More than 17 years have gone by but Jim Deva still recalls with great emotion the fall afternoon he wheeled Jane Rule into the BC Supreme Court to testify on behalf of Little Sister’s Bookstore in its case against what was then Canada Customs.
It was Oct 24, 1994, some 13 days into the constitutional challenge against the border agency’s habitual seizure of materials destined for Vancouver’s iconic gay and lesbian bookstore Little Sister’s. In fact Rule’s own work – The Young in One Another’s Arms, Contract with the World and a movie based on her novel Desert of the Heart – had also been seized by Canada Customs.
Rule’s much-anticipated testimony would not only focus on the artistic merit of lesbian fiction but her feelings about having her work labelled obscene.
“She was in a wheelchair at that time and I got the honour of wheeling her up to the stand,” says Deva, Little Sister’s coowner. “As I was rolling her up and looking at the judge it was like, ‘You know this is a very important person. You listen to this person.’ That’s what I was trying to project. ‘This is the best we have. If you cannot understand our community, listen to this woman and she’ll explain our community to you.’ She spoke very quietly, very eloquently. I think her testimony really did help make that judge realize that we really were talking about our community and how censorship is so offensive, so deeply offensive. Before that I don’t think he really understood it.”
In the end Little Sister’s won a partial victory with the court ruling that, while Customs’ actions violated the right of gay men and lesbians to freedom of speech and equality, the legislation governing it did not discriminate.
Still, Deva says the day Rule testified was a watershed moment and “one of the most remarkable days of my life.”
When she began describing the personal and professional impact of having her work stopped at the border Deva says you could hear a pin drop.
“I bitterly resent the attempt to marginalize, trivialize and even criminalize what I have to say because I happen to be a lesbian,” Rule told the court. “The assumption is, therefore, that there must be something pornographic because of my sexual orientation and I think that is a shocking way to deal with my community.”
Rule spoke up in defence of pornography even though she “didn’t find it attractive at all,” Deva points out.
“She never bought porn here,” laughs Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller. “I can guarantee that.”
“But in the ’70s in her work with The Body Politic she didn’t say the most popular things,” recalls Deva. “That was an era of fairly strident feminism. She stood up and defended what she found really quite repulsive – a lot if it – because she thought our freedom of expression was extremely important and that you defended things that you didn’t agree with. It took great courage. It had to come from a very solid spot in her soul and you felt that. That’s why her voice was so sought-after.”
Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman remembers Rule as someone who was uniquely able to define and give context to the struggles we all face. Weissman also has vivid memories of Rule’s Supreme Court testimony. It was the day she began shooting Little Sister’s versus Big Brother, her documentary about the bookstore’s censorship saga.
“[Rule] spoke to the judge as someone who would understand, not as an enemy but as someone who needed to maybe have their eyes opened a bit,” she recalls. “I think she saw that it was to give some guidance to this process so that he could understand what the materials meant. ‘This is what the world, not just the judge, needs to hear about our community,'” Weissman remembers thinking as she took in Rule’s “spellbinding,” off-the-cuff statement.
“When she would talk about a difficult subject that people have a lot of, in many cases, misplaced emotions like around children’s sexuality, you’d listen to what she had to say and you’d go, ‘That is the most sensible thing I’ve ever heard.’ That was the first thing. And then the second thing was, ‘I never heard anyone say that before,'” says Weissman.
“She’s a one-of-a-kind woman,” says Deva. “We’ve lost a spokes-person with amazing integrity, a spokesperson who said things that were wise, sometimes not the most popular things that people wanted to hear but it came from a place of such honesty and integrity that it was irrefutable.”