Making a difference to rebuild the sky
Photo: Sophie Gagnon-Bergeron
Since its release almost one year ago, Rebâtir le ciel by Simon Émond (they) and Michel Lemelin (he/they) keeps generating a response from readers. A collection of personal stories from members of the LGBTQIA2S+* community, Rebâtir le ciel not only helped change people’s lives, but it also turned the lives of its creators upside down. Interview.
Rebâtir le ciel is unlike anything else. It features the inner dialogues of dozens of members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, including a transgender person at the gynecologist, a woman who comes out of the closet after having been married to a man, and someone beaten by homophobes while leaving a bar.
It also draws a parallel between heliocentrism and questioning gender and sexual identity in a heteronormative society. “When scientists started to show that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, they were roundly criticized […] It’s like we are living through the same sort of revolution when it comes to gender,” Michel Lemelin, the book’s author, explains.
The words are accompanied by a series of photos that Simon Émond took intuitively, trying to pull light out of darkness. “I draw a parallel with the closets we are stuck in until we come out. If you express that in an image, we are in the dark,” the photographer says.
In short, the book is complex and multifaceted. It celebrates human diversity and redefines the contours of a society without binary forms or restrictions on identity, gender, or desire.
An introspective experience
What was unique about how this book came about was that the stories initially collected by Simon – after issuing a call via social media in 2018 – provoked a period of introspection and identity questioning for the two creators. A need to come into their own first. “All of a sudden, everything was called into question,” Michel says. “And suddenly, nothing was taken for granted,” Simon says.
Simon was seriously ill. His body probably reacted to the magnitude and number of messages they received after their call for stories. “I told myself: ‘You can no longer keep quiet about who you are if you dive into this project. Your identity comes with it’ […] At the time, I had been identifying as cisgender for around 25 years, when I wasn’t a man at all,” they say.
The images that come to mind to describe what Simon has experienced are moving: “When I decided to do Rebâtir le ciel, it was as if I had set my house on fire, and I hadn’t waited for the new one to be built before the old one was destroyed. I destroyed everything. I was exposed to the elements, and when you’re exposed to the elements, you suffer. It’s no fun, and it takes time to build a house that better suits you. It took me as long as it took to create Rebâtir le ciel.”
When they listened to the stories, Michel realized they had buried things from their past that they thought they had worked through. “I had buried them to satisfy a patriarchal, heteronormative model. If I were to listen to the stories again today, I would go even further, because at the time, I was sort of in the same place as the people telling them,” they say. In French, they adopted the gender-inclusive term “auteurice” to define themselves as the project went on.
A wave of solidarity
Simon’s invitation created a wave on social media when the project was launched, which continued when the book was released. “In addition to all the comments, there was a regional queer support circle,” Simon says. “People wanted to help with distribution.” With stories from people who live outside the major centres, the authors felt that LGBTQIA2S+ communities in different regions were drawn to the project.
Simon and Michel’s project will gain new momentum this fall thanks to a CALQ grant. One hundred copies of the book will be available in libraries and CEGEPs in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, where both artists are from, as well as in community organizations.
“That way, there will be electronic mediation to invite people to enter into a relationship with contemporary art and better understand what they experience through the work to be better allies in the community and better serve the LGBT community,” Simon says.
Continuing the revolution
While there is no sequel in the works for Rebâtir le ciel, the creators intend to continue the small-scale revolution the book started through other avenues, with a photo exhibition for Simon and more writing for Michel. Plus, they are continuing their efforts to promote a better understanding of the realities of non-binary people, particularly in the arts.
“It takes guts to be a non-binary artist,” they say. “In Québec, in contemporary photography, I am one of the few people with the perspective and experience of a non-binary person who creates, and whose work gets grants and distribution. That perspective is important, because it is a different artistic process,” Simon says. The self-taught artist believes that the quality and density of the artistic work from LGBTQIA2S+ community members is often under-represented. “We always have to weave our work into calls for submissions from a perspective that allows cisgender people will understand what we are doing,” they say.
With a desire to see more opportunities for non-binary and trans artists, Michel and Simon ensure their work, like their discourse, continues to question the patriarchal and binary posture and is an invitation for new paradigms to emerge.
* LGBTQIA2S+ is an acronym that encompasses different gender identities and sexual orientations, for example: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, two spirited (2S), etc.
You have received a CALQ grant and would like to share your experience or a testimonial? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.