The feminist writer and activist Lisa Luxx speaks to Lizzi Sandell about the importance of language, the politics of sexual power play, and why ‘lesbian’ is still a crucial category within the queer movement.
Lisa Luxx is a British-Syrian poet, writer, musician, and activist whose newest poem “Lesbian.” is a protest in verse. Rallying against the treatment of lesbians in both LGBTQ+ culture and the culture at large, to call the poem a defense of lesbian identity is too limiting; Luxx passionately furthers the discussion of “lesbian” as a category both in the context of queer discourse and in the wake of growing homophobic incidents, like the assault of a lesbian couple on a London bus in June of this year.
Here, she speaks to Lizzi Sandell about words as community centers, poets as emotional archivists, and her recent article for Slutever about whether or not it’s feminist to strap it on.
LS: How did you find poetry, or how did poetry find you? Who were your influences? And how were you then able to commit to it as a career? I know the sort of reception I get when I describe myself as a “writer/editor” and I can see myself slipping down in people’s neoliberal estimations…
LL: I wrote poetry since I was a child but I committed to it once I got into rap music as a teen. My main influences growing up were Eminem, Sylvia Plath, and Patti Smith. I managed to commit to it as a career by sacrificing a bunch of things—like having a home, for most of my twenties. I also thought, quite early on, You can take one of two paths: the easy road that pays well but you’ll spend your life talking about anxiety attacks and aspiration, wearing a lifestyle that doesn’t fit; or you can follow your soul path and be a broke ass bitch but not need to rely on pharmaceuticals to get you through your day to day—you’ll need a community around you though, it takes a village.
Let’s talk about the word lesbian. In your own words, lesbians have “been made homeless in language.” It really troubles me that lesbian has come to be considered a somehow (violently) exclusionary category; specifically, that it’s inherently TERF-y. Can you talk a bit more about how you think we got here, and why it’s important to you to use the term, versus a more general term like gay or queer?
There’s a whole history of women not having their own sexual identity. Women were only given a role in sex in relation to men—as we know women ‘got away’ with having sex with each other for a long time because we weren’t as visible in society. But what that means is we’re still playing catch up in terms of being seen as autonomous sexual beings. I think it’s important to keep using the word lesbian and to insist on isolating it from TERF rhetoric and reptuation because we need a word that not only relates to our sexuality but also to our gender identity—reinforcing that women can have a sexual identity all their own. We need our own word, because as restrictive as labels can be, they are also like community centres. We find each other through our labels, and we sometimes need that. We also need to push back against the narrative that is rupturing the queer scene by suggesting that trans people are erasing lesbians—it’s just not true. Lesbians who want to keep using the word ‘lesbian’ need to find ways to amplify their pride and visibility without attacking other minority groups.
If something doesn’t exist linguistically then it’s very hard to teach about it. The line in the poem that says “dicks pointing like kids” is about this, because the only education I had growing up about the word ‘lesbian” was through stuff like the Friends TV show making punchlines about lesbianism. If we don’t keep using the word and breaking it free of all its bullshit connotations before it dies off, it’s only ever going to have existed [in mainstream culture] as either an adolescent joke or an adult’s wank material. The patriarchy has totally fucked us up so that if we dare stray from the power of the penis we’re shrouded in shame and ridicule. Still.
Among other things, “Lesbian.” is a response to the assault on lesbian couple Melania and Chris on a London bus in June of this year. Your poem “Grenfell Rising,” of course, is about the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster of summer 2017. I am also reminded of Andrea Gibson’s heartbreaking poem, “Orlando,” about the Pulse Nightclub massacre. How do you see the poet’s role in society?
Primarily to archive. To archive feelings, perspectives, and responses as society grows and shifts and changes. Through holding these mirrors up to society’s inner self, our role also becomes one of galvanizing audiences. I used to think galvanizing people was the poet’s main purpose, but it’s actually just a symptom of what happens when you hold a mirror up and strip yourself down to your raw, core emotional body in front of people who are ready to look at themselves through you.
