LESBIAN PARK RANGERS created and performed by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, as part of From The Peg! at Harbourfront, Saturday-Sunday (July 29-30), various times during the day at Ann Tindal Park, plus 11 pm slide shows. Free. 416-973-4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com.
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan are best known as the women who gave a voice to female genitalia in the provocative performance art piece We're Talking Vulva.
"I wonder sometimes if we'll ever get out of the shadow of the vulva," says Millan about their 20-year-old piece, which has been seen by more than a million people, live or on film.
But this weekend the Winnipeggers' body parts will be safely covered up by the breathable cotton uniforms of their alter egos, the Lesbian Park Rangers.
"We range about, meet bipeds, quadrupeds, do environmental assessments," explains Millan, on the phone from Winnipeg.
"We'll be enlightening Torontonians about the Lesbian National Park Services, which is based here in Winnipeg," Dempsey adds. "We've been able through careful stewardship to turn Winnipeg into one of the healthiest lesbian ecosystems around."
Even by phone, it's clear the pair's tongues are firmly in their cheeks. But there's more to the Lesbian Park Rangers than scrappy puns about roughing it in the bush.
"No matter what someone thinks of gay people, when they're confronted by our jaunty demeanour and well-pressed uniforms, they respond in a human way," says Dempsey. "It's only when gays and lesbians become abstractions that it's easy to commit heinous acts against them."
"And once you put on a uniform, people are pretty deferential," Millan continues. "It's a matter of taking power and giving it to those of us who usually don't have any. Plus, it's amazing how effective a tool humour can be. It's hard to hate someone's guts when you're laughing."
Dempsey and Millan also deal head-on with the ridiculous assumption that queers want to convert straights. They hand out information pamphlets outlining who they are.
"We've even got stickers to deputize kids as Junior Lesbian Rangers," says Dempsey playfully. "After all, you can't start them too young."
The piece grew out of a residency at Banff, where the two kept an office and interpreted the wilds from a lesbian perspective.
They later published a beautifully illustrated companion book that subtly pointed out the sexism inherent in the science world.
The two, formerly a couple, met in Toronto in 1986 working at Crow's Theatre but have lived in Winnipeg since 1988, at first because of T.O.'s exorbitant rents.
"When we came here, it was amazing to meet people who had lives as artists, not lives as waiters," says Millan.
"Everybody's poor in Winnipeg," adds Dempsey, "but you don't feel like a loser because of it. We have an 800-square foot studio for $200 a month. You couldn't rent a parking space in Toronto for that."
They admit that queers have made major strides in the past decade. One of their videos, What Does A Lesbian Look Like?, even aired on MuchMusic during the 1990s.
But they've shifted toward more intimate works like the Rangers.
"In some ways our recent work is reflecting not only our ambivalence about justice and equality," says Millan, "but our deeper ambivalence about how to resolve things and the complexities of the problems that surround us. International political issues are on everyone's mind now, and I don't think our treatment of women and gays can be divorced from the big picture."