Last month, Lauren Hough, a first-time author, received good news from an editor at her publishing house: Her essay collection “Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing,” published last year, was set to be nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the category of lesbian memoir.
The nomination seemed a capstone to a remarkable debut, which won critical acclaim and spent two weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list. The book, described by its publisher as interrogating “our notions of ecstasy, queerness, and what it means to live freely,” drew heavily on Hough’s life experiences, including as a lesbian in the Air Force during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. A reviewer for NPR likened her skill at portraiture to that of “one of those cartoonists who can sketch out four lines and suddenly you see your face in them.”
But Hough said in an interview Monday that an editor had recently informed her that the nomination had been pulled, following a social media dust-up in which Hough had defended, at times heatedly, a forthcoming novel by the author Sandra Newman, a friend of hers, from criticism that it was transphobic.
The novel, “The Men,” which is set to be published in June, describes a scenario in which “all people with a Y chromosome mysteriously disappear from the face of the earth,” according to Newman’s publisher. Hough, who said she had read “The Men,” wrote on Substack that she had told the critics “to read the book before condemning it.”
Lambda Literary, which for more than 30 years has administered the Lammys, confirmed that Hough had been removed from contention for the award.
“In a series of now-deleted tweets, Lauren Hough exhibited what we believed to be a troubling hostility toward transgender critics and trans-allies and used her substantial platform — due in part to her excellent book — to harmfully engage with readers and critics,” Cleopatra Acquaye and Maxwell Scales, Lambda Literary’s interim co-executive directors, said in a joint statement Monday. “As an L.G.B.T.Q. organization, we cannot knowingly reward individuals who exhibit disdain and disrespect for the autonomy of an entire segment of the community we have committed ourselves to supporting.”
Hough said Monday that she could not recall whether she had deleted any tweets, and denied that any of her tweets had been transphobic. Lambda did not provide examples of the posts they were most critical of. The Times has not reviewed any deleted tweets.
In a text message Hough argued that Lambda Literary was attempting to regulate the discourse around L.G.B.T.Q. literature. “The strength of Lambda Literary, and the L.G.B.T.Q. movement at large, was in convincing people to look beyond the cover, read beyond the title, even if that title includes the words ‘Y-chromosome’ — we asked them to read the book,” she said.
She added: “I expected more from Lambda than character assassination by vague accusation based on Twitter rumors, for telling people — not one group, but people — to read the book.”
Acquaye and Scales said in a joint interview that an independent judging panel and Lambda Literary had both contributed to the decision to withdraw the book from contention, and said that the organization had not taken a position on “The Men.”
As a result of Hough’s posts, Scales said in the interview, “many trans folks felt like they couldn’t, they were not allowed to be in these conversations.” Acquaye said that the posts “did not uplift other queer people and these voices.”
In her Substack newsletter, Hough said that she had discussed “The Men” with Newman, including “how to make the book recognize the reality of transgender people.”
“Other books that started from this premise — all the men disappear — have erased the existence of trans people, and it was important to her not to do that, to be as sensitive as possible,” Hough wrote. “So when I saw people assuming that simple idea was the entirety of the plot, I told them to read the book before assuming the worst.”
For this, she wrote, she was labeled a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist — something she denied.
(Previous books with similar, gender-eliminating or -separating scenarios “were written before there was much attention on anything beyond a gender binary,” said Brian Attebery, an English professor at Idaho State University who has written about gender in science fiction.)
Hough lamented that Twitter users had so harshly criticized a book they had not read.
“They call it ‘call-out culture,’” she wrote on Substack, “because bullying is wrong, unless your target is someone you don’t like, for social justice reasons, of course.”
In an email Monday, Newman declined to comment on her forthcoming book but confirmed Hough’s account of their friendship. “She’s also a person of great integrity and decency,” added Newman. “And she’s an amazing writer whose book deserves all the awards.”