Michel Lemelin tried for a long time to fit into a box that wouldn’t fit—that of the male gender. Fortunately, there was the darkness, the stars, and their infinite possibilities.
I’ve always preferred darkness to light. I relish the darkness of little-known universes: the black chaos of unformed ideas, from which artistic creation flashes, well beyond the bounds of common sense. When queer singer and producer SOPHIE’s tragic death was announced last winter, walking through the snow-covered forest and listening to “Pretending” on repeat seemed the best way to commemorate her. It felt, to me, like she was trying to get closer to the stars.
Darkness has been a major refuge of mine since childhood.
I think first of the darkness of the Closet: we come out of our own accord if we’re lucky, or we are chased out, with all the suffering that ensues, when someone else decides it’s funny to do it for us. But most of all I’m thinking of the darkness of the night, crisp with December’s storms or glittering with July’s stars.
Of all the places I would go in my native Saguenay, the wide farmers’ fields crowned by the Milky Way were my true escape. I could abandon myself entirely to their darkness without fear of being evaluated, measured, disgraced because I couldn’t fit the centuries-old box imposed on those born with a penis between their legs. I kept spilling over.
When I was little, I had the warmth of ancestral houses as comfort. There was my maternal grandmother’s, with its huge kitchen, big enough for all the many members of my family to pile in. And there was my paternal grandmother’s as well, smelling of the pies, soups, and galettes she put in the oven before returning to her sewing work. What was asked of me there seemed in perfect harmony with my small self: to cut triangles of fabric for the quilt, to eat little pink cakes, to roll out pastry, to plunge into the mountains of fur coats that smelled so good, like beauty products. For a long time, these spaces full of women—but, as I would only understand later, designed to satisfy men—gave me the only anchor I had in the world.
And then one day those around me decided that my childhood was over and that my feminine side—a phrase I use in the absence of a better expression to define my fundamental identity—had to be destroyed at all costs.
Familiar places were immediately transformed into hostile zones where I felt watched and stalked, like a hunted animal. It seemed that all eyes in my family were on me, ready to mock or punish if I made a gesture that was too delicate or showed too much interest in a lipstick or a Barbie suitcase. Spaces that were once maternal and welcoming became sites of constraint, where I had to check myself constantly, hold back each movement, posture, word, and, above all, each burst of laughter. It was crucial not to let these betray me and shake the world order to which my family adhered, like every other family I knew. There was no room for even the slightest slip. Every ounce of my attention was focused on playing a role.
Dysphoric in the gender I was assigned at birth, I was only interested in traditionally “male” spaces when they were empty: when I could move through them without expectation that I should fit in. I didn’t know how to inhabit them the way my father and my uncles did—much less the boys of my age at school, the worst place of all.
There, every spot, from the cafeteria to the gym, from the classroom to the schoolyard where we waited for the bus, violently demanded that I play the role of a gender that was not mine.
To this day, in most everyday places, I feel the constant requirement to perform one of the two supposedly fundamental genders.
Three years ago I began a social and artistic venture with my partner in creativity, Simon Émond (a photographer based in Métabetchouan), which transformed us both profoundly. We wanted to show and give voice to queer people in our region, to bear witness to the realities lived in our community. Both of us had, under social pressure over the course of our lives, come to consider ourselves cisgender, homosexual men. But slowly, through our encounters with the thirty-some people chosen from the hundred or so who responded to our call, the image we had held of ourselves was shattered.
This explosion made us think of another historical collapse: that of the Copernican Revolution in the 16th century, a long paradigm shift punctuated by the sacrifices of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for claiming that our sun was just one among many similar stars, and the censure of Galileo who, after having declared his support for Copernicus’ theory that the earth orbited around the sun, was declared a heretic by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. This period of scientific tumult put an end to an idea that was supposed to be universal and indisputable: that earth is the centre of creation and that all else is subordinate.
A spark grew for our project Rebâtir le ciel [Rebuilding the Sky]: just as humans long believed that we occupied the centre of the universe, our stubborn desire to confine all of humanity to one of two genders represents a commitment to false, limiting dogma.
This artistic hypothesis didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from my childhood and teenage memories of the 1970s and 1980s, when there was no social media to help people like me to find each other. It’s an era not so far in the past, when the word “queer” was still a common insult. And the cruel laughter from those who lived peacefully—or appeared to do so—with the gender assigned to them at birth gave rise to such an intense aloneness, discomfort, and shame.
As it was perhaps for SOPHIE, it’s when I looked up to the immensity of the starry sky above those farmers’ fields, when my body found the primordial darkness above, that I had the feeling of finally being at home.
Compared with human constructions, mostly governed by men steeped in privilege, outer space remains a place out of reach, ungraspable, whose limits we know almost nothing about.
It’s a fluid dimension that has nothing to do with our convictions or our obsessions with naming and dominating. The cosmos offers a site of perpetual cataclysmic transformation, where new forms emerge from the ruins of those that have come before them, in order to rebuild the sky.
And this is exactly what our work as creators has brought about in us: after the breakdown of our convictions about gender and desire, Simon and I found ourselves standing before a multitude of possibilities. From now on, we are fluid beings, the only state that gives us access to a future. ■
After a devoted multidisciplinary practice in the 1990s, Michel Lemelin left the contemporary art world. In 2016 after meeting Simon Émond, they returned to creative activities, and literature in particular. Rebâtir le ciel is their first collaboration as authors.
This visual essay is featured in our Issue 10.ORDER YOUR COPY