Self-proclaimed gender freak Michael V. Smith was in Fredericton to deliver the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture on Feb. 12, hosted annually by the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Arts.
Smith is a queer writer, performance artist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia. He engaged the audience by asking questions like: “who has leather gear like a leather harness, leather underwear?” or “who has been questioned about being in the wrong bathroom?” or “who has worn pink poodle lipstick from MAC?” or “who has walked up to the wrong car because they don’t know the make and model of cars and they all look the same?”
The questions were part of a game Smith calls “gender poll.”
Smith had the audience stand as he read true statements about himself. When audience members heard something true about themselves, they sat down. Many people sat down when Smith said, “I own see-through underwear.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a game like this and people come up to me afterwards and said, ‘Well, I just sat down because I couldn’t take it anymore’ or ‘Oh, I just sat down because I was too humiliated to be standing,” Smith said during the lecture.
He also made statements like, “I have worn a hand-me-down wig from a friend who was a cancer patient.”
To Smith’s surprise, one audience member sat on that statement.
The last person standing had “the least gender in common” with Smith and were awarded a copy of his memoir titled My Body is Yours.
The lecture was a retrospective of Smith’s body-based creative work reflecting on his performance art, drag, films and writing. He discussed how bodies are read, misread and how his own gender relates to that and has been built since childhood.
“These ideas around gender and how we come to recognize what a man is and recognize what a woman is and maybe how we un-become those things – they’re really complex issues,” said Smith.
“So grounding the issues in my own personal experience, that’s just a clearer path through all of the issues.”
Smith uses audience participation in many of his performances. In the past, his one-woman-drag-performance had people stripping with him and discussing parts of their body they were uncomfortable with. He’s interested in unpacking why people feel a sense of humiliation about their body or the “gender acts.”
“You put people through an exercise that disrupts how power works. And a lot of my games are looking at doing that,” Smith said.
“They’re looking at making people who often feel like the outsiders, be inside, feel like they are the ones who are being welcomed in. And people who feel comfortable in how they move through the world, recognize the ways in which they take that for granted.”
The audience was receptive to Smith’s storytelling and disruption of power. The crowd chuckled and awed at Smith’s journey of gender discovery. His stories ranged from being mistaken for a girl as a child to the making of his “anti-porn” documentary titled Girl-on-Girl which documents Smith, dressed in drag, having sex with a woman for the first time.
“People jumped to their feet and applauded and I could have wept. I was so honoured by that. It makes me misty-eyed. But it’s such a moving experience just, as a performer, to be vulnerable and terrified and speak from that place and then have people thank you for it. That’s a really great gift,” said Smith.
“Listening and trading experiences is always a transformative act – for both the listeners and the teller. I learned a lot of things from doing that talk.”