LGBTQ Literature As Transformative and Life-Saving! Social Media As Digital Activism and Life-Changing!: An Interpretation of Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2014 Crowd-Sourcing Campaign: “What LGBTQI Book Saved Your Life?”

Overview of This Project
My project interprets a specific LGBTQ-themed crowd-sourcing campaign to mean that: 1) LGBTQ literature is transformative and life-saving, and 2) social media can be a form of digital activism with life-changing aspects, as it connects the LGBTQ community.  I examine the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2014 Crowd-Sourcing Campaign: “What LGBTQI Book Saved Your Life?”  This project includes the following: 1) an explanation of my personal journey to this project and my research; 2) the history of Lambda Literary Foundation’s crowd-sourcing campaign; 3) the launch of the campaign; 4) the history of the Lambda Literary Foundation; 5) links to the sources; and 6) a series of images that visualize this project.

My Personal Journey to This Project
Since 2012, I have been researching the effects of LGBTQ literature on the lives of its LGBTQ readers and writers. My overarching research question was, and still is: Can LGBTQ literature transform and save the lives of its LGBTQ readers and writers; if yes, then how; if no, then why not; if no, then what else can?  My other questions include: 1) What is LGBTQ literature; who reads it; who writes it?  2) What are the purposes and uses of LGBTQ literature?  3) How does LGBTQ literature affect its LGBTQ readers and writers, and what are the effects?  4) Does LGBTQ literature have transformative powers; if yes, what are they?  5) Can the acts of reading and writing LGBTQ literature prevent LGBTQ readers and writers from committing suicide?  6) Why must LGBTQ literature be separated from mainstream, popular, dominant, heterosexual literature?  7) What does a textual analysis of LGBTQ literature show?  8) Can LGBTQ literature give hope to the LGBTQ community; if yes, then how; if now, then why not?

Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2014 Crowd-Sourcing Campaign is enhancing my research and will be included in my dissertation: The Transformative, Empowering, and Political Acts of Reading and Writing LGBTQ Literature: An Activist Approach to the Multiple Purposes of Literature.  

Lambda Literary Foundation’s Crowd-Sourcing Campaign is an example of using digital technologies, the Internet, and social media to connect and record the oral and written histories of the LGBTQ Community, a population that has had its existence and history erased. This Campaign is also an example of digital activism in the form of documenting the existence of an oppressed group.

As a survivor of suicidal ideation and attempts, my research is personal. I have written about how I have used literature to survive—to heal, cope, and empower myself. This is also why I have a fascination for, and have been studying, Bibliotherapy[i] (see endnote for the definition and history of Bibliotherapy).  In his book, Interviewing as Qualitative Research, Irving Seidman writes that “Research, like almost everything else in life, has autobiographical roots” (24).  I agree with him, my research reveals such similar thinking, and this project proves just how personal and autobiographical research can be.

In my own writing, I have discussed my adolescence being consumed with thoughts of and attempts at suicide, which were the result of my loneliness and discomfort with growing gay in a heterosexual world.  In my essay, “This Is What I Remember,” which was published in the book that I co-edited, Our Naked Lives: Essays from Gay Italian-American Men, I declare: “Literature has amazing powers that can change the lives of the readers; literature saved my life” (8).  So, if literature could save my life, then could it save other people’s lives?  Yes, I also think that literature can and has saved the lives of other LGBTQ people.

The following excerpts from my essay, “This Is What I Remember,” reveal the transformative, empowering, and political acts of reading and writing about my gay identity:

I remember everything; yet, I remember nothing.  I remember more bad than good.  I remember more misery, pain, and suffering than happiness.  I remember the loneliness and discomfort of growing up gay in a heterosexual world. 
This is what I remember.
This is what I remember.

Suicide:
I remember the constant thoughts of wanting to commit suicide.  Or, more so, the constant thoughts of not wanting to exist.  My attempts were pathetic and cliché: trying to swallow a lot of aspirin, holding the razor blade to my wrist, sticking my head in the oven, tying a rope to a pipe.  But I was never brave enough to succeed.

