In 2008, I told my progressive, hetero cousin that I was a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writer Fellow. It was an honor, but not the Nobel Prize, and I wasn’t expecting thunderous applause. I was surprised, though, when she asked, meaning no ill, “Do you want to be known as a gay writer?”
I was reminded of this when Rita Mae Brown, author of the landmark lesbian novel “Rubyfruit Jungle” (released in 1973), received the Pioneer Award on June 1 at the 27th Lambda Literary Awards in New York City. The award honors groundbreaking contributions to LGBT literature. Kudos to Brown! I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the honor. “Rubyfruit Jungle” was one of the first novels with a lesbian protagonist that was funny, at times poignant, but never dire.
More than four decades later, it’s hard to convey how exciting it was to read “Rubyfruit Jungle.” Its hero, Molly Bolt, is a lesbian who not only doesn’t die for being queer but, after fighting tough odds, makes a life for herself.
“While American heroes may occasionally be women, they may not be lesbian … if they are, they had better be discreet or at least miserable,” Shelly Temchin Henze wrote of “Rubyfruit Jungle” in New Boston Review. “Not Molly. She pursues sex with gusto.”
Her other work from her novel “Six of One” to her Mrs. Murphy mysteries has been beloved by generations. As Gloria Steinem said when she presented the Pioneer Award to Brown, laughter is “an orgasm of the mind.”
Given Brown’s LGBT literary legacy, I was surprised when Brown told the Washington Post after being asked why the Lammy Awards matter, “I really don’t know because I don’t think that way. I love language, I love literature, I love history, and I’m not even remotely interested in being gay.”
I, too, love language, literature and history. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a writer or a poet. Yet, as a lesbian, I can’t imagine not being “remotely interested” in being queer or in LGBT writers and literature.
Now, I don’t think about being queer 24/7, shout “I’m gay!” from the rooftops, or come out when I buy a quart of milk. When I’m crafting an essay, reporting a news story or making a poem, I’m writing for everyone, not just LGBT readers. Yet, especially, but not exclusively, in this Pride season, I’m proud to be a queer writer and for the LGBT perspective in my work. As long as homophobia and transphobia exist in this world, how can any of us queer scribes not be interested in being LGBT? Who can better witness and memorably write about this injustice better than LGBT essayists, poets, novelists, short story writers and poets?
As marriage equality progresses, and transgender rights slowly enter the mainstream’s radar screen, these trends will be reflected in our literature. While a hetero-normative perspective is welcome, I look forward to LGBT writers’ and poets’ takes on our weddings, divorces, parenting, and other rites of passage.
Despite the progress that’s been made, LGBT literary journals still “celebrate the juices, joys and jumps of our community,” Hiram Larew, a gay poet and author of the poetry collection “More Than Anything,” told the Blade. “The more we venture afield, the more we need the loving arms of our very own journals to welcome us back home.”
LGBT literature is good for the hetero as well as for the LGBT community, Clarinda Harriss, director of BrickHouse Books, told the Blade. BrickHouse, which published my poetry collection “The Uppity Blind Girl Poems” in 2015, has a Stonewall imprint. “The imprint was not created to do something for the LGBT community so much as to make use of what that community could do for us,” Harriss said.
Congrats to the Lammy winners and finalists! In this Pride season, let’s salute LGBT writers and literature.
Kathi Wolfe, a regular contributor to the Blade, was the winner of the 2014 Stonewall Chapbook Competition.