On May 26th, at the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards, Edward Albee accepted the Pioneer Award, an honor bestowed upon those who have broken down barriers in the literary world for the LGBT community. This was his first mistake.
The second mistake he made that night was including the following in his acceptance speech: “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”
Later, on NPR, he explained, “… so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.”
Members of the LGBT community who took offense to his words argue, in the words of one such member, that “at the Lambda Literary Awards of all places it seemed particularly offensive, disheartening, and inappropriate.” When a member of a minority community, be they gay, poor, half-man half-gazelle, does good work and enters in some way the waters of the mainstream, they are, by laws of the universe, representing the community of source. And this is a good thing. It is a thing to be nurtured and encouraged. It is the only way, one half-man half-gazelle at a time, that the mainstream can come to know whatever it is that it has turned a blind eye to, and, at some point far into the future, embrace it.
Lucia touched on this last week, and we played a game together, as well, illustrating, it turns out, how very brave and right Mr. Albee is. He is brave and he is right but he was mistaken on the evening of May 26. Simply put, and to mix my metaphors, in a crusade you must know your audience. It would be very disheartening, offensive and inappropriate if, upon receiving an award for best bookstore manager, I stood in front of an auditorium of fellow bookstore managers and declared myself to be, above and beyond all else, a lover of the word. “I am,” I would say, “a lover of the word who happens to be a bookstore manager.” And all the other bookstore managers would look at me with disdain because inherent in my words is the notion (a notion that is in reality far more multi-dimensional upon closer scrutiny,) that being a bookstore manager is somehow not good enough. And it is this notion, that being a gay writer is somehow not good enough, that people are reacting to, and rightly so, in this context.
In the end, they’re both right. It is far more important to transcend self as an artist than to promote the womb that may or may not have had a hand in shaping that self. It is also important that members of a community be able to sing its songs to the world. And be heard. It is not sympathy that is lacking here. Rather, it’s empathy.