I recently received an email advising me that my GCLS membership is going to expire in August and asking me if I wanted to renew.
I’m a member of a few organisations and these emails usually just serve as timely reminders for me to click a button or update my credit card information and continue my membership for another year. That’s not been the case with GCLS, for reasons I have discussed before and will now discuss again.
First off, for those who don’t know, GCLS stands for the Golden Crown Literary Society and it’s a US-based organisation for F/F literature. I mention this because many people have no idea what GCLS actually is, every time I mention GCLS through social media or on my website I get a few messages from my readership asking what a GCLS is. And often what a GLSC is. And other acronyms.
I mention this because GCLS is most likely the largest organisation of its kind and yet there are still plenty of people in the WLW fiction community who don’t know what it is. I’ll touch on this more later in the blog.
Now, for a condensed history of my personal experience with GCLS. This might be a good time to get a drink.
For the first couple of years of my writing career, I kind of avoided GCLS. I didn’t think it was for me, it was a large, US organisation that I didn’t feel used very inclusive language. I spoke with a few people I knew (authors, editors, readers) and many of them agreed that the organisation wasn’t worth joining.
I continued a sort of silent protest for a while, not joining or even mentioning GCLS but not trying to contact GCLS to explain why. I realised last year that this wasn’t very productive and began a dialogue with GCLS Executive Director Mary Phillips. I talk about this here.
Following my productive conversation with Mary, I felt happy that GCLS was working towards making changes in their language and working towards inclusivity. I was told that a language change was being suggested to the board which would include mentions of bisexuality, queer, transgender, sexually-fluid, and asexual. As a result of this positive step forward, I decided to join GCLS around this time last year.
Unfortunately, in July of this year I discovered that the inclusive wording had been rejected by the board.
So, with that history in mind I have to consider my membership of GCLS.
Do I support an organisation that I feel doesn’t represent myself or my values? Do I try to make changes from the inside, or do I reject them as I know many of my fellow authors have?
You see, due to my vocal opposition to GCLS language, I’ve had a lot of people contact me to say that they agree with me and have no intention to either join GCLS or to continue their membership.
I recently had a conversation with a member of GCLS who faithfully promised me that there are “a lot of bisexual authors in GCLS and they are all happy.” While this is undoubtedly true, that’s a view from the inside. A view with rose-coloured glasses on that everything is a-okay from within the organisation. But I’m able to see the other side of the coin, as I hear from the readers, authors, and editors who have left. From my perspective, things are not rosey and more and more people are noticing and taking action.
More to the point, many younger people don’t even know what GCLS is. When I share posts with my readership about GLCS or Goldie awards… I often get messages asking what it is. When you think about the explosive growth in our literary genre of late, GCLS should be reflecting that growth but that is not the case.
I heard that GCLS attended ClexaCon this year and were “surprised” by how many people hadn’t heard of them. I’m not at all surprised. A quick browse of the GCLS website will lead many people to click back due, in part, to the non-inclusive language.
What Is The Issue?
I know some of you are thinking… what’s the problem? I know many people within GCLS are sick and tired of this debate and think there is no issue to be fixed. I’ve received more than one message from GCLS members telling me to “shut up about it” when I’ve posted previous blogs.
I’m not going to shut up about it because I think this needs to be said. There is an issue with the language GCLS uses, and if it isn’t fixed then GCLS will lose relevance and will eventually cease to exist.
Every month I receive more messages from people telling me that they will leave/have left/will never join GCLS. It’s a worrying trend that could be fixed.
Here are some examples of the language issues on the GCLS website. On the homepage, we find the message:
The Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) is a 501(c)3 non-profit, volunteer organization whose mission is to increase the visibility and integrity of lesbian themed literature.
The word “themed” is a small attempt to make this more inclusive, but it doesn’t work. It also only exists in prominent places on the website, dig a little deeper and “themed” quickly vanishes.
The organisation puts out their strategic vision as so:
The GCLS Board of Directors has developed a 3-year strategic plan to ensure the organization continues to be viable and grow. Since its inception, the GCLS has continued to evolve and in 2018 celebrated its fourteenth year in operation. Our mission to foster the education, promotion, and recognition of lesbian-themed literature has remained constant. In 2014 we established our strategic plan that identified four key initiatives and strategic directions to accomplish the plan. 1. Maintain long term financial stability 2. Expand and promote our educational programs 3. Increase diversity in all aspects of the organization and lesbian literature 4. Establish processes and procedures that would promote longevity for the organization The board has worked diligently on this plan and has had many documented successes to date including: • Ongoing financial stability as programs expand and the organization continues to grow • Increased participation and visibility of our primary educational program, The Writing Academy • Creation of the Policies and Procedures Manual, updating technology, and increased member benefits The board of directors will be meeting in the fall of 2019 to update the current plan to continue through 2021.
As you can see in point 3, we fall back onto the terminology lesbian literature.
The GCLS writing academy page states:
The program concludes with a one-on-one mentoring experience with some of the most established and awarded authors in lesbian fiction.
Again, lesbian fiction is mentioned.
The very first line of the Awards page reads:
Welcome to the site pages for the GCLS Literary Awards. These awards, also known as The Goldies, are presented each year at the Annual GCLS Conference to recognize excellence in Lesbian Literature.
