On June 3 the Lambda Literary Foundation (LLF) hosted a glittering ceremony in New York for their annual literary awards. To celebrate the silver anniversary of the awards, the event was held at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in Lower Manhattan. In his welcome remarks, LLF Executive Director Tony Valenzuela noted how far we have come as a community to be occupying the same spot as the birthplace of the NAACP, the women’s suffrage movement, and where President Lincoln, and other Presidents, delivered historic speeches.
Awards in 22 categories were given to outstanding books about LGBT issues. This year’s winners were a diverse group tackling a wide range of subjects and interests. In their acceptance speeches, many winners talked about how their passion for writing was seen as yet another liability that made them even more of an outsider in their communities. They credited their own perseverance and other LGBT writers for their accomplishments.
Bisexual Literature Non-Fiction award was given to ‘My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B’ by Cheryl Burke. Burke was a staple of the queer literary and performance art scene in 1990s New York. She died an untimely death, at the age of 37, due to complications from the treatment she was receiving for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Burke’s partner, Kelli Dunham, accepted the award and ended her impassioned speech by saying, “Every day when Cheryl was her sickest, I prayed to a god I no longer believe in for a miracle. Perhaps this book is the miracle, the miracle of like-minded, similar souled people, who believed that her words matter and cared enough to be present through the beautiful discomfort of bringing her words to life.”
International bestseller John Irving received the Bisexual Literature Fiction award for ‘In One Person’, his latest novel dealing with bisexuality, AIDS, transgenderism, and sexual awakening. Earlier in the evening, he also received LLF’s Bridge Builder Award.
Master of Ceremonies Kate Clinton had the crowd laughing and cheering with jokes about Republican representatives, the Pope, and about her own relationship – and now marriage – to her long-time partner Urvashi Vaid, a leading activist in the queer and feminist movements. Singer, songwriter, and musician Janis Ian received a standing ovation for a moving rendition of her hit song ‘At Seventeen’, the Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy winner in 1975. But it was writer and activist Cherríe Moraga who received the evening’s loudest applause for LLF’s Pioneer Award. In a poignant and brutally honest speech she said that she was there because “needed to represent” the Xicana and people of color community but that the award itself is not our work, activism is. In a most gracious and diplomatic way she suggested that LLF rename that award as the ‘Vanguard Award’ because “pioneer” references settler history and is therefore “inappropriate”. Nudging the LGBT community to look beyond just mainstream issues, she concluded that she wants us to “remain queer,” to remain uncomfortable and non-complacent, so that we are always questioning and always problematizing borders and boundaries that we encounter throughout our lives.
In April I reviewed a few of the nominated books in LGBT Studies. Dr. Ramón Rivera-Servera won the award in this category for ‘Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics’. This book highlights the critical role that performance played in the development of Latina/o queer public culture in the United States during the 1990s and early 2000s, a period when the size and influence of the Latina/o population was increasing alongside a growing scrutiny of the public spaces where latinidad could circulate. (Latinidad refers to the ethnic and pan-ethnic identities that emerge from the increased intersections of multiple Latina/o communities.)
‘Performing Queer Latinidad’ advocates for an understanding of the “critical intersections of sexual, racial, and ethnic identities as a growing and critical element of Latina/o experience” in the United States. Fiercely personal at times (“I as a queer Latino sought my own social, cultural, and emotional replenishment during the fifteen years of researching and writing this project,” the author confesses), this book documents the emergence and significance of Latina/o performance art to counter the identification of the Latina/o population as a niche market for corporations to target and as an election-defining voting block for politicians to pursue. From activist dance performances in the Bronx to street protests to the celebratory and liberating dance floors of the gay club, ‘Performing Queer Latinidad’ connects these performances to their role in forging social, cultural, and political bonds.
‘Performing Queer Latinidad’ is a luminous book principally due to Rivera-Servera’s affectionate reverence of multiple forms of performance to capture the thoughts and feelings, concepts and techniques that govern participation in Latina/o queer culture.
Ramón H. Rivera-Servera is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Performance Studies, Northwestern University. He is currently conducting research for his next book project, Exhibiting Performance: Race, Museum Cultures, and the Live Event, which looks at the ways race has been collected and exhibited in North America and the Caribbean since the mid-1990s.