4 min

Lost in trans-lation

How a book award went so wrong

GOOD FAITH? The Lambda Literary Foundation jury didn't seem to realize that their nominee, The Man Who Would Be Queen by J Michael Bailey, was at the centre of a storm. Credit: Xtra files

On Feb 2, the US-based Lambda Literary Foundation announced the book The Man Who Would Be Queen was a finalist in the transgender category for the 16th Annual Lambda Literary Awards coming up in June.

The Lambda Awards are intended to “recognize and honour the best in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature.” When the largely gay, lesbian and bi committee of judges chose J Michael Bailey’s 2003 book, it was with sincere positive intentions, but lacking in good judgment. At that stage they had few trans people involved in the judging process, not all the members of the committee had even read the whole book and they did not take into account the controversy already swirling around the book.

A significant critique of Bailey’s book centres on its positioning as scientific research. Charges have been filed against Bailey and his institution, Northwestern University, by Anjelica Kieltyka, the woman known as “Cher” in the book. Her complaint cites many examples of unethical research practices, including that she “was a participant in a research study without being informed,” that she “did not receive, nor was asked to sign, an informed consent document” and that Bailey’s role as the doctor providing her approval letter for sex reassignment surgery constituted a conflict of interest. Most keenly she expresses she is “unhappy and most concerned with the presumptions and misinterpretations” he made of her life in the book in order to “suit his needs.”

Out of the total of six women who were used as subjects in the book, three others have filed similar complaints.

A second important critique of the Bailey book stems from his prejudicial generalizations about transsexual women. This transphobia plays itself out with Bailey characterizing transsexual women as people with paraphilias, which he defines as unusual sexual preferences that include sadism, necrophilia, bestiality and paedophilia. To him, transsexuality is all about a person’s sexual habits and appetites, rather than their sense of internal identity.

He also seems to be unable to understand the difference between a person’s gender identity and their sexual orientation. He places trans women into one of two mutually exclusive groups. They are either a) extremely feminine homosexual men or b) men who pursue a crossdressing fetish to the extreme point of mutilating their bodies. Both assertions erase the identities and lived experiences of these women by claiming they are actually just severely maladjusted men.

In the wake of the book’s nomination, a vocal group of transsexual and transgendered community members began a campaign to have the book removed from the Lambda list of finalists. Dierdre McCloskey, a professor of economics at the University Of Illinois and a 1999 Lambda Award nominee in the transgender category for her memoir Crossing, said of the Bailey nomination: “It would be like nominating Mein Kampf for a literary prize in Jewish studies.”

Initially, the Lambda Literary Foundation stuck to its guns and sent out a press release stating they would not bow to mounting public pressure from the trans community. As a result, trans activists demanded that the organization “give back the T” in its mission statement if it would not be accountable to the community’s concerns.

Transsexual activists suspected that the Lambda jury had a fundamental lack of knowledge about trans issues that would inhibit them from recognizing the book’s intrinsic transphobia. An on-line petition signed by more than 1,400 trans folks and allies around the globe was successfully launched to draw attention to the trans-phobic nature of the book.

Two weeks ago, foundation director Jim Marks acknowledged in an interview with that with regards to the question of whether or not the book was transphobic, “the judges looked at the book more closely and decided it was.” The book was finally dropped from the list of nominees. Marks called the whole experience “humbling.”

This debacle raises some interesting questions about the ways in which gay and lesbian services and organizations are struggling with acting respectfully toward a trans community that ostensibly falls within their mandates, and of which they have little knowledge.

Certainly Ts have been sprouting up everywhere as gay, lesbian and bi groups are tacking on the T for trans onto their names. Optimistic transgender and transsexual activists once applauded gay and lesbian services for adding the metaphoric T. But some members of the trans communities are realizing that adding a letter of the alphabet rarely brings true inclusivity.

These days it is rare to find a queer organization in Toronto without a T. But how are Toronto gay, lesbian and bisexual [GLB] agencies treating the trannies?

Achieving access is not the same as providing a truly inclusive experience. One trans woman who wished to remain anonymous submitted this succinct statement. “Trans people can access most services, if we’re strong enough to deal with whatever bullshit comes up.”

Leslie Forrester, co-founder of Canadian Transexuals Fight For Their Rights, is struggling to get most organizations to even recognize that there are at least two distinct trans communities with different sets of needs – transgender (encompassing crossdressers, drag kings and drag queens) and transsexual (including all those individuals who live full time in the sex and gender opposite from that which they were designated at birth). She has been dismissed outright many times.

“Far too often these community groups don’t ask. They just play the parent and do what they think is best for us. Funny that they wonder why we aren’t so thankful afterward,” says Forrester.

Trans people just want their feedback taken seriously. This is precisely where Lambda initially failed.

The Lambda Literary Foundation’s experience is symptomatic of the larger queer community’s challenges in accommodating trans issues. They want to be inclusive, but have no idea how to accomplish real inclusion. Gay, lesbian and bisexual groups get lost on trans issues because frankly, they still just don’t get it.

The Lambda Literary Found-ation had a transgender award category, yet had few trans-identified individuals sitting on its jury. The foundation did not respond with a statement of apology nor of support. It did not admit it needed some education. It did not gather a committee of trans consultants to discuss the critiques surrounding the book. It trivialized the concerns of trans individuals saying it would not bow down to political correctness. In other words, the Lambda Literary Foundation, along with so many other gay, lesbian and bi groups, eschewed accountability to trans communities.

Accountability means actively striving to meet the needs of trans communities by inviting them not only to participate, but also to provide critical feedback. Accountability is taking that critical feedback to heart and making changes accordingly. The Lambda Literary Foundation learned this lesson the hard way, but it’s a lesson they are certain to never forget.

* Kyle Scanlon is the coordinator of trans programs at the 519 Community Centre.