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Who was Jane Rule?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Though best known for her novel Desert of the Heart, Lesbian author Jane Rule is also widely admired as a longtime advocate for Gay rights and civil liberties.

Rule was born on March 28, 1931, in Plainfield, N.J. Her family moved frequently around the country, eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. A tall and awkward tomboy, Rule became aware of her same-sex attractions at an early age. She read Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness at age 15, and the next year had her first sexual relationship, with an older woman.

Having decided as a teenager that she wanted to be 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 due to its sexist and competitive atmosphere. She then took a teaching job at Concord Academy, 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 emigrated to Canada in 1956. Sonthoff soon 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, teaching English and creative writing, and serving as assistant director of International House at the University of British Columbia. In the mid-1970s, Rule and Sonthoff moved offshore to a small community on Galiano Island, where they lived comfortably on the earnings from Rule's modest but wisely invested inheritance.

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, the work 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), which looked at how Lesbian writers over the years had portrayed women-loving women. She also wrote short stories and essays for mainstream and LGBT publications, including the pioneering Lesbian magazine The Ladder and the Canadian Gay liberation journal The Body Politic.

Rule became known as one of the first women of her era willing to speak out as an open Lesbian. "I became, for the media, the only Lesbian in Canada," she once wrote. But she resisted being ghettoized as a specifically Lesbian author. "A literature written with the needs of only one group of people in mind is for me a narrow statement," she told an interviewer.

Rule supported The Body Politic in 1977 when it was raided by police for publishing an article about man-boy love. Her "So's Your Grandmother" column, which ran in the magazine from 1979 through 1985, featured some of her most provocative writing. Though Rule's fiction was not overtly political, her essays tackled controversial issues of the day such as pornography, sadomasochism, monogamy, and intergenerational relationships. "I am convinced that censoring serious discussion of unconventional sexual relationships does nothing to protect those who might be exploited," she wrote. "For every child traumatized by overt and brutal sexual treatment, there are many, many more suffering the damage of ignorance and repression which makes masochistic women and sadistic men the norms of our society."

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. Rule 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, an effort that finally ended with a partially favorable Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2000.

By the late 1980s, Rule could no longer write much due to severe arthritis and the side effects of pain medication, and she was devastated by Sonthoff's death following a hip fracture 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," she declared, "not volunteering to join them there."

Having refused aggressive treatment, Rule died of complications from liver cancer on November 27, 2007. She is remembered for her integrity and tenacious activism over more than half a century, although her views were increasingly out of step with those of the mainstream LGBT movement. "Policing ourselves to be less offensive to the majority," she wrote, "is to be part of our own oppression."

For further information:
Fuller, Janine, and Stuart Blackley (foreword by Jane Rule). 1995. Restricted Entry: Censorship on Trial (Press Gang Publishers).
Rule, Jane. 1985. A Hot-Eyed Moderate (Naiad Press).

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

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