Under the membership benefits section:
By joining the GCLS you will be part of an exciting, dynamic community of authors, readers, publishers, and booksellers. Take part in discussions with your favorite authors, keep up to date on the state of lesbian literature, attend the annual GCLS conference where you can mingle with all of the best and brightest lesbian authors, readers, and supporters. Help ensure a vibrant present and future for lesbian publishing.
Why Is This An Issue?
I know that some people don’t see the problem with any of the wording I have just pointed out. I know that many people feel that the genre is lesbian fiction, and the characters are lesbians, the books are lesbian-themed, and they are written by lesbian authors.
But often that is not the case.
Many of our authors and readers don’t identify as lesbian. Personally, I identify as bisexual and many of my books are about bisexual characters who just happen to be in a relationship with a woman for the duration of the story. Therefore, I don’t fit in with the “lesbian themed” literature mentioned in the GCLS mission statement, nor am I a “lesbian author” to be mingled with at the GCLS conference, and I don’t write “lesbian fiction”.
This continuous use of “lesbian” or “lesbian themed” doesn’t reflect everyone who contributes to the women-loving-women fiction genre.
I’ve heard it said that some members of GCLS are worried about losing the word lesbian from the mission statement and other copy on the site. An argument often used is that they feel they are being erased.
I completely understand that being erased feels awful, I can say that with absolute certainty because I have already been erased. There are no mentions of bisexuality on the GCLS website, remember that proposed wording that could have included me was rejected, so I stand erased. Or having never even existed. So, believe me when I say I understand the concern of potentially being erased.
I’m not on a one-woman mission to see the word lesbian erased from all of GCLS, I’m asking for representation from an organisation who is seeking to recognise and promote the literature I write.
While GCLS has made some effort by using the term “lesbian themed”, it’s still not inclusive language. In fact, the “themed” addition is quickly dropped when you read deeper into the website. Not that it was suitable as inclusive language to begin with anyway.
Why Should GCLS Care?
Like it or not, GCLS has a social, political, and ethical responsibility to be inclusive if it wishes to be the number one non-profit organisation promoting our genre.
There are several reasons why GCLS should take this matter seriously, the most obvious ones are:
Growth / Money
I think it goes without saying that an organisation like GCLS should attempt to be a welcome and inclusive home for all its members and potential members.
While I’m not asking lesbians to roll-back on their own rights, I am asking them to extend an olive branch in the terms of language to those of us who contribute to the community.
If GCLS continues to use non-inclusive language then the organisation will struggle to stay relevant and survive.
One of my younger readers contacted me after my “rejected blog” and said, “I looked at the GCLS website and they look like an exclusionary bunch, I recommend you avoid them.” In my recent survey of WLW fiction readers, only 54% of respondents knew what GCLS was.
Growth / Money
Every non-profit organisation needs to focus on growth and financial stability. As I mention above, GCLS has a strategic goal to remain financially stable as well as to grow.
If new-to-the-genre readers and authors are looking at the GCLS website and thinking “no, not for me” then that is going to directly impact growth and funding.
As an author with a large readership, I don’t feel I can give GCLS all the support I’d like. I won’t publicise an organisation that I feel uses non-inclusive language. I know I’m not the only author who feels that way.
I have heard that GCLS plan to poll its current membership in order to see their thoughts on the language issue, I feel this might bring about some misleading results, especially if many people have already left/never joined.
The 2017 GCLS Annual report shows a drop in membership renewals from 2016 to 2017, it goes without saying that if most of the authors in the genre promoted GCLS, the membership would grow enormously.
Not An Easy Fix
I’m not saying for a moment that there is an easy solution. But I’m also not saying it’s tremendously difficult either. I’m not suggesting that GCLS radically overhauls it’s entire organisation, I’m asking for change of language. Nothing else need change.
The biggest obstacle is that there isn’t a term that suits everyone.
As just one example—many younger people use the term queer, many older people still have negative connotations and don’t feel the term has been fully reclaimed yet. (Though, the argument would be that if we never use it then it will never be reclaimed.)
Without this one size fits all term, we’re stuck on a way forward.
But that doesn’t mean inaction.
DIVA Magazine in the UK and Europe have a strap line on their magazine that proudly states “Europe’s Leading Magazine for Lesbians and Bi Women”. Organisations also use the term women-loving-women, or WLW for short. Many younger people are using the term Sapphic (from Sappho – the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos) and companies such as BookRiot and Goodreads are using this more inclusive term.
And so, with all of that information swimming around my head, I have to make a decision about my future with GCLS.
As a Lambda award-winning author of more than ten WLW books in less than three years, language matters to me. On top of that, my readers matter to me. My readers are a beautifully diverse bunch of people who encompass every aspect of the LGBT+ community and I’m mindful to only support organisations that welcome each and every one of them.
I’m also mindful that change takes time and communication, and therefore I will renew my membership for a further year and see what changes are made. I’ll even happily offer my time to assist with any of those changes.
At the end of the day, I want GCLS to grow and succeed. I love this writing community that I’m a member of and I would love to see GCLS at the forefront of this community. To be able to proudly state that I am a member of GCLS, and actively promote it to my readers is a goal of mine.
We’re not there yet, but maybe soon.