Written by poet Lisa Luxx and directed by Rosemary Baker, Lesbian is an urgent call to arms to reclaim a word so many of us have tried to run from
BY CARRIE LYELL
Do you call yourself a lesbian? That might seem like an odd question for DIVA to ask, given our audience, but it’s an important one. Lesbian is a complicated word, after all. In our 2020 survey of more than 1,400 women loving women, almost 13% of you told us you disliked the word, preferring to use another term such as gay or queer to describe your sexuality. But why?
“Lesbian makes people blush in a way the word gay never has,” multi-award-winning British Syrian spoken word poet Lisa Luxx tells me. “At least, not in my lifetime.”
I’m chatting to Lisa from Beirut about her poem Lesbian, which I first wrote about in 2019, and which has now been turned into a short film by director Rosemary Baker, who also joins us on Zoom ahead of its release on All 4 as part of a special LGBT History Month strand of programming.
Featuring a diverse cast of real queer women, and explicitly trans inclusive, Lesbian puts into words feelings I had no capacity to express before, perfectly – and poetically – encapsulating conversations we were having in 2019 and which we’re still having now, in 2021. Combined with Rose’s stunning visuals, it brings to life the layers of toxicity that so many of us experience around the word lesbian. Fierce and urgent, it is a call to arms to take back the word.
Written partly as a response to a wave of violent hate crimes against lesbians, Lisa’s poem also examines internalised homophobia, and the inner violence we inflict on ourselves. Through her poetry, she asks us to examine the discomfort we feel with the word lesbian, whether because of trauma and shame, because our identities have been plagiarised by pornographers, because we’re a punchline to a bad joke, or because it’s seen as ugly, old fashioned, or trans exclusionary.
I’ve spent most of my adult life wrestling with the word lesbian and it’s a battle that rages inside of me, even now. Rose has a similar story. “For a generation of women like us who grew up when Ross from Friends was making his lesbian wife jokes, that stuff really got baked into the cake. That forms part of our kind of experience of the word in not a very nice way.”
“When I perform the poem in front of audiences, I make them say the word lesbian,” Lisa tells me. “Every time it says in that stanza, ‘Say it’. ‘Say it without feeling that fizz of taboo…’ Every time I’m saying ‘say it’, I make them say it. I make them keep shouting it and shouting it until at the end, they’re all saying the word lesbian and getting it out of their throats. Afterwards, the amount of people that I have come to me like, ‘I didn’t realise how I was acting around that word until you made me say it in a room like that.’”
Since its initial release almost three years ago, Lisa’s work has had a profound impact – not least on the film’s director. “I had this brief to find a poem that spoke to some part of my identity,” Rose explains. “I was thinking okay, well, I am a lesbian, so I should probably think about queer ideas. I didn’t expect, if I’m completely honest, to find a piece of work that so hit me, and that absolutely fucking nails a part of the experience of being a lesbian. That no other piece of work, to my mind, has quite managed to do. My own feelings about the word lesbian, I had not examined those at all. And so when I listened to Lisa’s poem for the first time, saw Lisa’s poem for the first time, I felt so seen, in a way that had never happened to me before.”
Writing and performing Lesbian has changed Lisa, too, and the film takes its place front and centre of a conversation and a movement which she describes as a “lesbian renaissance”. “The first time I ever performed this poem, they introduced me on stage, and I realised they read out ‘Lisa Luxx, a queer blah blah blah blah’. I got on stage and was like, ‘We’re never using the word lesbian! Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian!’ And realised I did it myself. I told them how to introduce me. I’d done it to myself… It was only after this poem came out that I put ‘dyke’ in my bio on Instagram. The thing I was most afraid of my whole life was being a dyke. Like, that’s the worst of the worst! Ah, shit. You don’t want to be a dyke! That’s the bottom of the barrel of acceptable,” she laughs. “It’s my badge of honour now. It is my strength and it is my tenderness.”