Suicide: A Poem
The blood mixes
through the streams of veins
 
blue lines
decorating the skin
 
when cut and tasted
the juice is sweet
 
Life is blended
through the body
 
and when sliced
life is drained
 
and the problems
are peeled away
 
no more pain and suffering
Death is the only way

Loneliness:
My youth was consumed with loneliness, feelings of not belonging, and thinking of ways to kill myself.  I experienced many dark nights of the soul.  And television saved me.  Although I read a lot, I looked to TV for the noise to comfort me, and make me feel less lonesome.  Reading is a solitary act, not always the best thing for a lonely person.  As a teenager, I was alone many Friday and Saturday nights because my single-parent mother worked as a waitress, and my teenage sister was either working, too, or out with her friends.  Those nights, I was at home by myself, sitting on the sofa, or lying in bed, watching TV shows.  The Golden Girls got me through many lonely Saturday nights—not so much the TV show, but those four extraordinary women.  I was a gay boy, and I knew it, and I yearned to have friends like those four elderly women. 

Lonely: A Poem
As I walk through the land,
I’m all alone.
There’s no one holding my hand.
People can be so cold.
There’s no one to hold.
I’m all alone.
No one cares,
But everyone stares.
I wish someone knew me.
Then someone would love me.
I’m all alone,
As I walk through the land.
I’m all alone,
No one to hold my hand.

Identity Crisis #1:
I remember my first identity crisis.  I hated being me practically my entire life.  I hated being Italian American practically my entire life.  I hated the negative stereotypes associated with being Italian American; I did not want to admit that I was American of Italian descent because of such negative stereotypes and images.  As a young child, I wanted to change my last name to “Carson,” or something else “non-Italian.”  I was embarrassed and ashamed of who I was and where I came from.  My identity was in a crisis, and it would not be until many years later—in my adulthood—after reading much about Italian Americans, written by Italian Americans, that my identity crisis would come to an end.  Literature has amazing powers that can change the lives of the readers; literature saved my life.    

Identity Crisis #2:
I remember my second identity crisis.  Later in life, I would come to realize that my ethnicity was not the only aspect of my life that marginalized me, and made me not “fit in.”  As a homosexual male, my sexual orientation also marginalized me, and made me feel like an outcast, made me feel less than human.  And it must be stated, and known, that with its conservative and traditional ways of thinking, the Italian American community—my own community—has not always been accepting and understanding of my sexual orientation.  Ironically, one marginalized community marginalizes—even minimizes and oppresses—another marginalized community.

I remember when I was a young child in elementary school.  Ironically, I cannot remember the exact age.  I had a difficult time relating to the other students.  I knew that I did not “fit in.”  I was not the only American of Italian descent, but I was one of the few in a school with mostly Jewish American and Irish American children.  And of course, I befriended the other three to five children who were also Italian American.  We formed a close bond.   

Currently, some people of certain vulnerable identities and populations are using literature to cope. I’m situating this presentation in the current events of: 1) An increase in police brutality against the Transgender Community; 2) The shooting at Pulse, the LGBTQ Nightclub in Orlando; and 3) President-Elect Trump’s New AmeriKKKa.

In his book, Why Read?, Mark Edmundson tells us that the fundamental purpose of literature is to give hope to all citizens.  I take it a step further to add that it is even more important for certain literatures to give hope to certain populations of people, certain groups/communities; for example, LGBTQ literature gives hope to LGBTQ readers and writers because of various political, social, cultural, historical, religious reasons.  It is from Edmundson that I define the purpose of literature, especially the purpose of LGBTQ literature.  I move from all literature in general to specific LGBTQ literature.

In our current world of daily cruelty, destruction, and injustices, literature is a tool for survival, coping, healing, empowerment, and betterment.  The functions and powers of literature are situated in its ability to improve lives and the societies in which they live.  In her book, Why Literature?, Cristina Bruns writes: “Why literature?  The question is a timely one for the profession of literary study.  In the past few decades as marketability and revenue production increasingly take precedence over all other considerations, scholars of the humanities and of literature specifically have faced the need to justify their work” (1).  An effective justification for the teaching and study of literature is that one of its purposes is to create social justice, and it can be used as an instrument to change and save the lives of its readers and writers.

