Canadian author and lesbian rights activist Jane Rule passed away last week from liver cancer. A women’s and lesbian rights activist before Second Wave feminism and Stonewall, Rule’s life and work were pioneering, creative and always courageous. Her book Desert of the Heart, published in Canada in 1964 was, as one writer described it, “the first literary novel with a lesbian theme in which the protagonists were not somehow punished for their sexuality, thought to be ‘inverts’, or deviant, or whose author, because of the subject matter, felt obliged to publish under a pseudonym.” The book was made into a movie, Desert Hearts, in 1986, by Donna Deitsch and was the first lesbian-themed feature film written and directed by a woman.
Over the years, Rule wrote many other books and essays, mentored young writers, operated a mortgage and loan business in which she helped people who would otherwise not have been able to obtain loans, and was an activist in the lesbian community.
Although she and her partner, Helen Sonthoff, had a relationship which spanned 45 years and lasted until Helen’s death in 2000, Rule was staunchly anti-marriage, including anti-lesbian marriage. Perhaps posting the following essay which Rule wrote in September 2000 might be a fitting tribute to a brilliant leader who modeled courage, integrity and compassion as well.
The Heterosexual Cage of Coupledom
Over thirty years ago, when homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized, Trudeau said that the government had no business in the bedrooms of the nation.
Until a few months ago that privacy was respected.
Now the government has passed a law including gay and lesbian couples as common-law partners with the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual common-law partners. Any of us who have lived together in a sexual relationship for over two years must declare ourselves on our income tax forms, or we are breaking the law.
With one stroke of the pen all gay and lesbian couples in Canada have been either outed if they declare or recriminalized if they do not. Our bedroom doors have come off their legal hinges.
Why then is there such support for this new law among gay people? Svend Robinson spoke in favor of it the House. EGALE, the national organization for gays and lesbians, encouraged its passing.
It is celebrated by all of them as a step along the road to total social acceptance, to a day when those of us who wish to can be legally married, our relationships just as respectable as those of heterosexuals.
But common-law partnerships were never about respectability. They were forced on couples as a way of protecting women and children from men who, by refusing to marry, were trying to avoid responsibility, free to move on when they felt like it without legal burdens of alimony and child support, without claims on their property or pensions.
There are some gay and lesbian couples raising children who, because they are not allowed to marry, may find a common-law partnership useful for benefits in tax relief, health benefits, pensions, if they can afford to expose themselves to the homophobia still rampant in this country. The law may also protect those who are financially dependent on their partners from being cast aside without financial aid.
But the law, far from conferring respectability, simply forces financial responsibility on those perceived to be irresponsible without it. What about those poor who are unable to work because they are single parents or ill or disabled?
The single mother on welfare has long had her privacy invaded by social workers looking for live-in men who should be expected to support her and another man’s children. Now single mothers must beware of live-in women as well. The ill and disabled will also be forced to live alone or sacrifice their benefits if their partners have work.
Over the years when we have been left to live lawless, a great many of us have learned to take responsibility for ourselves and each other, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, not bound by the marriage service or model but on singularities and groupings of our own invention.
To be forced back into the heterosexual cage of coupledom is not a step forward but a step back into state-imposed definitions of relationship. With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there.
We should all accept responsibility for those who must be dependent, children, the old, the ill and the disabled, by assuring that our tax dollars are spent for their care. We should not have any part in supporting laws which promote unequal relationships between adults, unnecessary dependencies, false positions of power.
No responsible citizen should allow the state to privatize the welfare of those in need, to make them victims to the abilities and whims of their “legal” keepers. Human rights are the core responsibility of the government.
The regulation of adult human relationships is not.
To trade the freedom we have had to invent our own lives for state-imposed coupledom does not make us any more respectable in the eyes of those who enjoy passing judgment. We become instead children clambering for rule, for consequences to be imposed on us instead of self-respecting, self-defining adults.
Those of us who want to legalize our relationships for the protection of our children, for our own security, for whatever reason, should have the right to do so but not at the expense of imposing that condition on all the rest if us.
What we have now is neither the right to marry nor the right to remain private and independent in our relationships.
What kind of victory is that?