You’re a vocal activist—on feminism, the climate disaster, and many other social issues. As well as lesbians being considered politically reactionary, the LGBTQ+ movement more generally is criticized for becoming increasingly depoliticized and corporatized as it continues to be hijacked by Big Business. How do your social politics intersect with your queer politics/identity overall?
The LGBTQIA scene that I know is incredibly politicized. Particularly the QTIPOC [Queer Transgender and Intersex People of Color] scene and certain movements happening in England. There’s definitely massive commodification of these scenes but I think it’s important to acknowledge there are large visible groups keeping politics at the core of their queerness.
As for how my own social politics intersect with my queer identity… Well, one way that I’d like to answer relates a bit to the Slutever piece I wrote about the politics of the strap-on. My social politics are feminist led. How my queer identity now lends to that is evolving. After years of being quite a finger-pointer and raging against the absolute fuckery of men, I’ve started to realise that as a woman who desires women there are a lot of ways that I too have internalised the same drives behind some of their bullshit. This is because I learnt a lot of my behaviours through watching male-dominant heteronormative culture, too, and developed a sense of self in the image of the ‘masculine’. The only difference is, I am less likely to act upon those drives, partially because I was socialised as a girl. But accepting that dichotomy [between a male-dominated culture and female socialization] is shaping my feminism in a way that is much more productive and based on self-examination, empathy, and hopefully more welcoming—bridge-building—dialogue.
I loved your Slutever piece about the politics of strap-on sex, particularly the line, “Are we still being fucked by the patriarchy even when there are no men in the room?” Naturally, I’ve had similar thoughts about the heteronormativity implied in my own strap-on use, but submission and dominance seem to be the dynamic at the heart of all sorts of sexual practices (most overtly in BDSM). Many people believe power play to be integral to sex and sexual desire; what do you think about that? Is that in itself a patriarchal construct?
I have two thoughts: maybe what’s inherently patriarchal about that is the language: how we call it power play rather than calling it something less loaded, or less suggestive of games and battle—I think the language has come from patriarchal rhetoric divorcing sex from emotions. And secondly, that maybe sex has to be about power play because it’s our most intimate expression of self—and since we’re in a world where struggle for power is both a socialised and fundamental drive, then our most intimate self surely needs to express something about that. If we lived in an environment where the dynamic between people was different in the first place it might allow for us to embody another core drive through sex and desire…
On a seemingly more superficial note: you change your hair a lot. It sounds silly, but cutting my hair short was a big moment for me in terms of coming to terms with my identity (and I mean identity in a very broad sense). I now get a £14 cut at a barber and it feels weirdly validating. Lesbian hair is a whole thing. Do you read any significance into your hair and what it represents?
Totally! When I cut my hair off it was for two reasons; in a way I wanted to step further into my masculinity but when I cut it off I suddenly felt so much more comfortable with my femininity! Secondly, I feel like hair holds a lot of stories and I wanted to shed many. When I dyed it blonde it was just because my friend was having a hip hop birthday party and I dressed up as Feminem (feminist Eminem…). I’m a bit obsessed with hair. I spend a lot of time staring at men’s hair, I get a lot of girlfriend’s giving me cut-eye as if I’m after their man but I’m really just figuring out how to look like him.
You also write music, speak at events, et al. What projects will be your focus in the near future?
I’m in the middle of writing my first novel—big up Arts Council [England] for the funding! It’s the story of trying to visit Damascus during the peak of war in Syria as an attempt to connect with my heritage, but unintentionally finding my birth father on the way. It’s about the experience of growing up adopted and mixed heritage. I’m simultaneously working on a full-length show commissioned by Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, which is loosely based on the book but is a journey through mirrors deconstructing identity; asking how our attempts to connect with others both help and hinder us.
Lizzi Sandell is a writer/editor from London.