A few weeks ago the hype around the 2018 GCLS convention began. As per every year around that time, Facebook feeds were full of people preparing to go… and familiar private conversations were taking place in darkened corners of the Internet. You see, for every one excited person preparing to fly to the GCLS convention and have a great time, I know at least three people who are boycotting the organisation.
For those of you who don’t know, GCLS stands for Golden Crown Literary Society. It’s a non-profit organisation which basically aims to teach, support, and recognise lesbian literature, recognition being delivered through the awards ceremony that takes place at the end of each annual convention—known as the “Goldies”.
When I first started writing, I was told that I needed to apply for Goldies, as recognition by GCLS was really important for my career (Newsflash; never won a Goldie and I’m doing okay!). So, I hopped on over to the website and started to read about GCLS, which had been explained to me as the leading organisation for authors of our genre. Scrolling through the website, I saw a sea of language I wasn’t very comfortable with. For example, here are the old awards eligibility criteria:
Content must include significant lesbian characters and/or themes and meets ONE of the following criteria:
- The main character identifies as a lesbian
- The main character is or ends up in a lesbian relationship
- The theme or plot deals with lesbian issues and/or lesbian life
Now, I don’t want to be one of those picky people… but I’m not a lesbian. Nor are most of my characters, nor a lot of my readers. I’m bisexual. I’m married to a lesbian, sure… but I’m still bisexual. And, as I hope we all know by now, being in a female/female relationship does not make the people in that relationship lesbian. I was really unhappy with this language. And, as I started speaking to more authors in the genre, I heard more and more negative things about GCLS. I wasn’t the only person unsatisfied with the language being used. But language was the tip of the iceberg, GCLS had a general inclusivity issue. People of colour were feeling squeezed out of the organisaton, and definitely out of the conventions. Pictures of conventions gone by were a sea of white faces. Trans authors, and male authors, had experienced pushback from members and didn’t want anything to do with GCLS.
After hearing that I wasn’t the only one unhappy with our supposed leading organisation… I ignored GCLS. Over the next two years I heard many complaints from ex-members, authors, readers… all saying the same things. The awards are rigged, the same people win every year. The organisation doesn’t recognise people who don’t identify as lesbian. The membership is entirely white. I nodded and agreed with all of the things people were saying to me.
But I didn’t do anything.
It was only this year that I checked my behaviour. I was taking part in my very own silent protest, which is no help to anyone. I was boycotting GCLS but I wasn’t telling anyone that I was doing so, most importantly I wasn’t telling GCLS that I was boycotting them and I wasn’t telling them why I was doing so. It’s like having an argument with someone but never telling them that you’re having an argument, and not explaining why. How will that situation ever be resolved? It won’t.
And it became clear that I wasn’t the only one; large numbers of people were avoiding GCLS. But none of us were saying anything.
I started to have conversations with people and ask about their issues with GCLS. I spoke with people of colour who complained about the lack of colour represented at GCLS, but they themselves wouldn’t attend. I spoke with authors who said that the awards always went to the same authors and publishing houses, but they themselves wouldn’t submit their books for awards. And I myself was a bisexual author of WLW fiction who refused to join the organisation or submit my books for awards because I didn’t like the language the organisation used.
How would anything ever change if we all continued our silent boycott?
I made a decision. I’d email Mary Phillips, the Executive Director/President of GCLS, and tell her about my issues and suggest potential solutions where possible. Below is a copy of my message:
Dear Ms Phillips,
Firstly, congratulations on another successful GCLS conference. As a marketing consultant who has been involved in organising many events over the years, I know the volume of work that goes into the planning and execution of such large events.
I wanted to get in touch with you as I recently realised that I was privately boycotting GCLS. I did not even consider attending the conference, I deliberately left GCLS out of my awards applications, and I allowed my membership to lapse. I did these things for reasons I will explain below, but it was only over the last couple of weeks that I reminded myself that change only comes if requested.
My private boycott will have precisely zero effect if I don’t raise my issues with GCLS with you and the board. And, I’d like to renew my GCLS membership and be a part of the organisation again. I go out of my way to help our writing community, I support many authors in terms of marketing and publishing advice. I am active in many online forums, running a couple myself. So, it makes sense for myself to be a part of the leading organisation for writers and readers in my community.
My primary reason for discounting GCLS is one of language, I’m referring to the term “lesbian literature”. Myself, and many other authors and readers, find this term to be non-inclusive. I am a bisexual woman, married to a lesbian, and while I write novels about women who love women… many of them are not lesbians. They are bisexual or pansexual. Therefore the term lesbian does not apply to myself, nor to my books.
GCLS is not the only organisation guilty of using lesbian as a catch-all term. My biggest online distributor, Amazon, does the same. To the point where I am forced to list my books under “lesbian romance” if I am to find any readers, as well as call myself a best selling lesbian romance author, even though I loathe this term as it is not accurate and not representative of myself, my books, nor the majority of my readers.
