Last June, Alexander Chee stood in front of a cheering crowd at the 2019 Lambda Literary Awards to receive the organization’s Trustee Award, which, as actor Anthony Rapp explained in Chee’s introduction, honors “individuals who have broken new ground through their achievements, passionate commitment, and contributions” to the LGBTQ literature and arts community. In his acceptance speech Chee said, “I’ve been thinking about this ecosystem that our communities create, that bit by bit lifts us up even though we don’t know it at the time.”
Lambda Literary is itself an ecosystem, and its numerous programs have been lifting up LGBTQ writers around the country since 1987, when L. Page (Deacon) Maccubbin, owner of Lambda Rising Bookstore in Washington, D.C., published the first Lambda Book Report, which brought attention to LGBTQ titles. The organization became a nonprofit ten years later, and its stated mission is to nurture and advocate for LGBTQ writers, “elevating the impact of their words to create community, preserve our legacies, and affirm the value of our stories and our lives.” More than 500 authors have attended the Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices; more than 7,000 young people in New York City have read and met with LGBTQ writers through the LGBTQ Writers in the Schools program; more than 3,500 authors have been celebrated at the Lambda Literary Awards, affectionately known as the “Lammys”; and more than 320,000 readers have browsed reviews of LGBTQ books on the online Lambda Literary Review.
But after more than thirty years championing LGBTQ literature, says the president of the organization’s Board of Trustees, Amy Scholder, Lambda Literary needs help to survive the devastating financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is no other organization that supports LGBTQ writers and readers of all ages,” she says. “I don’t want to imagine a world in which our programs cease to exist, but that’s the reality we’ve been facing since this pandemic struck.”
So, less than a year after Chee received the Trustee Award, he—along with numerous other members of the writing community, including Jennifer Benka, Eileen Myles, and Christopher Soto—has turned to social media to ask his fellow readers and writers to help the organization stay afloat. Myles tweeted, “There are plenty of lgbt writers who have careers only because this organization shepherded them & saw them & rewarded them. It’s the lifeblood right next to the writing itself. Straight or lgbt this is your literature.” Benka, the president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, said over e-mail that Lambda is “critical to ensuring that LGBTQ literature and writers are visible and represented.”
With nonprofits across the country navigating new, uncertain terrain, why has the current crisis proven so devastating to Lambda Literary? Executive director Sue Landers explains that although the organization’s programs and reach have continued to expand over the past thirty-two years, “Lambda Literary has always operated along very thin margins, and sometimes at a loss.” She notes that Lambda, like many similar organizations that serve historically marginalized communities, “does not have deep cash reserves or an endowment to help us mitigate such large and sweeping income losses.”
Landers adds that despite previous periods of financial loss, “what COVID-19 has wrought is unprecedented in the history of Lambda.” The nonprofit depends on a combination of different types of contributions to cover expenses, including individual donations, admission fees from priced programming, and local, state, and national grants—and the current pandemic has disrupted all of these income streams at once. For the first time in the organization’s history, Lambda leadership had to cancel the Lambda Literary Awards ceremony, which, along with “bringing together the full spectrum of queer writers and book lovers,” is an important annual fund-raiser. Last year, Landers says they raised $10,000 when Lambda Award–winning writer and board member Rakesh Satyal “took the stage and belted out a rendition of ‘Someone Like You’ from Jekyll & Hyde that inspired audience members to give.”
The Lammys are not the only program of Lambda Literary to be affected; the LGBTQ Writers in the Schools program, which brings queer writers into New York City classrooms, has also been suspended. “At a time when LGBTQ young people are particularly vulnerable, it broke our hearts to not being able to continue this extraordinarily affirming work,” says Landers. Because the program is financed through grants, its suspension has also resulted in a loss of funding. “These are just two examples,” Landers adds. “Other programs are facing similar postponement or curtailing, which has translated into lost revenue.”
Scholder and Landers are looking to widen their circle of contributors, “not only to get us through COVID, but to double down on our community commitment to nurturing and celebrating the queer imagination.” Their primary method is through a crowd-funding campaign—the one Chee, Myles, Benka, and others have recently been tweeting about. Collected under the hashtag #SaveLambdaLiterary, the campaign had, as of April 27, raised more than $123,000 from over a thousand individual donors; writer Chuck Forester has also pledged a $25,000 matching gift. Landers notes it will take at least $250,000 total “to ensure that Lambda can survive as an organization and adapt its programs for whatever shape this world’s ‘new normal’ takes,” but that the response and support has been “extraordinary.” It’s a reflection of how Lambda’s community knows, she says, “especially in bad times like these, how important it is to lift up our narratives and celebrate queer life.”
Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in January 2021. Her poems and essays have recently appeared in 32 Poems, Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, Guernica, and the Southern Review, among other publications.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that an online Lambda Awards ceremony will take place on June 1. The winners will be announced on June 1, but no ceremony has yet been planned.