Proud Life – Jane Rule: 1931 – 2007

Writer, activist and friend, Jane Rule valued community above all

View the archive of selected Jane Rule pieces

We lost an eloquent, courageous friend when Jane Rule died Nov 27 on Galiano Island, British Columbia surrounded by friends and family; she was 76. American by birth and Canadian by choice, Rule’s pioneering work as a writer and activist reached across borders.

Born in New Jersey on Mar 28, 1931 Jane Vance Rule spent her childhood moving from place to place in the US before settling in the San Francisco Bay area. After she graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1952 she spent a year in London, UK. She returned to the US to study briefly in a writing program at Stanford before accepting a teaching position at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. There she met Helen Sonthoff, another teacher, who would become her lifelong partner. Worried about McCarthyism and the political climate in the US, Rule travelled to Vancouver in 1956; in October she sent a postcard to a friend saying, “This is a beautiful, beautiful world… to see, to live in, to work in.” Sonthoff joined her a few weeks later. Eventually they both held positions at the University of British Columbia until 1976 when they moved to Galiano Island.

Rule moved to Vancouver to give herself space and time to write. In 1961 she completed Desert of the Heart, her first published novel, though it took three years and 22 rejections before seeing print. Desert of the Heart tells the story of a gentle romance between a young woman who works at a casino in Reno and an older woman who has come for a divorce. Moving back and forth between the two characters, Rule subtly challenges the myths about lesbians that prevailed in mid-20th century America and creates a story that is hopeful, loving and open-ended. From the beginning readers found in Rule’s writing a landscape in which to reimagine themselves, their loves and their relation to the world. It is difficult to imagine in 2007 that Desert of the Heart was unique when it was published: unapologetic, the novel dared to imagine that women could desire and love one another and that they could live creative, engaged lives. The novel reminded readers that lesbians were vulnerable to surveillance and punishment, but it provided a place to stand, to resist and to imagine a full life in spite of the obstacles. Rule established herself as a clear-eyed visionary; without being didactic, the novel is deeply political.

Lesbian readers discovered themselves in her fiction. Rule’s characters and her own presence as a sympathetic writer created a virtual community of readers. For example one woman wrote to Rule to say she had devoured her novels after reading other lesbian themed books. “Seeking words, images that validate, acknowledge our lives, our reality, in place of mainstream culture which wills us with silence, or simply maims with distortions… the really good stuff is rare,” she wrote. “Your writing is rare…. You acknowledge the contradictions that are our lives. I feel validated by your writing and empowered by it. As well as just happy by it. It makes for good company. Your characters are people who I recognize quite easily — complex, scarred, courageous, funny, inadequate, but trying.”


By imagining Desert through two main characters Rule demonstrated that we fashion our best selves in relation to each other. Only one of her seven published novels, This Is Not for You from 1970 is told from a single point of view. Imprisoned in shame and self-loathing, the main character embodies the devastation brought about by the fear and hatred of gay men and lesbians in the US in 1950s white, middle-class culture. Rule also exposes the deep connections between racism and homophobia, self-loathing and cruelty to others.

Her other novels followed the landscapes (both geographical and human) Rule inhabited in the 1970s and ’80s: from an unnamed west coast city in Against the Season (1971) to Vancouver in Contract with the World (1980), The Young in One Another’s Arms (1984) and Memory Board (1987) and Galiano Island in After the Fire (1987). All of these novels stage communities, large and small, as the main protagonist. Some of the communities are unconventional families, such as boarders in a rooming house or other chance collections of people notable for their differences rather than their resemblances. Rule also explores growing up and growing old in Contract with the World, Memory Board and After the Fire. In all of her fiction lesbians and gay men share space (comfortably or not) with other men and women and with children.

Rule also wrote many short stories for both mainstream women’s magazines like Redbook and Chatelaine, and for the pioneering lesbian journal The Ladder beginning in the 1960s. The stories in the women’s magazines subtly subvert gender and sexual norms and the stories in The Ladder often show the ways that a vulnerable community risks regulating its own. Never comfortable with the idea of a gay ghetto Rule valued community above all, but community defined by difference rather than commonality.

And yet Rule became one of the clearest, most incisive and uncompromising voices for the lesbian and gay community. Many of her essays grew out of her column “So’s your Grandmother” in the landmark Toronto gay liberationist newspaper The Body Politic (Xtra’s predecessor). Characteristically her column began as a gesture of support for the paper after its offices were raided in December 1977 by Operation P, a special Toronto police unit on pornography, who charged that “Men Loving Boys Loving Men,” the last in a series on essays on youth sex and intergenerational relationships, was “immoral, indecent and scurrilous.”

Rule, a lifelong opponent of censorship, wrote a bold column that condemned the police action and engaged the central issues of the offending article. In the column, called “Teaching Sexuality,” Rule acknowledged that the controversy raised difficult questions for her. “On the one hand I deplore repressive police action designed not only to stifle any discussion of… sexual activity across generations but to intimidate anyone even so involved with the paper as to be a subscriber,” she wrote. “On the other hand I understand the rage against sexual exploitation by men not only of children of both sexes but of women and other men, the pleasures of which The Body Politic can sometimes be accused of advertising.”

