One of the most dismal consequences of the Internet’s cultural ubiquity has been the demise of the personal letter. Not surprisingly, the loss is felt especially where writers are concerned. Though there has always been something undeniably voyeuristic about reading someone else’s mail (particularly letters that were never intended for publication), a writer’s personal correspondence frequently offers unique opportunities to glimpse aspects of process or quotidian concerns that, explicitly or otherwise, animate an author’s work. The unguarded quality of, say, Flannery O’Connor’s letters (collected in the indispensable single volume The Habit of Being) sheds at least as much light on her work as the essays and public speeches she produced.
Jane Rule, the novelist and essayist who lived most of her adult life on Galiano Island in B.C., was an inveterate letter writer. She had “perfected the form,” according to Margaret Atwood, who provides a foreword to this robust volume of correspondence between Rule and Rick Bébout, a noted gay activist and publisher in Toronto. In her introduction, Marilyn R. Schuster refers to Rule and Bébout as “unlikely correspondents,” though the two shared much in common. Both were gay, and both were born in the U.S., though Rule, who was almost two decades older than Bébout, fled to Canada during the McCarthy years; Bébout relocated to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
Rule established her literary reputation with her first novel, 1964’s Desert of the Heart; she became, in Schuster’s words, “Canada’s most public lesbian.” Bébout was part of the collective that published The Body Politic, one of Canada’s most significant gay activist periodicals during the 1970s and ’80s. During his tenure there, Bébout edited “So’s Your Grandmother,” a column Rule wrote. After leaving the magazine, Bébout joined the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), where he advocated for HIV awareness and public policy. (He died of a stroke in 2009.)
The correspondence collected in A Queer Love Story covers the years between 1981 and 1995 (except for a handful of poignant letters from 2007, the year Rule died of liver cancer). As such, it encompasses a quintessential period for the queer community in Canada: issues of pornography, censorship, alternative lifestyles, and assimilation commingle with the AIDS crisis of the early to mid-1980s, along with the response from the community and the broader society at large.
Not surprisingly, HIV-AIDS is a major focus of the book. In a 1982 letter, Bébout confesses to suffering from “an odd flu”; by 1988 he will himself be diagnosed HIV-positive (he refers to AIDS as “a facist’s dream disease” for its ability to solidify power structures in politics and society). Bébout’s work with ACT highlights many of the conflicted responses to the epidemic, many of them tied into issues of identity politics within his own community. A letter from 1992 focuses on a “hiring flap” at the organization, which chose an HIV-negative lesbian woman to fill a role Bébout felt should rightly go to an HIV-positive person (most likely, given statistics for who was infected, a gay man): “That phrase, ‘gay white man’ (often followed by ‘of privilege’) is common coin at ACT. It’s not meant as a term of endearment.”
This language – and this debate – is familiar from the perspective of 2017; it is fascinating to be reminded of its deep historical roots, and the extent to which it caused fissures within Canada’s gay activist community. (Last year’s Black Lives Matter controversy regarding the Toronto Pride Parade was by no means an outlier in this regard.) What is refreshing is to encounter these subjects debated by correspondents so evidently intelligent and willing to entertain dissenting viewpoints rather than dismissing them out of hand. (It’s easy to imagine that if Rule and Bébout were to meet on social media in our current environment, one or the other of them would fire off an abusive tweet and unfollow their putative antagonist at the first opportunity.)
The debates the two engage in range across the spectrum, but are rarely more interesting than when focused on the subject of pornography. Rule writes a letter of complaint after a sub-editor at TBP cuts a paragraph from a review of Andrea Dworkin’s book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, making the piece seem more critical than Rule intended it to be. Though she confesses to feeling that Dworkin goes too far, her own philosophical reservations about the power dynamics inherent in pornography – particularly violent porn and BDSM – are in contrast to Bébout’s more laissez-faire attitudes.
Perhaps inevitably, the letters become more personal as the volume unfolds, particularly on Bébout’s side. He writes in detail about his lovers, his health, and his conflicts with colleagues at TBP and ACT; Rule is often thrust into the position of nurturing, understanding respondent – one aspect of gender politics that seems stubbornly intransigent across years and cultural spheres.
Both Rule and Bébout seemed to assume their letters would one day be made available for public consumption; Schuster notes the reason the book ends in 1995 is that these years comprise the period for which she had explicit permission from Bébout to publish (she intimates there may at some time be a second volume featuring the correspondence between 1996 and Rule’s death). As it stands, Schuster claims to have had to edit the volume down from 2,700 pages to its current, relatively svelte 600-page size. What emerges is not merely an engaging portrait of two provocative thinkers, but a snapshot of a period in Canadian history that saw seismic change in the lives and attitudes and ideas of the nation’s queer community.