In his poem, “An Open Letter to My Students” (published in This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching), Gerard Wozek explains to his students that LGBTQ literature matters because LGBTQ lives matter: “What I want you to know is that these lives / matter” (1-2).  He wants his students to know that LGBTQ literature is about identity and identity politics: “Throughout history, before and after labels, / there was always an impulse toward making fire: / woman to woman, man to man, one being to another / being. / Mark it down. / We burned for one another. / We risked everything” (15-19).  He references the gay characters, themes, issues, and subtexts in certain important works of literature, making the statement that LGBTQ lives matter, that same-sex love is significant, and that literature reveals such to be true: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Shug and Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Sebastian and Charles in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, David and Joey in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Adrienne Rich’s love poems in Dream of a Common Language: “Take note. These acts of love hold significance” (14).  Finally, Wozek tells his students that reading LGBTQ literature in the classroom can create positive change and social justice: “If we can enter the life of but one of those characters (30)… Then we / can allow that flame that exists in the text to leap / off the page and set up a bonfire in our own heart (33-35).   Thus, the literature can be used to create empathy and equity for LGBTQ lives.

Wozek eloquently explains how the teaching of LGBTQ literature creates positive change and social justice in the classroom and beyond.  I must add that LGBTQ literature, and the teaching and reading of it, whether in the classroom or outside of it, creates positive change and social justice because it declares to the students and everyone else that LGBTQ people exist, that they are human, that they are worthy, that their lives matter, that they have voices, and that their voices will no longer be silenced, ignored, marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against, and violated.  When LGBTQ literature is taught, read, and analyzed in the English classroom, the clear message is that it is important enough to study and to include in the curriculum; therefore, LGBTQ people must be important enough to be considered as human beings and citizens.  Thus, ideas of equality are created, minds are enlightened, hope is tangible, ignorance shrinks, and discrimination weakens.  This is how LGBTQ literature creates social justice in the classroom and beyond.

The History of Lambda Literary Foundation’s Crowd-Sourcing Campaign
The campaign was initially created for the 2014 Lambda Literary Awards, also known as “The Lammys.”  Melanie La Rosa, the 2014 Lammy Host Committee Co-Chair, created a video from the video submissions, which were sent to the Lambda Literary Foundation, via Facebook, Twitter, and email, from LGBTQ folks around the world, who answered the questions: “What LGBTQI Book Saved Your Life?” or “Has an LGBT Book Saved Your Life?”

Since the 2014 crowd-sourcing campaign, its Facebook page and its Twitter hashtag (#abooksavedmylife) continue to be used by LGBTQ individuals who continue to discover the campaign—which has evolved into a project with an ongoing life of its own—and submit more answers to the questions—“What LGBTQI Book Saved Your Life?” or “Has an LGBT Book Saved Your Life?”—responding to the LGBTQ literature that has transformed and saved their lives, with a reader-response approach.

In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Lesbian writer Jeanette Winterson writes: “I had no one to help me, but T.S. Eliot helped me.  So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes…I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy…That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.  It isn’t a hiding place.  It’s a finding place.”  Thus, LGBTQ literature can be a “finding place,” helping us to survive in this complicated world that we share.

I also interpret the Lambda Literary Foundation’s crowd-sourcing campaign, which is in the form of digital social media, to be another “finding place” where LGBTQ readers and writers can connect with each other to share their personal stories on how they found themselves, how they found their identities, and how they found the literature that helped them to survive.  And that digital finding place is one of the most powerful spaces in existence for the LGBTQ community.

The Launch of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Crowd-Sourcing Campaign
The following is the Press Release by Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director, March 26, 2014:What LGBT Book Saved Your Life?

Lambda Literary Foundation Launches Crowd-Sourcing Campaign: “Has an LGBT Book Saved Your Life?”

