Who Can Tell Our Story? The Lambda Literary Awards and the Development of a Transgender Literature

Transgender representations in film, television, and books have contributed to both the understanding of transgender lives, as well as the growing political importance of transgender communities. As part of this wider visibility, dominant narratives regarding the “transgender experience” have surfaced in both the trans community and the wider public. My work maps the narratives of transgender identity present in transgender literature, using books designated as finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards (LLAs) from 1989 to the present. This research focuses primarily on a digital content analysis of published fiction and memoir books, which have been nominated and short-listed for the Lambda Literary Awards, the most well known LGBT book awards in North America. In this presentation I will discuss my preliminary findings from the analysis, but also how my method, topic modeling, opens up doors for additional work with large textual data sets to better understand the experiences of LGBTQ populations through their own words. Topic modeling is a digital content analysis method that uses probability statistics to identify word groups within texts (topics). Because topic modeling uses a probability logic it is best suited for large data sets, such as the Lambda Literary Award finalist texts, full runs of organizational newsletters, or years of organizational meeting minutes. Topic modeling allows me to plot the occurrence of various topics over time, enabling me to explore the development of different themes in transgender literature in relation to other historical developments in the LGBT Rights movement. With this method, I am also able to study the impact that the Awards may have had on shaping and promoting the narratives which are seen as most valid as a transgender identity and who may “rightfully” speak for the transgender community. Finally, by situating the content analysis of the texts in a larger social context, I link the narratives selected by the Awards to the wider visibility and legitimacy of specific transgender narratives in both the transgender community and our culture at large.