Bruce Henderson to the Lambda Literary Foundation on GMF

Note from Alice Dreger: Prof. Bruce Henderson of Ithaca College shared with me the letter he sent on March 25, 2016, to Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, about the withdrawal of my book from finalist status for a Lambda Literary Award. I asked Prof. Henderson whether I could reproduce his letter here, and he gave me permission.(This version is slightly different from the one he sent because it has been edited by Prof. Henderson for clarity and to correct typographical errors.) 

Dear Sir:

I would appreciate it if you would forward the following message to your board, staff, and officers:

To Whom It May Concern:

I read with dismay and growing disgust the announcement of the Foundation’s decision to rescind the nomination of Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger and, based on the current website, to present the slate as if her book was never under consideration.  I had recently begun what I hoped would be a mutually productive relationship with the Review, having my first review published in December, with two more commissioned.  As I am a tenured, full professor, with three books to my name and two terms of editor of two national scholarly journals that draw heavily from queer studies (performance studies and disability studies), I assure you I did not undertake such work either for the economic incentives (which are less than I would make in a couple of hours at McDonalds, should I need to supplement my income) nor for the line on my CV, as such writing does not carry much weight in scholarly circles.  I did it because I wanted to make a difference at this stage in my career, broadening the audience for my thoughts and evaluations of books in queer/LGBTQ letters and offering insights on books that readers who might primarily browse the aisles at Barnes and Noble or read the Sunday Book Review in The New York Times might otherwise not even be aware of.

I have followed the complex history of the conflict between J. Michael Bailey (and now, by extension, Alice Dreger) and certain subsets of the trans communities for many years.  I believe there are things for which Bailey can reasonably be criticized (primarily rhetorical rather than methodological), as does Dreger, and she is honest and straightforward about them in her book.  I also know of the threats made against both of these individuals by their opponents, some of which involved their children, and many of which seemed to verge on the criminal.  It would appear that this is the intellectual “side” your foundation is choosing to take.  I would have advocated taking no side, and either nominating the book on its merits, understanding that such a nomination might raise hackles and, more importantly, support the continuation of the free flow of dialogue and discourse over ideas that are upsetting, even offensive to some, or not nominating it in the first place, had that been the collective wisdom of the judges.  Dreger has a long history of supporting intellectual, sexual, and personal freedom, and has been an advocate for such underrepresented groups as intersex people and conjoined twins.  Whether you agree or disagree with her particular stances should be immaterial, once a panel has decided her book had sufficient merit to be forwarded as a finalist.

And this is where your foundation has failed–and failed miserably and, it would seem, by your own choice, publicly, in ways that I firmly believe will be difficult for you to recover from, at least if you have any interest in the support of scholars and other writers and readers who take intellectual freedom at all seriously.  I can conclude only two possible reasons for the rescinding of the nomination.  The first, the one you announced, is that the foundation took a second look at the book and decided that book does not meet the spirit of the foundation’s “mission of affirming LGBTQ lives.”  This suggests that the initial vetting process was careless, ignorant, or naïve, to give the foundation’s act the most charitable possible interpretation.  Did none of the members of the panel that read the books submitted in the category recognize that Dreger’s book was, at least in part, a defense of Bailey’s method and his right to publish his findings (as well as the right of those who disagreed to respond in a civil, intelligent, and nonviolent way).  It raises the question as to who actually did read the books nominated—or whether they read the entire books (I have heard that it is not common practice within the Lambda Foundation to expect the panel to read more than 50 pages before deciding whether to identify a book as a finalist—can this really be true?)  If this did not occur, and it was indeed only after the very public announcement of the finalists that anyone thought about the book’s stance and it potential to produce controversy among readers, then I have to say you have an incredibly poor and intellectually deficient set of judges, and an award granted by them would have to be meaningless to any of the fine writers in the category (and I have read all but two of them, which, I suspect, may be more than some of the judges could swear to).  Dreger is not “owed” the award, nor was she even owed a nomination (and has never claimed to have been).  I have served on a number of awards committees in my own scholarly and professional associations, and I know that there are usually many more worthy candidates than can be recognized.  But, once you have listed her as a finalist, to walk back that decision because in a moment of collective insight, the scales have fallen from your eyes and you see Dreger’s book for the meretricious thing you are now claiming it is, is disingenuous at best and insulting and dangerous at worst.  It suggests that someone (or someones) is/are simply lying.

So, the second option is that the foundation is bending to external pressure from either individuals or groups who have warned the foundation, perhaps even threatened it, that if the nomination was not rescinded, that retributive action would be taken, in either verbal or performative form or both.  If that is the case (and by the way, that is the conclusion many scholars and other interested readers with whom I have been in contact in the last day favor), you are not only liars, but, even more inexcusably, cowards. 