Has a book ever saved your life? Perhaps a book has changed the way you think about your sexual or gender identity. Or helped you through that rough patch, when you just weren’t sure you could own up to being a queer artist. Maybe reading an LGBTQI novel blew your mind and expanded your horizons. Did Huck Finn mean something totally different to you than he did to your classmates? Did Dancer from the Dance give you the courage to write about your first kiss? Has a piece of literature ever meant so much to you that it eased the pain of living and working outside the “mainstream,” in a world where not only our books but our lives are shelved separately from everyone else’s?

Read the full press release and call for submissions here: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/foundation-updates/03/26/what-lgbt-book-saved-your-life.

The History of the Lambda Literary Foundation
From the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Web site: “The Lambda Literary Awards identify and celebrate the best lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender books of the year and affirm that LGBTQ stories are part of the literature of the world. The Lammys, which receive national and international media attention, bring together 600 attendees—including nominees, celebrities, sponsors, and publishing executives—to celebrate excellence in LGBTQ publishing. It is the most prestigious and glamorous LGBTQ literary event in the world. Winning a Lammy can literally launch a writer’s career.” (http://www.lambdaliterary.org/awards)

Its mission statement: “Lambda Literary believes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of our culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read.” (http://www.lambdaliterary.org/mission-statement)

Its inception: “A History of Lambda Literary: Lambda Literary traces its beginnings back to 1987 when L. Page (Deacon) Maccubbin, owner of Lambda Rising Bookstore in Washington, DC, published the first Lambda Book Report. The Lambda Literary Awards were born in 1989.  At that first gala event, honors went to such distinguished writers as National Book Award Finalist Paul Monette (Borrowed Time), Dorothy Allison (Trash), Allan Hollinghurst (The Swimming Pool Library), and Edmund White (The Beautiful Room is Empty).  The purpose of the Awards in the early years was to identify and celebrate the best of lesbian and gay books in the year of their publication. The Awards gave national visibility to a literature that had established a firm if nascent beachhead through a network of dynamic lesbian and gay publishers and bookstores springing up across America. Lambda Book Report, meanwhile, grew into a comprehensive review periodical, and together LBR and the Lambda Literary Awards cemented the reality that a distinct, definable LGBT literature existed. Lambda Literary was created in 1997 as a 501(3)(c) corporation to officially host the Awards and LBR. Its first Executive Director was Jim Marks.” (http://www.lambdaliterary.org/lambda-literary-foundation/llf-history)

Never Take LGBTQ Literature for Granted
Finally, Kathleen DeBold, Awards Administrator at the Lambda Literary Foundation, wrote:

Water, water, everywhere.  Until it isn’t.  The California drought is making a lot of folks rethink their relationship with water. Having easy access to seemingly unlimited quantities of this precious resource created the illusion that it was and always would be available.  And so, it was taken for granted.  Those of us who grew up before Lambda Literary was founded in 1989 remember another kind of drought: the dearth of queer literature. If you are reading this, I don’t need to tell you that LGBTQ literature is as necessary to our souls as water is to our bodies.  You already have the thirst.  And you already know that the Lambda Literary Foundation is working hard to conserve, protect, and increase this life-affirming resource.  To those who aren’t in-the-know, however, the seemingly widespread availability of LGBTQ literature might easily give the impression that this huge lake will always be there.  But we can never take our literature for granted. Just as, in many parts of the world, people must walk for miles to haul their water from a tiny stream, in repressive countries and ultraconservative communities people have limited—if any—access to LGBTQ books.  And just as water is the first thing in peril             when the climate changes, books are the first things burned when the political climate changes.  Thank you for everything you do to convince others that the lake matters.  And for helping Lambda Literary honor and encourage the authors and publishers and readers who keep feeding it.

