Ardell Fitzpatrick-Brophy came out of the closet twice-once on stage during her stand-up comedy routine and then at work, in the middle of a board meeting. It was the early 1990s and it’s hard to say which was the tougher gig.
On stage she knew she was taking a risk. The Laff Riot Girls comic producer recalls, “All of a sudden I got tired of saying ‘he’ when I meant ‘she’ and for some reason, I do not know why, I was making them laugh in Houston, Texas and I thought, ‘bullshit’-and came out on stage. It was quite a redneck crowd but they responded really well,” she chuckles.
Fitzpatrick-Brophy’s life is dedicated to giving people voice. Her personal core values of equality and empowerment are reflected in both her comedy troupe and her day job as a labour union representative for employees at the Hastings racetrack.
A homophobic comment in a union board meeting provoked her coming out the second time. “Somebody made comments that were inappropriate and I’d just had it.”
She laughs, “I had hair piled high to god and makeup and wedding rings and my high heels and I remember them looking at me, shocked. And I said, ‘Yes that’s right: the barn door does swing both ways but my members know at the track-and they don’t care if I’m into goats just as long as I get them a good contract.'”
After the meeting, Fitzpatrick-Brophy was approached by another union rep who chided: “You’ve now killed your chances to ever be president [here].”
She remembers thinking, “If I don’t have the courage to stand up, then who will?”
She regrets her own internalized homophobia. “I’m sorry to say that when I started out in comedy I could be a little homophobic because I was in the closet.
“I knew when I was 15 that I was bisexual,” she continues. “In the ’80s my mom sent me to modelling school. I had been a Lionette cheerleader. I was president of the Young Socreds. Could I have any more pressure?
“And frankly,” she admits, “one of the reasons I drank is because I couldn’t deal with that.”
Comedy is important to her but so is her 18-year sobriety mark and she never misses a chance to address the issue, at work or on stage.
Fitzpatrick-Brophy is a resource person for sobriety issues and queer issues in the union office. On stage, “I get my material from life experiences and from my greatest pain. Comedy is a stress relief for me because I can’t drink.”
For her, being a comic is a form of expression. She can say things on stage that she can’t get away with in everyday life. “If I’m negotiating [a labour contract] I have to sometimes bite my tongue. But I don’t on stage. It’s kind of like a little alter ego.”
The parallel between what she does empowering comedians and her union work empowering workers is obvious.
In fact, the 49-year-old is all about empowering people, women and lesbians, specifically. She gives women the right to be funny. “This is your right to do this,” she encourages her comics.
The Laff Riot Girls now has a core membership of 15 comics, including four lesbians. It even began making money recently, touring and doing corporate shows. But Fitzpatrick-Brophy says she’s not about to give up her day job. “I like to eat,” she laughs.
Since starting the comedy troupe in 1997, Fitzpatrick-Brophy has produced more than 550 shows. The troupe is now BC’s longest-running independent women’s comedy show.
Many have benefited from the Laff Riot Girls’ fundraisers: “AIDS organizations, breast cancer groups, women’s shelters, the food bank, Big Sisters, lesbian baseball teams, International Women’s Day,” she counts off seven on her fingers. “Starting out, we did a lot of charity work and it worked both ways because we would get audiences and they would get the benefit.
“We’ve gone a long way from being the oppressed comedic minority to the club house of choice,” she says.
She’s modest about the longevity of her comedy troupe. Its survival since ’97 is in large part due to her determination to make it work, even if it came out of her own pocket. “Because I make fairly good money at the union it’s easy for me to say I’m doing a benefit.” She always pays her headlining comics the going rate.
“Yeah, it is a labour of love, giving the audience something to laugh at and developing the talent. I don’t have any children so maybe this is it. I see it as win-win because we’ve benefited from having the stage time and the community’s benefited as well.”