Light grey rain dews the steps in front of the New Haven County Courthouse where Lola Hourihane ’20 stands. Brushing aside tawny, close-swept hair, Lola walks between posters and jackets and takes the microphone. IV Staklo and Chardonnay Merlot, who emceed the Rally & March for Trans Rights on March 28, flank them, animated in anticipation.

Lola’s leggings glint bronze under the clouds. Next to them stands Vibhuti Gour, a gap-year student from India. They make eye contact, count down from three, lift the microphone to their lips and call out together: “I pledge allegiance to the flag / To the pink, white, and blue.” The crowd cheers as Lola and Vibhuti’s voices find the wind for the rest of the poem.

Along with Brian Matusovksy ’19, who stood smiling from the crowd, Lola co-directs Voke, an LGBTQ+ spoken word group founded last October. In a semester and a half, the group has grown eagerly, attracting a swath of passionate first-years and upperclassmen looking for something fresh. Voke’s invitation to perform at the trans rights rally speaks to the respect they’ve quickly earned.

Lola and Brian are wary, though. They know that novelty quickly wears thin and are determined to avoid being buried under Yale’s already-saturated slam scene.

“We have been trying really hard to not just be another spoken word group,” Brian explained. It’s too early to tell exactly how Voke’s weekly meetings in a nook of the Office of LGBTQ Resources at 40 Ashmun Street will manifest that hope. Still, its founders’ energy is powering more than just poetry.

Voke is coming into its own in a landscape defined, for better or worse, by the idea of a “safe space.” The group’s simultaneous adoption and questioning of the safe space label represents an imperfect but nuanced blueprint for community-building. It’s a model in flux, one as easily overlooked and misunderstood as it is difficult to define. Voke has created a space for LGBTQ+ identities to express themselves without hesitation, fulfilling the traditional sense of a safe space; but it also bears the responsibility of fostering artistic creation and free expression that sometimes challenges that safe space.

Before creating a group of their own, Lola and Brian were just two of many Yalies disappointed by rejection emails from established spoken word groups like WORD and Teeth.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Yale was because the spoken word scene is so strong,” said Lola, who hails from Dublin, Ireland. “I was like, if there’s no space that’s going to take me, I have to make my own.” Brian, who had recently come out to his parent, felt a kindred urge. A mutual friend connected the two, and together, they decided to build a group oriented towards poetic expressions of queerness but open to anyone.

Twelve people showed up to their first meeting. Attendance dipped and jumped from week to week, but a crew of regulars began to emerge. At a recent meeting, Lola had two big pots of tea ready as poets filed in. Just two months earlier, Lola became the only non-WORD poet to earn a space on Yale’s competitive slam team.

Julia Morgan Leatham ’20 was one of four poets whose work was workshopped that night. She stood up, twisting fingers around her necklace, and read a confessional about the challenges in empathizing with her transgender sibling.

…I want to scrub the privilege from my skin so it bleeds / Let me peel the white from my body / And fatten my figure / And cripple my limbs…

Snaps and compliments followed. The poem was intimate, a little uncomfortable and tender. But Lola felt something was left unsaid.

“While I think I understand that you wish you could relate to your sister better, you realize that saying you want to get rid of the privileges you have, of being white and cis, is extremely problematic, right?” they asked Julia.

There was a brief pause, and I worried about what might follow. To my surprise, the challenge was quickly resolved. Instead of growing defensive, Julia opened up, agreeing that she could have been more thoughtful about her position and pledging to revise that section to better express her intent.

Interactions like this one that promote thoughtful dialogue run counter to what detractors of “safe spaces” imagine. The proliferation of the term’s use has become something of a scapegoat for patterns of silence and insularity at institutions of higher learning.

Brian said he thinks Yale is a rigid place where people from all sides are afraid to speak candidly with each other. But he and Lola believe Voke is becoming an environment that is both safe for marginalized voices and that fosters free artistic expression.

“What they want, I think, is to be heard,” Brian said. “We have wonderful members who are asexual and trans and aren’t necessarily the [typical] LGBTQ white, male, gay spokesperson, and that’s so important. A lot of them came into the group feeling that their voice was not being heard—even if they had the words to express their lived experience, they didn’t have people who wanted to listen.”

According to Brian, he and Lola have worked to make spoken word poets feel comfortable and continue to share their voice.

Julia appreciates this emphasis on encompassing respect, something she hasn’t necessarily found in other places on campus.

“When one person speaks, everyone listens, no one’s on the phone, no one gossips, no one’s distracted,” she said. Background noise falls away and faces angle toward the poet. But Brian admits that fostering this type of proactive inclusivity while navigating the landmines of campus politics is often easier said than done.

“Honestly, I sucked at pronouns at first, and I think I made some people uncomfortable,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”  

Growing pains challenge all start-ups to some extent. Voke, though, faces an additional obstacle: an open-door, no-audition policy that allows interested poets to attend as many or as few meetings as they like. This flux makes it challenging to form the sort of mutual trust that’s necessary for a supportive environment or “safe space” to flourish. At the same time, Voke must balance creating a culture of safety for queer identities and of creative excellence, where freedom of expression is valued. But Lola thinks the trade-off is a false dichotomy.

“It was a question of, do you want it to be a safe space or do you want it to be an artistically ambitious space?” they wondered. “The farther we progressed into it, the more we started editing poetry, the more we realized that that’s not a choice you have to make. The most therapeutic poetry is the poetry that makes you feel understood. That’s also artistically ambitious poetry—to produce something beautiful out of your identity, and something that people understand when they hear it.”

Miranda Rector ’20, a cheerful freshman new to the spoken word scene, agrees. She performed a “very personal” piece at a joint spoken word show this February in the Afro-American Cultural Center, where Voke debuted as a group. Miranda credits the group’s atmosphere for giving her the confidence to open up about something she would have otherwise kept hidden. She said that the ability to be honest while feeling safe during Voke’s workshops made her performance more powerful.

By prioritizing fluidity and warmth in meetings, the group is countering the rigidity some of its members have found in other spaces, even ones that ostensibly serve them as members of disenfranchised communities.

“There’s a sense that the umbrella queer groups aren’t welcoming to people of different backgrounds and different identities that exist at different intersections,” Lola said.

For this reason, niche groups have sprung up and risen in esteem to prioritize intersectionality on campus. For example, (W)holy Queer weaves in religion, Queer+Asian and De Colores focus on ethnicity, oSTEM brings together individuals interested in the sciences.

While these groups serve vital purposes, they also risk self-segregation. In response, Voke hopes to make collaboration an integral part of its regular activities. The next five weeks will see a number of these collaborations unfurl. Voke is hosting a joint show with Bad Romantics, a drag group, on April 21 and 22. The group is debuting a spoken word podcast that will feature Yalies from different groups. And it already sponsored the Rally & March for Trans Rights and plans to continue working with New Haven political organizations.

And of course, Voke will always be audition-free. Anyone can walk up Ashmun Street on Thursday night and be welcomed in, with tea that comforts and verse that provokes.