An Open Letter to the Lambda Literary Foundation
March 24, 2016
Lambda Literary Foundation
Dear Mr. Valenzuela,
I’m writing in response to your March 24 email informing me that, “After reviewing Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, the organization has concluded the book is inconsistent with its mission of affirming LGBTQ lives. As a result, the decision was made to rescind the nomination for a 2016 Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Nonfiction category."
So, to be honest, when a few weeks ago I got a tweet congratulating me that Galileo’s Middle Finger had been named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, I thought the tweet was a snotty joke.
In my book—as in the earlier article that led to the misery that led to me to doing that book—I had traced out what happened in 2003 to J. Michael Bailey’s book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, when it had been named a finalist for a “Lammy”: A group of transgender activists upset with Bailey for writing about autogynephilia—a sexual orientation that reasonably motivates some natal-male’s transition to women—had launched a campaign against the Lambda Literary Foundation.
As you know if you’ve read my book, in 2006, I interviewed Jim Marks about the incident. Marks is a gay man who at the time of the Bailey book storm held the position you now hold at the Lambda Literary Foundation: Executive Director. Marks told me about first hearing an objection to Bailey’s book from Professor Deirdre McCloskey, a prominent academic and transgender woman. McCloskey told Marks she thought Bailey’s book nomination for a Lammy was “like nominating Mein Kampf for a literary prize in Jewish studies.” She demanded it be withdrawn.
Marks told me he was “a little taken aback by the campaign of a university professor to a kind of Orwellian non-history.” He also said that the Foundation “would clearly have [had] grounds for removing a book that was in fact hostile to the Foundation’s mission.” But Marks was hearing from transgender people “who supported the book and urged us to keep it on the list.”
Marks asked the committee to re-vote on the book and they voted to keep it on the finalist list. McCloksey and her two chief collaborators in the smear campaign on Bailey, Lynn Conway and Andrea James, upped their efforts. As I and Dr. Anne Lawrence (a transgender woman) have explained, the real “problem” was that Bailey’s book put forth ideas about women like McCloskey, Conway, and James that they didn’t want disseminated. They wanted to kill the book to stifle the ideas and stories in it, presumably also to stop others from talking about autogynephilia.
At the time of this mess, writer Victoria Brownworth, who was on the committee, said she saw the withdrawal as akin to censorship. But facing increasing harassment, the committee voted a third time, one vote flipped, and Bailey’s book had its finalist status withdrawn.
Naturally, given the shitstorms I’ve been in with Bailey’s detractors since I showed in excruciating detail what they did to try to shut him up with a host of patently false charges, I had been assuming my book would never be named a finalist for the same award. Why would the Lambda Literary Foundation take that risk, particularly given that Andrea James had relentlessly harassed Jim Marks online even long after it was all over?
But it was true: my book was named a finalist in the non-fiction category. Learning it was real, I felt enormously honored and happy. I thought this was a sign that perhaps the foundation had decided that there was no way to make everyone in the LGBT world happy, and I’d done good enough work that even if some were unhappy, my work—on the Bailey book controversy, on the abuse of intersex children, on attempts to medically prevent lesbianism with prenatal treatments—was well worth recognizing.
I also thought maybe this was the foundation’s way of specifically signaling support for the intersex rights movement, since so much of Galileo’s Middle Finger is about that movement and about its intertwining with the LGBT rights movement.
When I wondered who might have advocated for the book to receive a Lammy, I am happy to say that so many people I respect came to mind: Jim Marks, Victoria Brownworth, Dan Savage, Anne Lawrence, and others. The more I thought about it, the more finalist status made sense to me. Why should the Foundation, thirteen years after it was harassed unjustly, do anything other than march on without cowardice?
So I joyfully answered the congratulatory email I received from Lambda and started making plans to attend the awards ceremony in New York. Not too surprisingly, Conway and James soon launched a campaign against my book’s finalist status, but I pretty much ignored this. I figured the Foundation knew this would happen and was prepared to weather the storm.
But no. You caved. And quickly—much more quickly than the Foundation did under Marks in 2003. In spite of all the LGBT people who have actively praised my book, who have thanked me for the work, you quickly caved to a small group of bullies who have proven time and time again that they will do anything they can to get attention and to force everyone to adhere to their singular account of transgenderism, even when it negates the reported childhoods of gay and lesbian people, even when it denies the reality of many transgender people and attempts to force them into closets because of their sexual orientations.
Mr. Valenzuela, I was frankly surprised you caved when I bothered to look up, after your email, your own history as “the Poster Boy for Unsafe Sex,” a title given to you by POZ when you talked about the pleasures of barebacking during the height of the AIDS epidemic. I would have thought you’d know that the “LGBT community” is never unified on hot political issues. I would have thought you know that movement forward necessarily means uncomfortable disputes along the way. A necessary part of leading in LGBT work is having a pair.
And what exactly did I do wrong, tell me? Your email gave no explanation of how my book is “inconsistent with its mission of affirming LGBTQ lives.” That’s because there isn’t one. In fact, my book does “affirm” LGBTQ lives by arguing that we need to take seriously the reality of those lives, in science and in activism. My book and my work is fully in keeping with Lambda’s mission.
It’s true I am not personally LGBTQ or intersex. But so what? By the logic that you have to hold an identity card to do good activism for that population, no one who is cisgendered lesbian can advocate for trans rights, no one who is gay can advocate for bi rights. By that logic, straight people on the Supreme Court should not give a crap about marriage equality—yet fortunately, some have. Non-LGBT people in the North Carolina legislature shouldn’t care about the harm they enact with their foolish laws—yet we know they should care.
I haven't put twenty years of my life into advancing intersex patient rights because I’m intersex; I have done it because intersex people deserve those rights. Had I been able to keep my Lammy finalist status, I would have used it to remind non-LGBTQI people that they are needed in the movements for full equality—that they have no excuse not to help.
But now I don’t have that. Your decision is, honestly, pathetic. It reaffirms that LGBTQ people who don’t toe the party line of bullies and trolls like Conway and James must stay silent or else be harassed. It allows a small group of transgender people to smear a book that contains critically important original histories of and advocacy for intersex, transgender, lesbian, and gay people.
Unnecessary shame, I have learned in my twenty years of work on sexual minorities, is at the core of much suffering. It motivates unnecessary surgeries on the genitals of intersex babies, causes people to be closeted about their sexual orientations in ways that harm themselves and those they love or want to love, drives youth to engage in sometimes fatal self-harm, and pushes self-loathing bullies to bash.
There’s only one good reason for shame, and that is when you hurt others unjustly.
You, sir, have good reason to be ashamed of yourself. I hope you are.
Alice Dreger, PhD
Update: To see Rep. Mike Honda's condemnation of my book on Twitter, click here. (No, I don't think Rep. Honda has bothered to read my book. Which is really ironic because the book is about books condemned without being read!) To see Victoria Brownworth's reply to Lambda Literary Foundation's decision, click here. (Brownworth is a Lammy winner, a Lammy finalist this year, and, as noted above, also denounced Lambda's similar treatment of Mike Bailey's book in 2003.) To read Prof. Bruce Henderson's letter to Lambda Literary Foundation, resigning as a reviewer for them over how they treated my work, click here. On March 27, Dan Savage also spoke out against Lambda's actions. See a sample of his tweets about this here and here.