I am well aware of how complicated a time we live in, both in the general sense of the political sphere, and within the social, cultural, and political spheres of queer activism and experience–I teach my college’s queer studies course each semester and I have to work through very difficult conversations with my undergraduates, walking the fine line between recognizing, acknowledging, and valuing their own articulation of their authentic and genuine sense of identity and experience, and also presenting multiple perspectives and theories around sexual identity and gender expression.  To omit competing theories that may not match their own sense of self can be upsetting, but I would be remiss as an educator if I did not ask them to examine these theories simply to spare them unpleasant experiences. This is all the more reason that it is nothing less than shameful that the foundation shows itself to oppose open discussion and multiple viewpoints. 

I have actually met and in some cases worked with a number of the authors and I cannot imagine any of them endorsing the action the foundation has taken with regard to Dreger and her book, and would have a hard time imagining they could accept an award given under such a situation.  To reiterate: I think the slate of nominees in the category is particularly rich this year and any of the ones I have read could be named winner and there be no cause for comment.  Faderman’s history is a majestic, awe-inspiring achievement, a fitting “crown” to her pioneering work over many decades.  Gamson’s study blends, as his work characteristically does, solid sociological scholarship with important, gripping narratives.  Corbett O’Toole has been a brave and strong warrior for both queer and disability rights, and her memoir is a wonderful testament to that life.  Other books in the category ask us to situate Kitty Genovese’s identity as a lesbian in the narrative of the bystander effect.  Still others are by esteemed long-term scholars and from newer and exciting voices. I admire these books and their authors and celebrated the quality of the slate when I read the initial announcement.

What I cannot countenance, as someone who has dedicated much of the last four decades of my professional, intellectual, and personal life to furthering the queer life of the mind, as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a citizen, is your solution to what became a sticky moment in the foundation’s award process.  The year and the winner will always have an asterisk next to it, an example of a “spoiled identity,” as the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about stigma half a century ago.  I want you to know that I have contacted many academic colleagues across the country who are engaged in queer studies and I have turned to more public fora (such as listservs) to alert people to this series of events.  I assure you, the responses I am reading will not do your foundation credit and will not earn you more supporters–quite the opposite.  In fact, much to my surprise, a number of people have identified themselves as former nominees and even some as former winners, and are excoriating the foundation for this choice.  There will certainly be an intellectual boycott of the Review, and there is talk about organizing protests at the site of the awards.  I am saying this not to threaten anyone–as there does not seem to be a remedy to the path you have taken, I am not in a position to try to put any pressure on you (nor would I, even were in a position to do so), and I have no illusions about whether you would care what an individual academic scholar might think.  What I simply want to impress upon you is that I know I am not alone in my response, and, whatever the motives for your decision, you may very well find yourself alienating as large group (maybe even larger) by your latest decisions as you have pleased or quelled by doing it.  

Better to have stuck by your initial decision, taken whatever criticism was perhaps legitimately sent your way about process or politics, and determine ways to do a better job with the awards (which I have already read many eye-opening stories about in the last day from people posting on listservs) in the future.  You had a chance to say, “We realize Dreger’s book is controversial, even offensive to some people we serve–but so were many earlier ideas, such as same-sex marriage, queers in the military, decriminalization of same-sex acts.  Dreger’s work as a scholar merits attention, even if readers ultimately dismiss her conclusions.”  Or, you had the opportunity, before announcing nominations, to have done a better job of choosing judges and ensuring that they had been charged to and had actually read the books sufficiently to make an informed decision.  You do not seem to have been capable of either of these, and for this you deserve censure.  Perhaps it is time for the members of the  board to consider whether resignation is the most honest and ethical act they could perform.

I have done the only thing I could do; I wrote William Johnson, my contact with the Review, yesterday to inform him that I could not, in good conscience, continue to write for the LLR, and that I would return the books.  His email, while polite, simply said the equivalent of “Okay, too bad, send us the books.”  That I will do at my earliest convenience, along with the uncashed check for the review that was published–I cannot, in good conscience, accept the payment for that review.

While I have little confidence that this letter will have any effect, I hope that you use this series of events to rethink your processes around the awards, which seem random and indefensible (particularly as a similar set of events happened with Bailey’s own book a number of years ago) and to rethink your own commitment to academic freedom and intellectual integrity.  If not, you might as well as close down shop and leave the important work of leading work around the support of queer literature to others who may be more suited to the moments when it calls for bravery and collective intelligence. 

Bruce Henderson, Ph.D.

Professor of Communication Studies

Ithaca College