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A question for Lambda Literary
Who gets to have a voice anyway?
Last year, I published an essay collection called Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing. The book began with a story about serving in the Air Force in the 90s. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still the law then, but somebody went ahead and assumed anyway, and they torched my car. It’s never a bad idea to open with an explosion.
I wanted to talk about how it felt to be forced to hide, to be forced into silence for fear of being fired, or worse. Not being able to trust coworkers, fellow Airmen, or even friends, for fear of being outed. That’s something many of us experience, but too many people don’t understand the constant fear—sometimes even actual terror—of serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the fucking loneliness of it all.
I wasn’t new to that fear. Like too many queer people, I grew up knowing there was a part of me I had to hide. I was raised by “love the sinner, not the sin” Evangelical Christian types who showed that love by trying to beat the sin out of me. It wasn’t that unusual.
I tried to write these stories in a way that let others see themselves. I thought maybe I could write the book I would have wanted to read back when I was a kid and felt so fucking alone. What I didn’t want to do was write for those who feed off the trauma of others. For example, I skipped the part where I wore duct tape over my mouth for a month, a punishment for telling a boy I didn’t want to kiss him. I was 13 at the time, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot since the book came out.
The most incredible thing about writing a book is that anyone can do it. I didn’t need a degree or any special training. All I needed was a library card and a laptop. I didn’t always have my own laptop, so I wrote my first book on a work laptop, sitting in my work van behind Home Depots and grocery stores.
I’d always loved reading, and reading was how I learned to write, even though I wasn’t always allowed to read what I wanted. Once I got a library card and my own room, an entire world of experiences and voices were there for me. I could see life through someone else’s eyes, learn from their experience and thoughts, even if I didn’t agree with them all. I loved that an author’s words could make me question deeply held beliefs it turned out I had never really thought about. Writing was something anyone could do, maybe even if me, and if I did, maybe I could have a voice too.
It felt like I should. I can count on one hand the books I found with characters anything like me, by authors I could relate to. Maybe if I wrote a book, someone like me would read it and feel a little less alone.
But while anyone can write a book, not everyone can get a book published. I didn’t have a clue how to go about it. Google can be useful, to a point, but there’s a reason there’s an entire industry built around preying on the hopes and dreams of struggling writers. When you don’t have any connections, paying someone a thousand dollars to teach you how to find an agent can seem like a good idea. I didn’t have a thousand dollars. I worked as a cable guy, and didn’t know anyone in publishing. I don’t think I even knew anyone in New York at the time. I didn’t belong to a network of writers from my MFA program, because I don’t have an MFA. I barely graduated high school. I didn’t know any writers. and I didn’t know where or how to submit work to magazines. I didn’t even know what magazines I should be submitting to, and I didn’t know where to begin. The publishing world is nearly impossible to navigate without guidance.
Fortunately, like many hopeful writers, I found guidance on Twitter. Which is to say, I found established writers who were generous enough to help. One of those writers was Sandra Newman. She believed in me and took me seriously long before she had any reason to. She answered panicked messages and talked me off the ledge more than once. She guided me through the minefield of publishing. It’s possible that I might have published a book without her help, but it would’ve taken much longer, and I might’ve given up before I got there.
A few weeks ago, I was notified I’d be named as a finalist for the Lambda Literary Prize. I googled “Lambda Literary Prize.”
The Lambda Prize exists because when someone like me, which is to say, a queer person, manages to publish a book with queer themes, those books are often ignored by mainstream prize committees. Prizes get media attention. Prizes create name recognition and bring in new readers. Prizes sell books. Prizes like the Lambda also come with a check. It would’ve nice if my book had won a prize, but it won’t.
My book won’t win a prize because my friend Sandra Newman wrote a book. The premise of her book is “what if all the men disappeared.” When she announced the book on twitter, YA twitter saw it. This is the single most terrifying thing that can happen to a writer on twitter. YA twitter, presumably fans of young adult fiction, are somehow unfamiliar with the concept of fiction. YA twitter doesn’t do nuance. They don’t understand metaphor or thought experiment. They expect fictional characters to be good and moral and just, whether antagonist or protagonist. They expect characters and plot to be free of conflict. They require fiction to portray a world without racism, bigotry, and bullies. And when YA twitter gets wind of a book that doesn’t meet their demands, they respond with a beatdown so unrelenting and vicious it would shock William Golding. They call it “call-out culture” because bullying is wrong, unless your target is someone you don’t like, for social justice reasons, of course.
Publishing hasn’t yet figured out how to respond to YA twitter. Authors who’ve been targeted have left social media entirely. Reviewers shy away. Publishers have pulled books. Authors have changed lines, characters, and scenes in their books hoping to avoid becoming a target, or to appease YA twitter once they have. And once they have become targets, those writers often find themselves alone—their friends and colleagues silent for fear of becoming targets themselves. The entirety of the publishing world is terrified of a few hundred self-described book lovers on social media who are shockingly bad at reading books.
When YA twitter came for Sandra, someone who has always been there for me, I responded. I told them to read the book before condemning it. I told them characters and plot don’t necessarily reflect the politics and views of the author. I told them to read the fucking book, or don’t.
I’d read the book. Sandra Newman sent it to me in an early form and I gave her a few notes, like we do for one another. I’m not transgender and neither is Sandra (Sandra is nonbinary), but we discussed how to make the book recognize the reality of transgender people. Other books that started from this premise—all the men disappear—have erased the existence of trans people, and it was important to her not to do that, to be as sensitive as possible. So when I saw people assuming that simple idea was the entirety of the plot, I told them to read the book before assuming the worst. For this, I was labeled a TERF.
I’m not a fucking TERF. No reasonable person could think I’m a TERF. It’s actually quite easy to find out whether or not I’m a TERF. All you have to do is ask me, or spend two minutes scrolling my twitter timeline. Sandra Newman isn’t a TERF either, something that can be easily discovered by the same methods.
I have to assume the jury for the Lambda Literary Prize did neither. Nobody talked to me and I wasn’t asked. I was informed last week that my nomination was withdrawn. To be clear, Lambda Literary, an organization founded to champion queer writers, to preserve queer culture, to bring attention to queer writers who might otherwise never receive recognition by mainstream literary organizations, withdrew the nomination of my book, because when I saw my friend being piled-on by people making assumptions about a book they hadn’t read, I responded. A literary award was withdrawn because I told people… to read a fucking book.
I am a queer woman, and I was silenced most of my life. I found my voice, but if my nomination is being withdrawn for using it, what the fuck is the point of Lambda Literary?