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Review

A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout

By Edited by Marilyn R. Schuster, with a foreword by Margaret Atwood

June 19, 2019

Review By Steven Maynard

If this is a queer love story between Jane Rule, the legendary lesbian novelist of Galiano Island, and Rick Bébout, a long-time collective member of The Body Politic in Toronto, it should really be considered a ménage à trois. The third person in this triangle is editor Marilyn Schuster, who has gifted us (Bébout was a firm believer in ‘gift culture’) with what can only be described as a labour of love. Schuster has carefully curated the letters exchanged between Rule and Bébout over a fifteen-year period, each year of the chronologically organized correspondence prefaced with brief but essential historical context and scrupulously footnoted to fill in references to people, events, and work mentioned or alluded to in the letters.

They begin in 1981 with the Toronto bathhouse raids, the unfolding AIDS crisis, and the resistance sparked by both. The letters end in 1995 as the short-lived promise of a radical queer politics gave way to a not-so-queer new millennium. These smart, deeply felt missives constitute a more than 600-page archival record and reference tool. Enhanced by an excellent index, A Queer Love Story will be invaluable to those interested in the history of the queer movement in Canada as viewed by two of its most thoughtful, lifelong participants. And props to UBC Press for continuing to produce big books based on their intellectual value and not just the bottom line.

One way to understand the letters is as a sustained, joint effort to produce what Bébout ably named “gay thought” – “intelligent reflections on life shaped by the ways we’ve lived, possible only because of the ways we’ve lived, and yet valuable beyond us” (319). A case in point: Rule and Bébout on the “exclusion that pairing brings to those at its edges” (250). Their reflections on relationships and monogamy are some of the most searching and subtle I know. Rule wrote about how, with aging, “the defused eroticism I feel in all relationships nourishes me now much more than those which require direct sexual acknowledgement” (64). Bébout, at home in the hustler bars and strip clubs of Toronto, extolled the virtues of “promiscuous affections” but not without attending to the pain of periodic loneliness. As an example of how each sharpened the thinking of the other, Rule’s relationship of more than forty-five years with Helen Sonthoff encouraged Bébout to reformulate “my critique not of coupledom, per se, but of the privatization of life” (538).

With their deep appreciation for the complexity of human sexual-domestic arrangements, both Bébout and Rule opposed enshrining coupledom in law. In “The Heterosexual Cage of Coupledom” (BC BookWorld, Spring 2001), Rule argued that giving same-sex common-law couples equal rights to straight couples was “not a step forward but a step back into state-imposed definitions of relationship,” and she urged, “we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there.” Modeling not marriage but friendship as a way of life is an example of what Bébout meant by the queer “ways we’ve lived” being “valuable beyond us.”

One of the things that links Rule and Bébout’s letters, whether discussing desire, pornography or, more bravely, “the sexuality of the young” (28), was their consistent attention to power differentials. Ditto for the realities of class and money in queer life. Indeed, Rule’s financial generosity – the “Bank of Galiano” (533) – helped many in her beloved island community through tough times.

As I write this review, the federal government is rolling out its commemorative loonie to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 decriminalization of homosexuality, which really represented a narrow legal exception for couples – two adults in the privacy of their bedroom. The coin is stamped “Equality.” This is not the currency of the queer world Rule and Bébout wrote about to each other so passionately, but without them and their vision of sexual liberation for all, it is the much-impoverished world of “equality” we’re left with, at least for now.

Publication Information

A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017. 619 pp. $45.00, cloth; $32.95 paper.