Though best-known for her novel Desert of the Heart, lesbian author Jane Rule also is widely admired as a longtime advocate for gay rights and civil liberties.
Rule was born in 1931 in Plainfield, New Jersey. Her family moved frequently, eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. A tall and awkward tomboy, she became aware of her same-sex attraction at an early age. She had her first sexual relationship at age 16, with an older woman.
Having decided as a teenager that she wanted to be a writer, Rule studied English at Mills College in Oakland. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she followed a girlfriend to London, but returned to the Bay Area a year later to attend Stanford University, which she soon left because of its sexist and competitive atmosphere. She then took a teaching job at a private girls school in Massachusetts, where she met Helen Sonthoff, a fellow teacher 15 years her senior, who was married to a German political dissident.
Feeling stifled by the conservative climate of the McCarthy era, Rule immigrated to Canada in 1956. Sonthoff divorced her husband, and joined Rule in Vancouver. A few years later, both women became Canadian citizens. Rule held a variety of jobs, including working as a script reader, and teaching English and creative writing. In the mid-1970s, the couple moved offshore to a small community on Galiano Island.
In 1964—after more than 20 rejections—Rule published her first novel, Desert of the Heart, about the relationship between a free-spirited young woman and an older female professor seeking a divorce in Nevada. Though well-regarded within lesbian circles, it did not become widely known to the general public until 1985, when Donna Deitch adapted it into the film Desert Hearts.
Rule penned several other novels during her career, including The Young in One Another’s Arms (1977) and Memory Board (1987), along with the nonfiction Lesbian Images (1975). One of the first women of her era willing to speak out as an open lesbian, she also wrote for mainstream and GLBT publications, including the pioneering lesbian magazine The Ladder.
A writer as well for Canadian gay-liberation journal The Body Politic, Rule supported the publication in 1977 when it was raided by police for printing an article about man-boy love. Her “So’s Your Grandmother” column, which ran from 1979 through 1985, featured some of her most provocative writing.
“I am convinced that censoring serious discussion of unconventional sexual relationships does nothing to protect those who might be exploited,” Rule wrote.
Rule’s novel Contract with the World (1980) was among the many books and magazines with queer or sexually explicit content seized by Canada Customs en route to gay bookstores in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The author was one of the most prominent witnesses to testify in support of Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium during its long legal battle to stop the censorship.
By the late 1980s, Rule no longer could write much, because of severe arthritis. She was devastated by Sonthoff’s death in 2000. Yet Rule stayed engaged in politics, including the debate surrounding Canada’s decision to allow same-sex marriage.
“We should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons,” Rule declared, “not volunteering to join them there.”
Having refused aggressive treatment, Rule died of complications from liver cancer on November 27, 2007.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.