Review by Daniel Gawthrop published in the Georgia Straight July 26, 2017
A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout
Edited by Marilyn R. Schuster. UBC, 650 pp, hardcover
On October 24, 1994, an arthritic and wheelchair-bound Jane Rule made her long-awaited appearance in B.C. Supreme Court as an expert witness in Little Sister’s bookstore’s epic legal battle with Canada Customs. Rule’s testimony was big news: here was a seldom-seen icon of queer liberation, resurfacing from idyllic Gulf Islands seclusion to publicly condemn censorship, defend literature, and heap scorn on the philistines. The gallery was packed.
Asked how she felt about her own works of lesbian fiction being detained at the border on suspicion of obscenity, the matronly 63-year-old author of The Young in One Another’s Arms and Desert of the Heart paused briefly, eyes narrowing through her trademark Coke-bottle glasses, before replying with an eloquent monologue on freedom of expression.
“We are not a community turning out sex tracts,” she concluded. “We are a community speaking with our passion, our humanity in a world that is so homophobic that it sees us as nothing but sexual creatures instead of good Canadian citizens, fine artists, and brave people trying to make Canada a better place for everybody to speak freely and honestly about who we are.”
The clear-eyed sense of moral authority and civic virtue Rule demonstrated in court that day are well on display in this aptly titled exchange of letters with Rick Bébout, a cofounder of the Body Politic and leading activist with the AIDS Committee of Toronto. A Queer Love Story celebrates platonic intimacy in the oddest of odd couples: a lesbian feminist novelist who preferred a life of quiet rural monogamy on Galiano Island, and a free-loving gay male civil libertarian and journalist who preferred the throbbing urban pulse of Toronto’s gay village.
Despite their differences, Rule and Bébout had much to say to each other before dying in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both identified as outsiders, being Americans by birth (Rule was from New Jersey, Bébout from small-town Massachusetts) and Canadians by choice. And both were passionate believers in community. Nineteen years his senior, Rule had a maternal influence on Bébout, her editor at Canada’s first and largest LGBT publication. A mutual love of language, and a shared interest in political ethics, deepened the friendship over 26 years.
Given today’s world of instant messaging and hair-trigger attention spans, it’s easy to forget how recently letter-writing was a revered tradition. Here the two friends exchange lengthy missives on the three Ps (pornography, prostitution, pedophilia), the erotic lives of children, the growing crisis of AIDS, the impact of police and media on queer lives, and more. What makes it worth reading is the friendship’s devotion to democratic discourse. In the realm of “gay thought”, notes editor Marilyn R. Schuster in the introduction, Rule and Bébout saw “no appreciable divide between the work of academics and public intellectuals in discussing feminist and gay concerns and those who didn’t claim such credentials”. Thus Bébout, the nonacademic and far lesser known of the two, raises questions every bit as compelling as Rule’s.
In discussing promiscuity, he challenges Rule’s concept of intimacy while pointing out how couples can exclude all energy outside themselves. Conversely, Bébout has no argument when Rule blasts the Body Politic for accepting ad revenue from Red Hot Video, a pornographic chain whose stores were firebombed for selling material considered violent and degrading to women. Regardless of what positions they took, however, in the end Rule and Bébout’s is a love story defined by mutual trust, respect, and a willingness to learn from each other’s perspective.
The book will interest both younger readers unfamiliar with LGBT history and readers who lived and breathed it before queer theory, intersectionality, cisgender analysis, and call-out culture took over the conversation. But then, the universal themes raised here transcend sexual orientation: a fin-de-siècle dialogue of bicoastal and pan-Canadian sensibilities, A Queer Love Story is a tribute to exemplary citizenship and the ethics of personal responsibility in times of crisis