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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

The Rule of Jane

A writer’s lessons for today

Kevin Shaw

In a July 2019 essay for The New Republic, the gay American novelist and rabble-­rouser Dale Peck referred to Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay man to make a major bid for the White House, as a “neoliberal,” a “Jeffersonian meritocrat,” a “gay teenager,” a reluctant bottom (in so many words), and, most frequently, as “Mary Pete.” The last one was a “gay equivalent of Uncle Tom” that the writer claims to have crowdsourced on Facebook, drawing on gay slang to riff on the one-time Democratic candidate’s more popular nickname, Mayor Pete. The hat tip to social media seems appropriate given that the latter half of Peck’s essay reads like a string of snarky tweets masquerading as a cogent political critique.

Many progressives would agree with Peck on Buttigieg’s shortcomings, such as his vacillation on public health care, his disavowal of 1960s social activism, and his seeming lack of decisive empathy in cases of racialized injustice. Yet many liberals denounced Peck’s ad hominem attack on Buttigieg’s brand of gay identity: white, upper-­middle-­class, Midwestern, married, and presumably monogamous. Peck didn’t just argue that Buttigieg couldn’t be president because he’s gay; Peck claimed he couldn’t be president because he’s recently out and too distracted by his late sexual adolescence to focus on the work at hand.

Peck’s more understated admission, that “Pete and I are just not the same kind of gay,” reveals a deep-rooted division in tactics, priorities, and values in LGBTQ politics — a false binary between “radical” and “assimilationist”— that has been around since long before same-sex marriage. Our ability to have difficult, sustained, and nuanced conversations about those differences has waned considerably, even as social media has removed many of the gatekeepers who once controlled public discourse. It was perhaps inevitable that The New Republic soon unpublished Peck’s essay in response to online backlash.

While Buttigieg’s political hopes and Peck’s screed may already be footnotes in the hist­ory of what’s sure to be an eventful 2020 election, the incident is significant for what it reveals of LGBTQ representation today. That a mainstream (read: straight) periodical would publish a personal essay on the internal disputes of queer politics and then cancel that essay when the tenor of those disputes became too combative pretty much sums up how we debate today: the internet collectively swiped left on Peck.

The shadows of a towering figure.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

In a different time, such as the 1970s, Peck’s essay might have found a more likely, if not more comfortable, home in the pages of The Body Politic, the Toronto-based gay liberationist periodical that ran from 1971 to 1987. Each month, it provided a forum where activists, writers, and young thinkers in the burgeoning field of queer studies could debate the issues — whether pornography, Pride, AIDS, or internal strife. In the late ’70s, after heated and drawn-out discussions, the editorial collective behind The Body Politic decided to publish Gerald Hannon’s “Men Loving Boys Loving Men,” an exploration of intergenerational relationships, which resulted in an obscenity case before the Ontario courts. The trial and subsequent appeal caught the attention of Canada’s mainstream literary community, with the likes of Margaret Atwood and June Callwood defending the collective’s editorial prerogative in the pages of the Globe and Mail.

Around the same time, the novelist Jane Rule began to write for The Body Politic. Her monthly column, which she called “So’s Your Grandmother,” is notable given that the paper was generally authored and read by gay men, not lesbians. “I would not like to count the number of times I’ve had to defend myself for writing for The Body Politic against the view that I should spend all my time on women’s publications,” Rule explained in one essay, later collected in A Hot-Eyed Moderate. Elsewhere, she responded to middle-­class critics within the queer community who questioned her close association with a radical paper. Rule reminded them that “policing ourselves to be less offensive to the majority is to be part of our oppression.” She proudly noted that “if the newspaper is found to be obscene, I am part of that obscenity.”

Jane Vance Rule was born in New Jersey in 1931 and attended Mills College, in California, where she graduated in 1952. After a brief stay in England, she emigrated to Canada in 1956 and settled in British Columbia with her partner, Helen Sonthoff, also an American. While teaching English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Rule published her first novel, Desert of the Heart, in 1964, after countless rejections. Adapted by Donna Deitch into the acclaimed 1985 film Desert Hearts, the book depicts a love affair between a professor seeking a divorce and the young casino cashier she meets in Reno. As Rule recalls in her 1975 critical study, Lesbian Images, the publication put her teaching career in jeopardy: “When my appointment as a university lecturer was challenged because of the book, my more liberal colleagues defended me with the argument that writers of murder mysteries were not necessarily themselves murderers.”

