Manitoba Point of View

Fringe Fest scores rave reviews for celebrating LBGTQ diversity: Lara Rae

Winnipeg Comedy Fest co-founder explains why she felt safe to be free and be 'she' at Fringe Fest

Posted: July 20, 2019

Lara Rae says the Winnipeg Fringe Festival celebrates 'gender-free expression.' (Sarah Constible)

On July 10, 2015, aged 52, I made a life-changing, life-saving decision to change my gender. 

Once committed, I came out of the closet (as the old joke goes) faster than a Murphy bed. 

The following night, a close friend came over and we chose my name. Behind the four walls of my Wolseley walk-up, I was Lara now. My two rats took it in stride. 

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But now what?

Yes, I should do this right away, I thought. I should let everyone know ... but, but, but. I was a little kid again. The outside world seemed so scary and big. Most of it anyway. 

But not THE FRINGE.

It was the 2015 Fringe Festival that created a safe venue for my public reveal. In that summer of 2015, I would again be reviewing Fringe shows for CBC as I had since 2002. 

When I got comfortable enough to bat my eyelashes, nobody batted an eyelash. - Lara Rae

But my history with Fringe goes much further back. I performed as part of the comedy duo "Al and George" at the second Winnipeg Fringe in 1989, a run-up to the Edinburgh Fringe the same year.

Ten years later, I returned with another show, How Do You Know When You're Done?, based on the breakup of our comedy act in 1990. 

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On the other side of coming out, I realized the Fringe was and always had been a playground of gender-free expression.

That summer of 2015, I was going to take full advantage.

Before I got my hair sorted out, before hormones smoothed my skin, slowed my stubble and rounded my cheeks and hips, I understood that in those first few shambolic months, I was going to mostly look like 50-plus masculine me, but in new attire.

The thought was not pretty.

But the Fringe did not fail.

While I got comfortable enough to bat my eyelashes, nobody batted an eyelash. I covered my crew cut with a scarf from Ardene, and my mannish mug with a quarter bottle of Sephora foundation. (This will get expensive, I thought, until I discovered a little dab'll do ya.)

Lara Rae, about a week after she publicly revealed her gender transition at the 2015 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. (Submitted by Lara Rae)

There was another Fringe benefit. I was able to see friends and acquaintances en masse. My coming out became an outdoor game of "pass it on." By the end of the first day, everyone I knew, knew.  

When you are rocking a nice skirt, some pretty eyeshadow and an A-cup bra, sometimes it's nice when someone at Fringe actually notices.

I shouldn't have been surprised.

Gender-bending Fringe trailblazers

Ask a veteran of the Fringe what the words "skirt" and "fringe" bring to mind, and Joe Bird will be at the top of their list.

The ubiquitous Bird, who died at age 41 in 2009, was a Fringe legend on both the indoor and outdoor stages. A comic, sketch player and multi-instrumentalist musician, Bird — an unabashed hedonist — had an impressive collection of brightly coloured skirts. 

Joe Bird was legendary for his invaluable 'queer-affirming talents' during the early days of Fringe. (Submitted by Lara Rae)

Bird and the crew of Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie came from the eclectic and undefinable Edmonton arts scene. Along with Darrin Hagen and Guys in Disguise, this compliment of '80s queer-affirming talents were invaluable in injecting camp, chaos and community into the early days of Fringe.

Closer to home, Leith Clark's gender-bending presence goes back decades, to the disco delight of A Midsummer Night's Fever (1998, 2018) and The Women (1993).

Leith Clark's 'gender-bending presence' goes back decades, says Lara Rae. (Submitted by Lara Rae)

Clark and performers like Connie Merasty built a bridge between drag and trans, that people like me could later pass across.

The show Clark performed with his parent, Father, I Fem for Myself (2000), showing the bond between a queer child and his parent, would leave a significant imprint. (A memory of the show came flooding back when the time came to tell my own father in July of 2015 that I was trans.)

Over the years, shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and "FTM" (1997) — David Harrison's powerful show about gearing up for his top surgery while has mother endured a mastectomy for breast cancer — taught this novice that expressing yourself fully at the Fringe could be a tool to opening minds to understanding.  

Both shows were well reviewed and drew good crowds.  

A welcoming community

In 2016, my second Fringe after coming out, I felt fully female and fully accepted. My headscarf was gone, I'd grown my hair and toned down the blush and eyeshadow.  

Sitting in Venue 1, five minutes before a show, I received an email on my cell.  Reading it, tears ran down my face and the woman beside me asked if I was OK.

Having taken off this woman's costume, I remained a woman.

The email had informed me that I had been given a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria by a psychologist I had seen a month before. Paperwork had been approved by Manitoba Health and my name was now on the list at Dr. Brassard's clinic for gender confirmation surgery.

That December, I flew to Montreal and was given the best Christmas gift ever!

Then in 2017, two years into transition, feeling much more comfortable, my mood and makeup lightened, I launched my own show at Winnipeg Fringe. 

Fragments explored in poetry my relationship with Catherine Wreford Ledlow, a Winnipeg actor living with brain cancer.

Lara Rae, two years after publicly embracing her true self. (Submitted by Lara Rae)

The show revealed how two women's journeys, mine through transition, hers through terminal illness, intersected and diverted in fascinating ways.

Playing a Delphic Oracle replete with Grecian tunic and flowing golden locks, I would remove the wig after the final show and see myself in the mirror.

Having taken off this woman's costume, I remained a woman.

To arrive at this destination was a trip made smoother, safer and more fun by the welcoming atmosphere of the Fringe Festival community. 


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lara Rae
Columnist

Lara Rae is a stand-up comic, comedy writer and the former artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.