insider/outsider’ status. It’s assumed that if you aren’t a member of a given ethnicity, there are some things you will *never know.* Period. Even if I have tons of Black friends, do research in the Black community, and yes, write well-rounded Black characters, I’m always doing it with the knowledge that even though I can do my best to empathize, there will always be things about being Black that I’m never going to know. That’s awareness of privilege, and that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t stop me from writing those well-rounded Black characters, but it *is* something to keep in mind as I do so.

    The question in my mind is whether LBGQT (wait, I think that’s the wrong order – well, never mind) literature is the same way. Sexual identity is a lot more fluid than ethnic identity, oftentimes formulated later in life. There’s also, however, pretty much always the heteronormative dominant culture that one was raised in prior to formulating that sexual identity. Maybe that commonality of experience between straight and LBGTQ would make it easier to bridge those gaps, or maybe there’s something to the idea that sexual identity is oftentimes more fluid and much easier to hide than ethnic identity. Or maybe there’s still that kernel of unknowable difference. I honestly don’t know.

    1. Interesting points. I also think it’s important to remember that this conversation is about LGBT characters in books for young people. The protagonists of these book are not going to be adults living in a separate LGBT “culture.” That’s a choice those characters may get to make later in life.

      In the present of one’s youth primarily, what makes characters lesbian, or gay, is who they are attracted to sexually, and who they love. As you and others have pointed out, many people who identify as heterosexual have experienced attraction to and love for members of the same gender (whether they’ve acted on them or not) just as many people who identify as gay or lesbian have had those feelings for those of the “opposite” gender.

      Of course that’s just A beginning point of empathy from which writers of all kinds produce characters who love, who feel, who act. To be convincing, a writer would have to also imagine the full breadth of the young character’s emotional landscape — how the character’s identity might be perceived and reacted to within the structure of the particular family that he or she is part of, the atmosphere of their neighborhood, the culture of their school etc.

      But of course those necessities apply to ANY writer, regardless of his or her own personal orientation.

      1. I agree. Sexuality is fluid and ethnicity is not. This makes defining an “insider” harder and less meaningful in the LGBTQ community.

  28. I don’t have anything new to add to this conversation. I justw anted to pop in and say i agree. I definitely want to see more Jewish protagonists in YA fiction, WWII is important but how about some contemporary fiction? And of course some GLBT YA fiction that isn’t always about coming out along with more POC stories and diverse characters whose cultural differences are simply mentioned and a stated fact.

  29. Probably the best comment conversation in the blogosphere. Fascinating!

    I get the idea of why it is so essential to have “insider” books. I see the reason everyday in my first grade classroom. I see how important it is for a young girl to see books written by female scientists. How important it is for the black student (usually the only black in the class) to see black authors and illustrators–and to have that black student see white students seeing black authors and illustrators presented as club members (and just as vital for those white students). And I know first hand that reading a book by an author who is gay (“Like me!”) means something entirely different to that high school boy in my high school galley group than what it means to read Ellen’s books (and this is not a qualitative distinction). 

    I also know about numbers. That same high school boy cannot keep reading those same books no matter how much he likes them. He needs HARD LOVE too. There are not very many books featuring this young man regardless of who writes them.

    So for me the questions become: Is this decision more likely to increase his choices or decrease his choices? Is this decision more likely to increase the number of LGBT authors, which will have that very profound personal effect on the student that cannot be duplicated by HARD LOVE? Also, since this award was NOT originally established to recognize the author’s identity, I also must recognize the effect that this decision will have on GLBT students who have fallen in love with “outsider” literature that has previously won (and what this will do to the promotion of these works within the organization). I also need to consider and value the self determination of an organization in it’s rule making process and procedure. 

    It seems to me that much as the CSK has added things like the Steptoe award, that it would have been far better to add an “insider” award on top of the existing award. Certainly it IS important to show students authors and illustrators who look like them. I know this from working with students. Perhaps this is just as important as increasing the number of titles that show the full picture of what it means to be human, which includes David’s stories and Ellen’s and mine?   


  30. All I want to say is “Amen,” “Thank you,” and “Working on it!”

    Keep talking!

    GLBTQ advocate, Jewish mother, diversity educator & 2011 author


  31. I’m still pondering this discussion, Ellen’s Horn Book essay, and the differences between… uh…. different differences. Take a look at this if you’d like.
    Many Turks are white/consider themselves to be white. Nationality and race are not the same thing, of course. I do not know how Ms. Shafak defines herself. But race (and her race) is one of the things I thought about while watching/listening to her speech. I don’t know what her Kinsey scale rating is (wink).
    Also wonder how many of you have seen “The Kids Are All Right” since this discussion began. Here’s an interview with the director and screenwriter.

  32. Coming late to the discussion…but a few things to add:

    As far as the Lambda issue, I have mixed feelings, probably because I am a straight white woman who has certainly experienced marginalization but nothing on the scale of what Tom and Debbie have dealt with in their lives. So I may have friends/family who have experienced pain, pain I have witnessed them suffer…but still, it is not my experience, and not my direct pain. I still have the privilege of choice (to empathize, acknowledge, put the book down), and that is power they don’t have–they have to talk to the cop, hear the expletives on the street. Yes, I can relate to being marginalized on some level–and I use those experiences to help me understand others’–but I cannot really “know” from a gay man’s perspective or a Pueblo Indian’s because I can leave “the experience” at any time…and most importantly, I have to recognize that privilege.

    Also, I sighed a heavy sigh when I first read After Tupac and D Foster–a novel (I really like) with what I’d call a stereotypically gay character in Tash. I was thrilled that Tash seemed to be the character most comfortable in his own skin, however. Likewise, in My Most Excellent Year, why did the most interesting character, who just happened to be gay…and Asian…also have to love showtunes and Liza Minelli? I understand that no one character can represent an entire group…but it’s disappointing to find tired representations in otherwise promising books.

    RE: Jewish books…there’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic, which *does* have a little to do with holidays but virtually nothing about the Holocaust.

    Last, it’s interesting that we’re here talking about children’s/YA lit, but the astute comments made by an 11 year old and a teenager were pretty much ignored.

  33. Gina says: I cannot really “know” from a gay man’s perspective or a Pueblo Indian’s because I can leave “the experience” at any time…and most importantly, I have to recognize that privilege.

    I agree, and from what I know, awards speak directly to the correction of trends within the industry. To that extent they matter while the current trends still favor the outsider narrative. Do they, in this subset of children’s/YA literature? I don’t know enough about that to answer that question, but it’s the question we need to be asking. It does seem to be the assumption of the committee, doesn’t it?

    I believe we need both insider and outsider narratives and I have no problem with those labels. We also need books of all kinds to feature GLBTQ characters as a part of narrative that is not primarily about sexual preferences, in much the way that you called on the illustrator, Arthur, to include people of all ethnicities in his art. Kathi Appelt’s Keeper is one such. Then there’s Martha Freeman’s chapter book The Trouble With Babies with its delightful and incidental gay dads in the neighborhood. In the sequel, just by the way, Freeman was persuaded to take out those gay dads, following massive complaints from offended readers. Regardless of whether we might feel that was a good decision or not, and quite tangential to this conversation about who ought to be considered for the Lambda foundation award, it exemplifies the kind of thing we’re still up against, even now in the 21st century!

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