Rule’s position in a nascent CanLit community — already somewhat precarious because she was a lesbian and an American who published with American houses — would be shaped by censorship in the following decades. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, shipments of books and other material that contained Rule’s work were regularly detained by Canada Customs en route from the U.S. to Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium, the gay and lesbian mainstay in Vancouver, as well as Glad Day Bookshop, in Toronto.

In 1994, Little Sister’s took Canada Customs to court. After a protracted battle, the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately ruled in 2000: it found the agency was discriminatory in its practices but allowed it to continue reviewing cultural material for obscenity. Years earlier, testifying before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Rule explained how state-­sanctioned censorship had affected her: “The assumption . . . that there must be something pornographic [in my writing] because of my sexual orientation is a shocking way to deal with my community.” In her testimony, as in her writing, she proved herself adept at practising the axiom “The personal is political,” as she pivoted from the censorship of her own books to the censorship of her community writ large.

Rule retired from writing fiction in the early ’90s and died in November 2007, seven years after Sonthoff. Across four decades, she produced eleven published works of fiction and three collections of non-­fiction. An autobiography, Taking My Life, edited by Linda M. Morra, was published in 2011. The voluminous correspondence between Rule and the AIDS activist Rick Bébout, edited by Marilyn Schuster, was published as A Queer Love Story in 2017. But despite her prolific career and the fact that her partner was a scholar of Canadian literature long before CanLit became the scholarly concern it is today, Rule’s literary legacy is still being written.

It’s strange to mourn a writer I never met — one I didn’t come to know until years after her death. Yet I find myself seeking Rule’s wisdom to help understand the discord of the present, and the divides both within and outside the queer community. I discovered her writing as a graduate student at Western University, where I researched literary censorship in Canada. My initial reading followed a year of seminars in which any given novel or film from the 1970s might be criticized for not being “queer enough” (as if anything can be) in its portrayal of gay or lesbian sexuality. Given our rapidly changing understanding of sex and gender, such criticism felt a bit like taking John Donne to task for describing the body’s humours when we have the hindsight of twenty-first-century medicine.

As I read Rule’s fiction for the first time, I was struck by how she carefully situated her work in time and place; she responded to the specific concerns of her day without any claim to universality. I found this comforting: stories of lived experience as a corrective to the vague assertions and fierce attachments of theory. But was this comfort a sign of her political failure? Even of mine? I had already come out of one closet. But was I imagining the past as some sort of gay utopia? Was I hiding from the political work left to be done?

Like bell-bottoms, social realism doesn’t age well. The mirror held up to a writer’s present does not always become a window into our own. But Rule’s treatment of the ’70s and ’80s seems increasingly relevant. As the work of an American expat, her fiction is attuned to the possibilities and dangers of crossing the border, particularly for draft dodgers. Although her own books were stopped at the border, she felt comfortable crossing the forty-­ninth parallel. In one essay, she recalls Sonthoff exclaiming, “Beautiful Canada! Isn’t it wonderful to be home?” At the same time, Rule critiques the persistent myth of Canada as a non-­violent sanctuary — a narrative that stretches back at least to the Underground Railroad.

Although Rule was not a formally innovative writer, her stories and novels of the ’70s, in particular, reveal a desire to find new ways of representing divergent identities in search of social cohesion. Today, we would likely call Rule’s casts of misfit characters “chosen families,” the communities of friends and lovers that can provide queer people with the attachments so often denied by the traditional family unit. She did more than represent these new social arrangements: she altered the very form of her novels to reflect them.

While explicit representations of sexuality have long been central to queer activism — and eroticism does have its place in Rule’s fiction — she believed in mapping the emotional and psychological landscape of diverse relationships. “I think we should be talking as much or more about love, friendship, community,” she wrote Bébout, her Body Politic editor, in 1982. “There are kids out there who still believe in Valentine’s Day, and I’m not sure that’s an entirely bad thing.” Love, friendship, and community did not have to mean “traditional.” Although she had retired, Rule picked up her pen in 2001 to opine on same-sex marriage, which she referred to as “the heterosexual cage of coupledom.” She had enjoyed a decades-long partnership with Sonthoff, but she questioned why, after fighting to get the government out of the bedrooms of the nation, gays and lesbians would want to invite the state back in.

In one of Rule’s most experimental short stories, “Theme for Diverse Instruments,” from her 1975 collection of the same title, a first-­person-­plural narrator describes the perspectives of a dead matriarch’s children, both male and female. “Prose is not a flower bed, a space, but time, one thin line of it,” the narrator observes. “The we is the fence, defining our limits. . . . But point of view is a concentration camp of time, not space, and nobody can go until we are released.” While fiction often reveals its world through one point of view at a time, Rule grew frustrated with the limits of perspective — the “one thin line.” She preferred simultaneity and overlap, and worked to perfect her use of multiple points of view throughout the decade.

