Michelle White stripped down to her underwear. Eyes were glued to the bare artist as she delivered a sermon disguised as poetry. She was half naked, confidently exposing her innermost thoughts and desires to a crowd of strangers.
Her performance was part of Gay in the South, an exhibition of multidisciplinary arts at Basin Arts, organized by Alexis Lemoine and Benjamin Koch earlier this year. Lemoine is a queer poet, writer and activist dedicated to helping Lafayette’s LGBTQ+ community feel loved.
The project was a long time coming. Eight years ago, Lemoine came out to her family. That experience seeded the idea for Gay in the South. She credits Elizabeth Gilbert, an American journalist, who believes that ideas will float around until we grab onto them, or they drift on to someone else. Last summer, Lemoine decided to seize her idea and make Gay in the South a reality.
“The question popped into my head — what does it mean to be gay in the south? That question was inspired by a lot of people who were halfway living in their desires,” Lemoine says. “They had an impulse to live this life that is true to who they are, but in the face of so much pain and discrimination.”
Lemoine wanted to shed light on not just her own experience as a queer person, but those of other queer people in Lafayette. She and fellow artist Koch have been friends for over a decade and their collaboration was natural. They worked hand in hand with Lafayette locals to create a mural engulfing the walls of Basin Arts.
The pair also hosted Queer Poetry Night in late January, expecting only close friends and family to attend. Every seat in Basin Arts was filled. No one could contain their applause and poetry etiquette was long forgotten.
“Just seeing 55 people here on the first poetry night blew my mind. I cried about it for days,” Lemoine says.
They hosted a second Queer Poetry Night in February. That’s when White, Lemoine’s friend and collaborator, took the floor. Her words guided audience members through an invigorating journey of her queerness.
She began her performance in a skirt with high heels and ripped them off to dance freely around the room in torn jeans instead. Words poured out of her, each poem linked with an audience interaction. She concluded by sitting on the floor in silence, prompting everyone to breathe deeply for a few seconds.
White leaves an impression. The provocation is intentional.
“Our goal is to unite everyone and come from a place of love. We will ruffle feathers, as we already have, but we’re always wanting to come from the heart. Seeing the people we’ve touched so far, helped Ben and I realize that this is our life purpose. It’s liberating,” Lemoine said.
From visual art to performance art, Gay in the South left its mark. Lemoine says they intend to hold Queer Poetry Night monthly to sustain a safe queer space.
“A lot of people reached out to me and said how safe they felt,” Lemoine says. “If that was the only takeaway, then my job is done. It’s hard work, but it’s so worth it.”