Cloudburst surprised me with a clap thunder and downpour of queer and oppositional theatre at Fredericton’s Silver Wave Film Festival. The premise of the film, two old dykes from Maine who go to Lunenberg, NS, to get married, read like a quaint tea rose-covered greeting card touting gay marriage and the Maritime bed & breakfast industry. Boy was I wrong. Talk about qulture shock, Olympia Dukakis’ incendiary “Stella” exploded on the screen like a roadside bomb. Stella is an “old school” bulldagger who can blast a rapid-fire spray of rage, foul language and sexually explicit remarks with the slightest tug on a hair trigger. But Stella’s an exaggeration, of course, a mythical stereotype, an overblown caricature dreamed up for stage and screen. Right? Well, not in my book. Where I come from, Stella is not a caricature or an exaggeration: Stella is your typical bulldagger. But then there’s nothing typical about us bulldaggers–we’re an unusual breed to begin with. I say we because I’ve been labeled a bulldagger and even labeled myself that for some time–back in the way queer 90s. I haven’t met any bulldaggers in Atlantic Canada since I’ve been here for the last three years. It’s a rare species of lesbian that seems to be missing here in Canada, except in Thom Fitzgerald’s imaginative world (Canadian author of the original stage play and film script for Cloudburst.) You see, Stella is from Maine, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s no accident that Stella is an American Bulldagger.* But back where I come from, Northampton, Massachusetts, aka “Lesbianville,” American Bulldaggers are real women, and they look and act an awful lot like Stella.
As I watched Stella wreak havoc on the big screen, the first thing that hit me was “Oh my god, this feels so good. Finally, a dyke I can identify with.” That outrageous swagger and militant desire to upend every social convention impinging on queer females is what’s missing from the lesbian scene here in Fredericton. If you met the dykes I knew in Northampton, they were every bit as full of piss and vinegar as Stella was. What’s more, the whole gay community in the US is militant, by comparison, to the quiescent community in Canada. Everybody was always on edge, always challenging everything in mainstream heteronormative culture. Now of course that can go too far, and in the US, it usually does. But here in Canada, they don’t seem to have the American flair–or the stomach–for queer militancy. I missed that queer culture so badly, I almost cried seeing it embodied in the flesh of Olympia Dukakis’ “Stella.”
But after the film was over, another piece of the qultural puzzle snapped into place. What I have experienced in Fredericton’s gay scene, for the last three years, is nothing less than culture shock, the clinical kind that you can diagnose. Stella’s outrageousness and militancy was part of my psychic world as a queer, and to be stuck in a gay culture where that element was missing has been disturbing and disorienting. In fact, it seems that the gay community here makes every effort to repress and erase any queer militancy, flamboyance and outrageousness one might be inclined to express. NOT ALLOWED, no sir, because expressing that kind of rage, militancy, and in-you-face uppity queerness would disturb the tacit agreement that gays and lesbians in Fredericton have made with the straight world. I call it the Canadian Contract of Closetedness. Gays and lesbians in Canada will be polite, quiet, “normal” and virtually invisible, for which, in return, they get to: 1) exist, 2) hold a job, 3) go grocery shopping at Sobey’s without running into trouble with the het-police. Only as a newcomer, you don’t realize that this silent agreement is in effect until you unwittingly violate it. In comes moi, the militant gender queer cum American Bulldagger who never got the memo. Sorry, they don’t hand it out to you at the border with your IMM 1000 Certificate of Landing. But let me tell ya, folks, I got the memo now. And what put that obscure piece of the puzzle into place was that damn film, Cloudburst. It reminded me once again how critical queer culture is for us queers, not just as an art form, but as a means of psychic survival. The film wasn’t just entertaining, it was liberating and redeeming. It said in big, bold Stella terms: “Hold your head up as a proud bulldagger. And fuck ‘em all if they don’t like it.”
*See Dagger: On Butch Women by Lily Burana and Roxxie Linnea Due (1994).