Rule’s formal experiments mirrored her politics. She rejected what the queer studies scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick later called the “­minoritizing” view of homosexuality: the idea that queer life is of concern only to queer people. Rule was convinced that queer writing could cross the aisle. In her 1987 novel, Memory Board, for example, the elder hetero­sexual brother of a lesbian character “discovered he could read [The Body Politic], bit by bit, if he made the effort.”

Following Sonthoff’s retirement from the University of British Columbia in 1976, the couple moved to Galiano Island. But Rule did not abandon the politics that fuelled her work. The Young in One Another’s Arms, from 1977, follows Ruth Wheeler, the owner of a Vancouver boarding house set for demolition. Her many residents, of differing orientations and political persuasions, have formed a close if dysfunctional family. Like Rule and Sonthoff, Ruth and her “children” eventually escape their gentrifying neighbourhood for rural life on Galiano Island. There, the tenuous family sets up a would‑be utopia, running a café that serves a similarly marginalized community, including seniors and others who have opted for alternative ways of living. The novel does not question whether such utopias are possible; it suggests how they can be sustained despite their members’ conflicting needs and wants.

The most galvanizing character in The Young in One Another’s Arms is the self-proclaimed Boy Wonder, a gay, African American draft dodger who performs the stereotypes of his variously inflected identity as a strategic affront to white, middle-­class assumptions. It’s a potentially dangerous characterization for a white author to draw, and one that risks replicating the very targets Rule seeks to criticize. In a letter to Bébout, Rule questioned whether she should write characters like Boy at all, or if she would perpetuate a cultural erasure by avoiding characters unlike herself.

Rule correctly anticipated that her next novel, Contract with the World, from 1980, would be met with a skeptical reception. She even took to the pages of The Body Politic before its publication to defend it and its sometimes negative representation of gay and lesbian people. In “Reflections,” which appeared in September 1980, Rule made an observation that should have been self-­evident but, as last year’s Peck controversy proves, still needs to be stated: “Within the gay community there are not only different but morally and politically conflicting tastes.” The writer who attempts to please everyone in her community is “doomed to failure.”

Contract with the World leaves behind the utopian desires of The Young in One Another’s Arms and follows a more cynical group of thirtysomething writers and artists in Vancouver. In it, as in everyday reality, individual lives become threads in a larger tapestry. The queer characters are often unlikeable, even sometimes criminal. A sound artist steals recording equipment, bringing to light her earlier sex-­related offences, while a successful photographer becomes embroiled in a wide-­reaching political scandal involving underage sex. As the novel unfolds, its various and overlapping ethical and political quandaries echo the real-life debates found in The Body Politic; Rule shifts points of view between her six characters as their relationships come together and fall apart. A painter who has also made a living as a sex worker muses, “We all have our contracts with the world.” As Rule knew, any artist must negotiate with her public.

Upon its publication, Contract with the World received the very feedback Rule had feared. In a review for Gay Community News, the American professor and Gay Liberation Front activist Karla Jay refused to consider it a lesbian work at all, because its first two sections focus on “unrepentantly heterosexual males.” (I imagine that if we had studied Rule in grad school, she also would have been accused of being “not queer enough,” though for different reasons.)

In recent years, Pride festivities across Canada have become political battlegrounds as ideological factions within the unwieldy alphabet of LGBTQ identities vie for attention and the redress of past wrongs (including the lack of diversity within Pride committees and the inclusion of police in parades). These debates remind us that Pride began as a resistance movement, not a marketing opportunity, just as Rule’s fiction and essays show us how such arguments can extend from the streets to the news sheet. While the pandemic means that Pride as we have come to know it will be cancelled for the first time in half a century, Rule’s books remain open for quieter contemplation and remembrance of our community’s past. “I have discovered my subject matter in the world we share in common,” she once observed. Rule’s fiction and essays of the 1970s belong to her world, not ours, but by documenting the divides of her era, she shows how we might better navigate our own.


Inspirations

Desert of the Heart
Macmillan, 1964
The Young in One Another’s Arms
Doubleday, 1977
Contract with the World
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964
A Hot-Eyed Moderate
Naiad Press, 1985
 

Kevin Shaw was included in Best Canadian Essays 2018, with “Lend Me Your Ears: A Border Crossing in Three Acts.”

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