Links to the Sources in My Project
An explanation of the 2014 Crowd-Sourcing Campaign on Lambda Literary Foundation’s Web Site:
http://www.lambdaliterary.org/foundation-updates/03/26/what-lgbt-book-saved-your-life

Access to the video of the Campaign and Project for the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2014 Book Awards Ceremony:
http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/vt/06/05/watch-the-lgbtqi-book-saved-my-life-video

The Facebook group for the Campaign and Project:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/abooksavedmylife

The Twitter hashtag for the Campaign and Project: #abooksavedmylife:
https://twitter.com/search?q=%23abooksavedmylife&src=hash

My articles from my Huff Post blog:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-carosone/yes-suicide-is-a-gay-issue_b_3975312.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-carosone/how-do-we-stop-lgbtq-yout_b_5811426.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-carosone/lgbtq-literature-creates-_b_8179730.html

Additional coverage of Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2014 Crowd-Sourcing Campaign:
http://www.glbtrt.ala.org/reviews/news
https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/can-lgbt-books-save-lives-sheydt
http://www.rovingpack.com/2014/06/05/someone-pioneer-a-queer-community-that-doesnt-eat-its-own-katebornstein

[i] “Bibliotherapy generally refers to the use of literature to help people cope with emotional problems, mental illness, or changes in their lives (Pardeck, 1994), or to produce affective change and promote personality growth and development (Lenkowsky, 1987; Adderholdt-Elliott & Eller, 1989). By providing literature relevant to their personal situations and developmental needs at appropriate times (Hebert & Kent, 2000), bibliotherapy practitioners attempt to help people of all ages to understand themselves and to cope with problems such as separation and divorce, child abuse, foster care, and adoption. Historically, bibliotherapy dates back to the 1930s when librarians began compiling lists of written material that helped individuals modify their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors for therapeutic purposes. Counselors worked in conjunction with librarians to ‘prescribe’ selected literature for clients experiencing problems (Pardeck, 1994). The underlying premise of bibliotherapy is that clients identify with literary characters similar to themselves, an association that helps the clients release emotions, gain new directions in life, and explore new ways of interacting (Gladding & Gladding, 1991).” –Mardziah Hayati Abdullah, “What Is Bibliotherapy?” (“Bibliotherapy,” ERIC Digest http://www.ericdigests.org/2003-4/bibliotherapy.html). And Wikipedia provides a comprehensive page on Bibliotherapy: “Bibliotherapy is an expressive therapy that involves the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. Bibliotherapy is often combined with writing therapy. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression. These results have been shown to be long-lasting. Bibliotherapy is an old concept in library science. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, in his monumental work Bibliotheca historica, there was a phrase above the entrance to the royal chamber where books were stored by King Ramses II of Egypt. Considered to be the oldest known library motto in the world, ψγxhσ Iatpeion, is translated: ‘the house of healing for the soul.’ Galen, the extraordinary philosopher and physician to Marcus Aurelius of Rome, maintained a medical library in the first century A.D., used not only by himself but by the staff of the Sanctuary Asclepion, a Roman spa famous for its therapeutic waters and considered to be one of the first hospital centers in the world. As far back as 1272, the Koran was prescribed reading in the Al-Mansur Hospital in Cairo as medical treatment. In the early nineteenth century, Benjamin Rush favored the use of literature in hospitals for both the ‘amusement and instruction of patients.’ By the middle of the century, Minson Galt II wrote on the uses of bibliotherapy in mental institutions, and by 1900 libraries were an important part of European psychiatric institutions. After the term bibliotherapy was coined by Samuel Crothers in an August 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, it eventually found its way into the medical lexicon. By the 1920s, there were training programs in bibliotherapy. One of the first to offer such training was the School of Library Science at Western Reserve University followed by a program at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. Hospital librarians were at the forefront of bibliotherapy techniques. E. Kathleen Jones, the editor of the book series Hospital Libraries, was the library administrator for the McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. This influential work was first published in 1923, and then updated in 1939, and then 1953. Pioneer librarian Sadie Peterson Delaney used bibliotherapy in her work at the VA Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1924 to her death in 1958. Elizabeth Pomeroy, director of the Veterans Administration Library Service, published the results of her research in 1937 on the efficacy of bibliotherapy at VA hospitals. The United Kingdom, beginning in the 1930s, also began to show growth in the use in of reading therapy in hospital libraries. Charles Hagberg-Wright, librarian of the London Library, speaking at the 1930 British Empire Red Cross Conference, spoke about the importance of bibliotherapy as part of “curative medicine” in hospitals. In addition, reports from the 1930 Public Health Conference about bibliotherapy were included in the British journal, Lancet” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibliotherapy).

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