I first met Sheela Lambert about three years ago as a graduate student at Pace University, working in its LGBTQA & Social Justice Center. I had organized a workshop presented by prominent bi activist Robyn Ochs, and Lambert was one of the attendees. Regardless of what people think of her, Lambert can certainly make an impression upon you and is hard to forget. She looked kind of hippy-ish in appearance, but it was her energy, persistence, and enthusiasm for the work that stood out immediately. She bounced from bi advocate to bi advocate until she got to me, where she talked about the work she does as a local bi writer and activist, eager to extend her reach as far into the community as possible. I knew I would be working with her again one day.
The first time I got in touch with her for this interview, she was “about to drop” and asked me to call her back in a few so she could eat something, anything, to keep her from passing out. Lambert is multiply disabled, including living with Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and neuropathy in her legs and feet. It was late afternoon and she hadn’t eaten all day. When I did call her back, she told me she had been busy with the task of introducing all of the Bisexual Book Awards judges to one another.
Lambert is the sole organizer of the Bisexual Book Awards, now in its fifth year. Recognized by outlets and organizations such as Gay City News, Edge Media, GLAAD, and the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Bisexual Book Awards boast an increasing number of submissions, ceremony attendees, and perhaps most importantly, the gratitude and excitement of a community too often erased and ignored.
Lambert works from her heart: for her, there is no payment, little mainstream recognition, and—although she seeks out judges to pick the winners—not a whole lot of help. But she saw a need for the full recognition of the diversity and sheer breadth of bi+ literature. Since 2012, she’s been attempting to fill it.
Lambert has great respect for the Lambda Literary Awards (Lammys), hosted yearly since 1988 and awarded by the Lambda Literary Foundation. In fact, she had helped push Lambda to include a bi category in the awards, which first appeared in 2006. When Lambert and fellow bi activists Wendy Curry and Amy Andre first raised the subject, the foundation told them there weren’t enough bi books to justify a category. “A bunch of us went out on the internet and trolled for bisexual books,” Lambert says, “and eventually we came up with enough to have a category.” That same year bi author Mike Szymanski, among others, encouraged Lambert to create literary awards specifically for the bi+ community. “People had been saying to me, ‘We should have our own awards.’ And I was like ‘No…why should we reinvent the wheel?’”
Though Lambert’s work to help expand the Lammys from no bi categories, to one, to two, finally paid off, the awards available to bi authors shrunk back to one—“Bisexual Literature”—in 2012. Ultimately, she felt that the Lammys just didn’t do justice to the myriad types of works written by, for, and about bi+ people. “It just seemed like the authors…the books were being failed. I felt like I had to do something,” she noted sadly, but emphatically.
Lambert began her journey as a bi activist over 25 years ago. A native New Yorker, she attended Beloit College in Wisconsin in the 1970s. “I joined a gay group,” she said. “I was only there for three semesters, but I joined the group. They needed to have a male and female co-chair” as per university rules for all student groups, “and I was the only female. It was just gay boys and me,” she laughed. Because they needed her, she agreed to do it, but insisted that they change the group name to indicate that it was for gay and bisexual people.
Lambert came out well before college, though. “I came out in 1973; I was sixteen.” She can’t really recall exactly when she came out to her parents. As far as she’s concerned, that’s how “not big of a deal” it was for her family. “When we [lived] in Toronto, my mother started coming home with all these feminist books and one of them talked about bisexuality. I was in junior high. My first reaction was, ‘Wow, those bisexual people must be really super cool. Just amazing.’ A couple of years later we moved [back] to New York and I realized I was bisexual. I’m like, ‘Oooo, I am one of those cool people.’ That was my attitude.”
Acknowledging that, at that age, we all want to “fit in” with our peers and be perceived as normal at least on some level, she remembers that it wasn’t really an issue for her. She didn’t experience that angst often associated with coming out to oneself or others. Along with her friends, she was a self-described hippie—and she was cool with it.
From the late 1970s through the 1980s, she lived in a yoga ashram for five years, got married and had a son, separated from her husband, and worked while raising her son as a single mom. She didn’t know any bi people or have any resources to reach out to until 1991, when she happened to meet a woman who led a bi women’s group at the LGBT Center in Manhattan, which was founded in 1983 as The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. There she got introduced to the larger bi+ community. “We would meet twice a month. And every time I’d go in under that sign, ‘lesbian and gay, lesbian and gay, lesbian and gay.’ And I’m thinking ‘I’m coming here, you know, almost every week. What am I? Chopped liver?’”
Though this took place 25 years ago, I can still hear the exasperation and frustration in her voice. “Why is my name not on that door?” She organized a meeting and they wrote a letter. They met with Center representatives, but their plea for inclusion was summarily rejected. “They were like, ‘We understand but our donors wouldn’t.’ They refused to use the ‘b word’ on the newsletter, any of their groups, anything. I wanted to do LGB and T but a friend of mine told me, ‘Don’t presume to speak for transgender people. They’re not all queer.’ So I dropped that because I didn’t consider myself an expert, but I wish I hadn’t listened. So at the time, we were just lobbying for ‘b.’” They used donors as an excuse, she explained, but “they were just cowardly…and probably biphobic.”
After a decade of advocacy, they returned to the issue and were finally successful in 2001, their tenacity, passion, and sense of dignity fueling their fight for visibility. This time, the bi+ community joined forces with the transgender community—a common union throughout LGBTQIA+ history—two communities too-often erased by mainstream gay media, aided by celebrated New York trans activist Pauline Park. It’s a fight that continues for the bi+ community today, which has come to include pansexual, queer, fluid, and other identity labels.
Looking to the future, Lambert considers the Bisexual Book Awards. “I’d love it to continue, get bigger, new categories,” she said. “The first couple of years I didn’t even use the word ‘annual.’ It was an experiment.” Five years in is “quite a milestone,” she continued, “and hopefully there will be more to come. Every year you get better, you’re more organized, you build on what you did last year.”
And that, in essence, is the history of bi+ activism and LGBTQIA activism in general: continuing to build on what has come before, looking to the future with hope, not giving up.
To submit your literary work to the Bisexual Book Awards, which will be held June 2017 in New York City, visit the Bi Writers Association’s website, biwriters.org, for instructions. Any 2016 book with a bisexual character, bisexual storyline, bisexual subject matter or theme is eligible for submission. Awards are open to all authors regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The deadline for submissions is December 2nd, 2016. However, if you’ve discovered these awards through reading this article but it is too close to or past the deadline, feel free to submit and request an extension, mentioning this article in your application.
Author photo by Thai Huynh