The real target of her essay was the hypocrisy of a society that is so fearful of sexual initiation that we deny that childhood sexuality exists. The taboo against sexual behaviour between children and adults, she argues, facilitates the exploitation of children. “Children are sexual,” she concluded, “and it is up to us to take responsibility for their real education. They have been exploited and betrayed long enough by our silence.” Her argument, bold in 2007, was unprecedented in 1978.

Rule thought initially that she’d write a handful of columns for The Body Politic, to support it until its legal problems were resolved. She ended up contributing many essays and reviews for the nearly 10 years that the newspaper continued to publish. Her editor at the paper, Rick Bébout, became a close and trusted friend. They exchanged letters monthly even after the paper folded and right up to her death; the correspondence is a precious archive not only of a movement but of a moving friendship.

In recent years Rule and Bébout have challenged the wholesale support of same sex marriage that has taken over political efforts on both sides of the border. Wary of government intrusion in private lives, they have complicated our thinking about marriage, arguing that domestic arrangements and personal lives are more varied and vital than the straight model of monogamous coupling sanctioned by the state for which we seem to be fighting.

In her writing Rule refused to privilege long-term relationships over other forms of intimacy. Yet her 45-year relationship with Sonthoff sustained and nurtured both of them as it did their many friends and neighbours on Galiano and throughout the world. The couple enjoyed a well-earned reputation as generous, attentive hosts. The ferry to Galiano Island took a steady stream of friends and relatives to their home, located in an Emily Carr landscape of fir trees and red-barked arbutus. I first met Jane in person in the summer of 1992 after we had corresponded about her work. My partner and I were planning a trip to BC and I wrote to ask Jane and Helen to join us for dinner in Vancouver. Instead, they invited us to spend a weekend at their home.

The closer we got to the island, the more apprehensive we became. How much of Jane’s life entered her fiction directly? Would Helen turn out to be the model for Constance in Memory Board, lovable but without any short-term memory? I kept looking at a picture of Jane on the back of Contract with the World, taken when she was the age I was that summer. What would she look like now, 12 years my senior but suffering from arthritis of the lower spine that sometimes nearly crippled her? What a risk they had taken, we thought, to invite us in as houseguests for several days rather than take the ferry ride themselves to the city. Or simply to decline an invitation from strangers. Later, when we confessed these apprehensions over one of many glasses of scotch, Helen said (in full command of her short-term memory), “It’s difficult for Jane to travel because of her arthritis and we’ve found through experience that you can put up with almost anyone for two days.” A welcome and a warning that made us all laugh.

After Helen’s death in 2000, Jane wrote a painfully beautiful meditation on grief that appeared in Go Big, another publication (now defunct) from Pink Triangle Press (publisher of both The Body Politic and Xtra). “Learning to survive is, at first, simply a series of distractions which begin with a love/hate relationship with everything Helen loved, from daffodils to children’s laughter, from Christmas to lima beans. I don’t now try to make sense of that loss. I learn to make use of it instead. The house I prepared for Helen’s broken hip, to which she never returned, now shelters a friend badly hurt in a car accident, a friend about whom Helen used to say, ‘Just seeing her face makes me feel better.’ It does me, too.

“Risk, grow, grieve,” Rule continued. “Helen’s like will not walk this earth again, nor I love like that again, but the care I learned is useful still for all she and I learned to love together.”

In her early career Jane Rule provided a lifeline for lesbians who were isolated, crushed by the hostility and fears of the 1950s and ’60s. For nearly half a century, her voice has been a sane, unafraid presence in the midst of the successes and losses we have shared whether “we” are gay or straight, young or old, urban or rural.

In the last several years small, independent presses like Insomniac Press in Toronto, Little Sister’s and Arsenal Pulp in Vancouver have begun to reissue her fiction because it continues to speak to us today. Rule’s last project was a small book of new essays for Hedgerow Press, a small quality press on Vancouver Island, scheduled for a spring or fall release in 2008.

In her last public appearance Rule was inducted into the Order of Canada by BC Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo in a simple ceremony on Galiano Island followed by a potluck picnic in July 2007. Honoured by the country she adopted, Rule wanted the celebration in the close island community that she loved so well.

In January 1995 the documentary film Fictions and Other Truths: a Film about Jane Rule made by Lynne Fernie, Aerlyn Weissman and Rina Fraticelli premiered in Toronto. Rule was unable to attend because of ill health but she watched a tape in her home as the film was being screened in Toronto. Afterward she wrote, “As I watched the film, I thought, ‘And this is about community, too.’ It will make money for the [Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives] in Toronto and there is now talk of a Vancouver fundraiser in March for the Little Sister’s Defence Fund. But it has also made a community of all of us involved in making it, across borders and continents, across years, affirming what we know about the value of the work we all do together, insisting on doing our own defining of the public space.”

Privately and together we grieve the loss of our friend who helped us know that clarity and candour are far more important than uncritical sentimentality to build and nurture our communities. Her like will not walk this earth again, but we will all continue to learn from her courage and her eloquence.

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