Lava La Rue talks queer gatekeeping and representing lesbians of colour

·6-min read

Lesbian Visibility Week runs from 25 April to 1 May and is an opportunity to bring awareness to the lesbian community and celebrate the diversity within it.

Not heard of Lava La Rue? You soon will. The London-raised musician – real name Ava Laurel – makes dreamy tracks that overflow with the joy and longing of being young, queer and in love (or something like it). Fluid and free, the ways they sing about lesbian desire brim with possibility and tap into the universal feelings that transcend identity. In short, for anyone that grew up furtively listening to “All the Things She Said” as their only form of lesbian representation, Lava’s sound is a necessary antidote to how the community has typically been depicted in the music world…

For Lesbian Visibility Week, we called Lava up to discuss their latest queer anthem, their overlapping identities and why we need to evolve the face of the lesbian community.

Let's talk about your latest single, "Vest & Boxers" – it's a queer anthem, but not as we've really seen it before.

"Vest & Boxers" was my return back to music this year and it’s got an indie-pop tinge which I thought would be fun just because, when you ask people what they associate with a queer pop song, they'll say something that’s more EDM-based. You know, the stuff that might get played in [Soho gay clubs like] Heaven or G-A-Y. I wanted this track to have the same energy lyrically but to layer it over guitars and drums, with Brit Pop vibes.

And the "Vest & Boxers" video is about a common dating mistake we've all made more than once...

The video was this psychedelic, cartoonish concept of going on different speed dates with lots of different partners and me becoming different versions of myself to cater to the partner I was with and what I thought that they would like, which I know a lot of people are guilty of.

The music you make today puts queer love front and centre. When you were growing up was there a lot of queer representation that spoke to you?

Not really, actually. There were a lot of musicians I grew up listening to who had a queer energy – I’m talking about Prince, Davis Bowie, Grace Jones – who are considered queer icons but the navigation around their sexuality or their partners was very up in the air at the time. People assumed they were heterosexual with queer vibes or maybe they were queer and had to assimilate [to wider heteronormative society]. But that queer rock 'n' roll energy is something I’ve always been attracted to.

Would you say that there are many artists who have that energy today?

There’s a generational movement, a shift back to guitar-based music from people born in the 2000s. They were born during the pop punk and indie wave but were too young to appreciate it, so are bringing it back now. There’s a lot of artists who are taking that sound to not just a queer space but also a POC space. Willow Smith is a great example: she's a part of that revival but doing it in a Black and queer way.

When it comes to your queer identity, you've previously said that you identify as lesbian, queer and non-binary: what draws you to using multiple labels at one time?

The [different labels] don’t cancel each other out. I’ve grown up with the world seeing me as a Black woman. Even though that’s not how I felt on the inside and I was able to have the language to navigate being non-binary, I still get treated and viewed as a Black woman. I’m not going to completely reject that or reject the Black lesbian experience that I’ve grown with.

Photo credit: Lava La Rue
Photo credit: Lava La Rue

How do you feel about identity labels as you get older? Have they become more of a flexible thing for you?

Labels are just there to navigate and categorise what is a wide spectrum of feelings and emotion. It’s not black and white or pink and purple, it’s like a colour wheel of gradient and everyone fits in at a slightly different point. It’s about how you want to categorise how you feel. Some people who might feel the same thing but describe it in a different way, it’s just words that help us navigate how we feel.

As a non-binary, queer lesbian, what’s your perspective on how gender fluidity plays out within the lesbian community – especially when some individuals say that it should be strictly for cis women who exclusively date other cis women?

The term "lesbian" comes with its own culture and community and if you identify with those things you shouldn’t be rejected from your community. Your gender or your transition doesn’t change who you’re attracted to or the culture around that. It can be really unhealthy to exclude, for example, trans men from the lesbian community if that’s the community they feel safe in – especially when trans men have played such an important role in the community, even going back in the Stonewall era. I don’t know why anyone would want to gatekeep in this way.

There’s been a bit of a backlash against visibility politics recently, where some people think that it isn't necessarily creating the change that LGBTQIA+ communities need. Where do you stand on that?

I always think that visibility and representation are really important, I wouldn’t have had the language to talk about and navigate my identity and how I feel without hearing other people talk about it and thinking “I relate to that.” I think the visibility pushback is when there’s a corporate intention behind [spotlighting a particular marginalised community] and when it’s not really for the visibility but to tick a box. That’s when things lose their purpose and become a bit throwaway. That doesn’t normalise these identities or preferences – it just singles them out.

Photo credit: Lava La Rue
Photo credit: Lava La Rue

What are some of the issues within the lesbian community that need to be worked through?

If you were to go on Pinterest or Google and type “lesbian art” or “lesbian Tumblr” it is super white. The face of the community is still long, straight hair with a snapback and it’s incredibly western. Growing up as a Caribbean lesbian, where was my representation? If I was to go up to someone and say, “name me three lesbian Jamaican icons,” I don’t think anyone would be able to name many. But if I was like, “who are some hot white lesbians right now?”, people would reply, “this person, this person, this person…” There’s still a long way to go [when it comes to representing lesbians of colour].

And, as a final note, what are your hopes for the future of the queer community in terms of representation and beyond?

More normalisation, it would be great to listen to the UK Top 100 and hear as many queer songs as there are straight love songs. What’s really cool is when there are tv shows or films with characters who are queer but the narrative isn’t necessarily about their queer struggle – they just happen to be queer. I feel like my music is like that, it’s very queer-centric but there’s so much more to the musicality and the lyrics than just that.

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