Applause crept into the rapt silence left after the screening of iO Tellet Wright’s TED Talk “50 Shades of Gay.” It was the first time the reflexive ovation missed a beat throughout the proceedings of the inaugural TEDxVermilionStreet held Sept. 12 at AcA Downtown, with each of the 10 live presentations enjoying warm and immediate hoots and hollers.
Lafayette was proud of itself, and it had good reason to be. But the screening of Wright’s talk about the messily spectral nature of sexual orientation, originally given at a TED Women’s summit in 2012, rung a legitimate challenge to TEDxVermilionStreet attendees: consider your assumptions about sexuality. There are 29 states in which a person can be fired for being gay, Wright explains in the video, a condition she’s set out to challenge by taking stark portraits of anyone who identifies as presenting somewhere left of 100 percent straight. That Lafayette resides in one of those 29 states was made all the more obvious by the tiptoe to applause.
Let’s be totally clear, TEDxVermilionStreet was a runaway success. Tickets to get inside the Moncus Theater sold out in under an hour and a half earlier this summer, and the overflow room upstairs sold out shortly thereafter. The atrium was positively buzzing during intermission with folks wowed by Civicside founder Butch Roussel’s call for 48-hour civic activism and architect Shea Trahan’s exploration of spirituality at the convergence of sonic resonance and architecture. While the majority of the live speaker presentations skewed demonstrative rather than prescriptive or challenging, they reflected Lafayette’s growth of personal resources in the last 10 to 15 years. Lafayette is the sort of place that attracts impressive and interdisciplinary talent: ecologists, sonic architects, dialect theorists, theoretical physicists, metal-detecting choral directors, entrepreneurial fashionistas, philanthropists, conceptual artists, civic activists, and forward-thinking Republican mayors. And all of that was on smartly curated display throughout the program.
Speeches breezed by at a 20-minute clip, each speaker taking impressive command of TED’s intense, multimedia format. Whatever coaching they received was well-disguised by the earnestness and authenticity of voice employed by the presenters, their diction and dress immediately reflective of the occupational and personal diversity on display. Roussel’s T-shirt felt well at home with Project Front Yard honcho Katherine McCormick’s pumps, and choral director William Hunter’s poetic spoken-prose snuggled up nicely with Joey Durel’s folksy communitarianism. The design was slick, the format loose, the presenters self-deprecating and gracious. By all accounts (and by your correspondent’s estimation), the pageant of ideas was successful in collapsing the boundaries of art, science, technology and philosophy.
The eager love of the audience and the nervous energy of the stage gave the proceedings a vibe that vacillated between serious intellectual summit and a high school pep rally. There was a genuine embrace of whatever foibles befell the speakers and the organizers. It was a beta run, so there were sure to be some kinks, and presenters Taylor Sloey (also the lead organizer) and Adam Foreman (lead curator) acquitted themselves admirably, navigating the treachery of lavalier mic feedback and awkwardly difficult segues. Seriously, they did a bang up job organizing an important event in Lafayette’s cultural growth, making remarkably good use of our city’s premier arts venue and putting Lafayette’s best civic performers in the limelight. That folks appeared to be so positively jazzed for the thing seemed a welcome surprise for the organizers, as Sloey and Foreman gushed from stage about their initial expectations for speaker applications and the subsequent avalanche of 110 submissions they received. I ran into no fewer than two rejected speakers in attendance. Their jealousy was well-founded. It was a special atmosphere.
If the vibe was like a pep rally then the curriculum was fit for prep school: at once accessible and intellectually wholesome, but not quite collegiate in its rattling of the status quo. That’s not a reflection of the speakers or the organizers, but rather the state of Lafayette’s cultural maturation. To be sure, this is both a call to action and a positive evaluation.
I was 19 when Joey Durel took office 12 years ago, and I’ve seen Lafayette grow in leaps and bounds as a community offering world-class cultural engagements. His speech, which reflected on his years in office, drove that point home for me as I sat through the day. With mayoral humility and deference, Durel credited Lafayette’s cultural body for weathering the tragedies of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Grand Theatre shooting that book-ended his tenure. Durel deserves credit himself for overseeing a period of economic and cultural profit for the city, though he seemed reluctant to take it in his remarks from the TEDx stage.
But coming a long way doesn’t excuse the remaining journey. It was a very punk rock thing for Sloey and Foreman to roll tape on “50 Shades of Gay” with a socially conservative mayor on the bill, although Sloey doesn’t really see it that way.
“We chose to show that one because we all felt that the message of that talk is that we can’t deny someone’s humanity,” says Sloey. “What do you choose to deny somebody’s humanity based on? I don’t think that’s a provocative idea. If there were ears in the audience and the video helped people see the LGBT community as more human then that’s a good thing.”
It would be a stretch to call it a gauntlet laid, but the decision to include that talk gave insight into a possible future of TEDxVermilionStreet — one that will challenge and provoke a community in cultural flux, reeling from tragedy and staring economic downturn in the face.
“50 Shades of Gay” was thus an inflection point for TEDxVermilionStreet, a moment that truly displayed the power of the TED format to challenge and engage viewers, while also demonstrating Lafayette’s relative lack of chutzpah when it comes to dealing with topics of particular disquiet. But learning to discuss and confront division is how a city grows. Organizers Sloey and Foreman should be applauded for laying the ground work for a community to both confront and congratulate itself. The speakers at TEDxVermilionStreet did indeed lecture a city still very much in its adolescence, but if organizers and the curation team keep it up they’ll lead Lafayette into adulthood.