‘They are literally murdering us’: poet Joelle Taylor on bringing the LGBTQ+ community together

·5 min read

She’s been marginalised and slapped in the street – but Taylor’s passionate and nostalgic poems about butch lesbian subculture just won the TS Eliot prize. Can they also heal the divisions over gender identity?

Since winning the TS Eliot award for poetry last week, Joelle Taylor has been referred to on more than one occasion as a “slam poet”. Which, she says, is fascinating: “Because there’s no such thing as a slam poet.” A poetry slam is an event, a spoken-word competition, she adds, not a type of poetry.

Taylor, who was named UK performance poetry slam champion in 2000 and founded the national youth slam championships SLAMbassadors, is forgiving, though: “It’s just a way of people trying to understand a different kind of poetry.” But it’s clear that this need to distinguish spoken word from other forms of poetry has a whiff of snobbery about it.

“You can’t talk about published poetry without talking about class, or gender, or race, or sexuality,” she says. “Because these are all the doors that are shut – we’re still in a publishing situation where the majority of those published are white men.”

Five hours away from London they are pulling lesbians on to motorways and beating their skulls open

Of course, the fact that Taylor’s C+nto and Othered Poems, which started as a spoken-word poem about butch lesbian counterculture, has won one of the UK’s most prestigious poetry prizes is a sign that some of those doors are opening. When we meet for coffee three days after the ceremony, Taylor tells me that her inbox is still being flooded by members of both the LGBTQ+ and spoken-word communities who feel like they’re finally being seen. “The judges choosing someone like me says something really profound about the way that literature and poetry are changing,” she says (though, despite the overwhelming support, she insists that she is not going to cry).

Tears or not, this is clearly an emotional moment for the 54-year-old poet, who has spent decades on the fringes. Growing up in a working-class family in Lancashire where “you wouldn’t even say the word lesbian,” Taylor faced abuse from her classmates at school. Out of “sheer bloody-mindedness” she became the first member of her family to get O-levels, and eventually moved to London, hitchhiking her way there. “The phrase ‘coming out’ seems so celebratory now,” she says. “But when we came out, more often than not, it was a direction: we must get out.”

In London, Taylor became part of the city’s underground butch scene, recently documented in the film Rebel Dykes – in fact, Taylor knows most of the women in it. Those years of partying and protesting are the inspiration for C+nto and it’s a time that Taylor is clearly nostalgic for, despite the fact that she would regularly get shoved or slapped on the street. “While it was a very oppressive time, it galvanised us and brought us all together,” she explains. She describes the 1988 protest against Section 28 as one of the best days of her life: “It was the first time I’d ever held a woman’s hand on the street.”

Part of the reason Taylor wanted to honour that community through C+nto is because she feels like something has been lost. The collection mentions dozens of lesbian bars – the fictional Maryville that the characters in the poems frequent, but also real ones like the Bell and the Y Bar. Today, there is just one lesbian bar left in London, She Soho. “One of the reasons there’s been all this shrieking on social media is because we’ve lost these places,” says Taylor. “It’s very hard to disagree with someone sitting in front of you in a bar who’s very nice.”

Ah yes, the social-media shrieking. It was inevitable, of course, that Taylor’s collection would spark conversation around gender identity, given its emphasis on the female body and how it is politicised. Before she went on tour to perform C+nto, she was “terrified” about the reaction she might get from her own community. But she has been pleasantly surprised by its positive reception. She’s spoken to trans-rights activists, trans men and gender-critical feminists who have all seen themselves in the poems. “Isn’t that wonderful?” she says.

In fact, Taylor sees her book as a “bridge” that can hopefully bring a fractured community back together. “I don’t want to add any more drama – it’s dry as fuck. People have just got to get a grip.”

Instead of fighting each other online, the LGBTQ+ community “needs to focus,” she says. “Five hours away from London they are pulling lesbians on to motorways and beating their skulls open. It’s happening in Chechnya, in Hungary, in Russia. It’s happening in Uganda and Ghana. Three-quarters of Poland now is an LGBT-free zone.

“All these little things are very important on an individual level” – a reference to the internet infighting – “but they are literally murdering us. So could we just get together?”

Togetherness is what Taylor returns to again and again – it’s the only way, in her mind, to combat the rise of LGBTQ+ hate crimes in both this country and others.

Is there a chance that could happen? Are things like Rebel Dykes and C+nto signs of a changing attitude?

“Yes,” says Taylor, immediately. “We’re alive. There’s hope.”

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