But, I don’t expect a business such as Amazon to understand the subtle differences, the fact of the matter is that most of our genres aren’t even split by sexuality and are grouped in LGBT categories. Such is the way of big business, we are a very small cog in their working machinery. But, I would like for our leading organisation to represent me and other authors and readers like me who feel that the terms lesbian fiction, and lesfic, are now outdated.
A replacement phrase is a difficult question to answer, many people feel very strongly about the choice of word used. Personally, I use F/F and WLW, and I know many are reclaiming the word queer. It’s something for debate, but I respectfully request that you do consider the matter and look at changing the term lesbian fiction to something more inclusive.
I have conducted some research and have found that a number of authors and readers have allowed their memberships to lapse for similar reasons to mine. A lack of inclusivity with language as well as identifying a lack of diversity when it comes to ethnicity, as well as questions surrounding the awards process. Many authors with a younger fanbase, such as myself, don’t bother to mention GCLS to our readers due to the perceived negativity surrounding the organisation.
Personally, I noticed a small improvement from 2017 to 2018 when it came to ethnic diversity, at least from the photographs I saw online. There was no longer a blanket of white faces, and I understand from your hiring of a Director of Inclusion this must be something you are aware of and trying to remedy.
But, there is a very long way to go. There are many private discussions about GCLS being dated, and non-inclusive. I feel a change in language would help to demonstrate that GCLS is trying to make positive changes for the future. Indeed, the gesture of such a language change could generate a return of members which could lead to funding to drive forward further inclusivity changes.
From my third-party position, I see that many people are boycotting GCLS for the reasons mentioned above. But I can also see that GCLS is trying to remedy some of these issues. The very people you are trying to make changes for, are the ones who continue to withhold their membership and stay away from the organisation. I have heard many accusations about the awards being given to the same names, both authors and publishing houses, but my response to that is—if we’re all boycotting GCLS, then, of course, the awards will go to the same people. If people boycott GCLS due to a lack of ethnic diversity, then, of course, it will be a sea of white faces.
I hope you take my thoughts and suggestions into consideration. I passionately believe that a change in language would be a very public way of demonstrating that GCLS is committed to the future of our community, in all its shapes and sizes. And I would be pleased to renew my membership and encourage others to do the same if I see these changes taking place.
The way I saw it, one of three things could happen.
1) I hear nothing. This would mean I tried, and I could continue my boycott in the knowledge that I tried to make a change.
2) I’d hear back and they wouldn’t agree with my assessment or care to make any changes. Then I could again continue my boycott and know that I’d done something to highlight my issues.
3) I’d hear back and they’d agree and be willing to make changes.
Luckily, it was the third one. And more than that, they had already identified the issues and were well on their way to making changes. Here’s some of what Mary said to me in her reply:
Language is indeed important. It is one of our primary goals to become a more inclusive organization and bringing on a Director of Inclusion was the first step. We needed someone dedicated to this both internally and externally. Cheryl is awesome in this directive making sure that we, as an organization, or becoming more inclusive as well as keeping up with the pulse of the community. The next step we took was to have a strategy planning session with the full board to review and revise our mission statement. We concur that language is important. That statement now reads:
Mission: To increase the visibility and quality of lesbian-themed literature
- Recognize and reward quality literary works about women who love women;
- Provide learning opportunities, encouragement and assistance to new and established writers in developing their craft;
- Provide opportunities to promote lesbian-themed literature including events that bring readers and writers together;
- Be inclusive of friends/supporters of literature that celebrates women who love women
Another item we discussed at length is – GCLS does not determine how anyone identifies themselves. We accept all members who support our mission and goals regardless of identity.
For me, the language change in the mission statement is a positive step forward. Yes, we still have that pesky “lesbian-themed” literature in there… but look at the women who love women language. And the acceptance of all members regardless of identity. This is more of an organisation I can support, I don’t feel like anyone will be left behind. And hiring a Director of Inclusion is another big step for GCLS, it means they have identified a problem and they are working towards solutions.
Something else that Mary said, was about the awards:
To reflect growing diversity, all GOLDIE categories include this in proposed judging guidelines:
These books must include significant themes, characters, situations, and/or other content about lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, sexually fluid, asexual, and other women who are attracted to women.
It does not matter how the author identifies.
Now, this is a proposed change and I believe is being discussed to go live with a new brand identity and website that will launch later this year. But if this is the direction they head in, it’s great news.
So, GCLS is doing their bit.
Now it’s over to us.
Yes, many people took a step away from GCLS over recent years. Unhappy with inclusivity issues, unhappy with awards procedures, unhappy with language usage. I understand that, I was one of those people. But now GCLS is trying to implement changes, they are trying to be what we want them to be. But they can only do that if we support them. The same old faces will win all the awards if they are the only ones applying for them. There won’t be any people of colour if none decide to attend.
GCLS is making an effort to try to be the organisation we need them to be. But they will only succeed in that mission, and improve, if we join them and support them.
So, I’m going to sign up for membership and pay to be a member, I’ll apply for an award, and maybe I’ll even go to the convention. Who’s going to join me?
By the way… where is Pittsburgh?