Indeed, as I wrote in our Visibility Issue in May 2020, lesbian culture is having a “moment”, stepping out from the shadows, from memes to the mainstream. But there’s still a lot of work to be done before the word lesbian falls out of our mouths as easily as gay does. Thankfully, women like Lisa are not afraid to get their hands dirty. “I am publicly washing the word,” she tells me. “I want to reclaim it, from all angles, clean the word, put it out to dry and wear it proudly.”
Rose agrees. “It feels to me like younger lesbians are playing with the plasticity of the word. I’ve seen people describing themselves as bisexual lesbians and pansexual lesbians to be inclusive of non-binary genders. That is a use of language that confuses a lot of people but which is also completely valid. It strikes me that there is a new generation of lesbians who are very proud and are not afraid to use the word in the way that best fits them.”
It’s not just the words themselves that are moving. Lesbian is visually stunning. On the concept, Rose says it was “really difficult” deciding on the right approach. “I remember saying to people, you could just film Lisa in front of a brick wall performing this poem to camera and it would be incredibly moving and incredibly beautiful. The challenge for me was to think about what I could add. I didn’t have a lot of room to work with because the poem took up such a lot of room with it’s greatness,” she laughs.
“It would have been very easy to come up with a visual treatment that just dressed the words, but I didn’t want to do that. I thought that it probably would have taken away from the raw power of what it was saying. At one point there was going to be a narrative sequence involving actors, depicting what that moment is like when you experience homophobic abuse and how it intrudes into your world in the horrific way that it does. I ended up not pursuing that because I thought that was a bit too on the nose. What we ended up going with is a much more conceptual treatment that tries to bring to life the feeling of being buried by the connotations that have been layered and layered on this word over time, and what it might feel like to emerge from those.”
It feels moving to me, as the editor of a magazine for lesbians and other WLW, and as someone trying to peel away those layers on a personal level, to have a film like this in front of so many eyeballs. How does it feel for Lisa and Rose to have their work on a platform like All 4, and during LGBT History Month? “Yeah, fucking awesome!” laughs Lisa. “It’s radical… For me, what it’s saying and doing is, ‘Remember when I was talking about lesbians? Well, now people are listening’. That’s for us, fellow lesbians. That’s us. This is where we are at. This is a good thing for all of us. To me, that’s what’s making it quite emotional. We’re getting seen. This is nice.
“Being part of LGBT History Month is profound,” she adds. “I think of our lesbian foremothers, especially in literature. The ones who marked a path so that we could exist in the first place, because if you can’t exist in language then you don’t exist in history. Which is why this word is so important. If we let it get erased then we never existed in history. I think of the Marilyn Hackers, the Audre Lordes, the Susan Cains… If I can take what they’ve given to me, transform it, and I pass it on to those finding their way through their identity, then that’s an incredibly profound thing for me. It’s a community builder. It’s a little searchlight that you pass on.”
It’s a big deal for Rose too. “I feel pretty transformed by the process of making this film. I’ve gone from being a lesbian who pretty much never used the word and never really interrogated myself about why that was, to a lesbian who does use the word lesbian, and that is solely down to this poem. For that reason, I feel like a transformed lesbian.
“That sort of transformation continues apace because I haven’t, to my enormous shame, really engaged with LGBT History Month before, I don’t think. Not in a way that I’ve really taken time to reflect on my position and where I sit within the queer family. I feel really honoured that this film has been included in that umbrella of content that Channel 4 is putting on the table, and for so explicitly including it within this ecosystem of works and contributions that have been made in the past.”
The importance of this piece of work is hard to overstate. Rose says it best when she says: “What I’m really grateful to Lisa for is that I now feel able to say the word lesbian and hear it in my own voice. I was hearing it in the voice of panel show comedians and whispers in the playground in high school and TERF bloggers, and that is such an outrage.
“What a transformative gift to give someone. To be able to restore their own voice to the word in that way. Thank you, Lisa.”
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