Writers, artists, scholars and activists gathered in Vancouver Jun 5-6 to pay homage to the works of a lesbian literary trailblazer and to critically examine queer history and identity in contemporary society.
Nearly 150 participants attended the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Queerly Canadian: Changing Narratives conference to honour Jane Rule and discuss queer culture.
Janice Stewart, a professor in UBC’s Critical Studies in Sexuality department coordinated the weekend-long conference.
“These are important conversations to have,” she says. “There is, I think, a feeling that we don’t need these types of conferences but there is a real need for us to focus on what is critical to our sense of self.
“Part of what makes us human is our sexuality,” she continues, “and understanding the culture and place and space to talk about sexuality is very important.”
The conference came on the heels of a generous donation of $1.7 million to UBC’s Faculty of Arts, made in Rule’s name. The bequest, made by an anonymous donor, is the nation’s largest private endowment given to a university for the study of human sexuality and relationships. The donation comes two years after Rule’s death in 2007 to liver cancer.
Throughout the two-day conference participants discussed such topics as queer identity in new media and law, definitions of gay space and prostitution. They also acknowledged the expansion of the Rule literary archives at the university this year.
“It is truly a groundbreaking conference at the University,” says Dr Richard Cavell, writer and professor in the department of English at UBC.
“We are all so deeply grateful for the Jane Rule endowment. The endowment will have a ripple effect across the campus,” he predicts.
Stewart says the Faculty of Arts, the education department, the department of law and medicine and the art history department have all supported the sexuality studies program at UBC. She says her goal is to garner interest in the study of sexuality and relationships from other disciplines.
“We would like to make some forays into faculties like engineering,” she notes.
Stewart says the sexuality studies program will hugely benefit from the endowment, which will go to support queer student groups, establish future programs and courses that focus specifically on queer sexuality and assist in creating scholarships and promoting dialogue through more lectures and conferences.
Known as a trailblazer who put gay and lesbian Canadian literature on the international stage, Rule was awarded the Order of BC and the Order of Canada, as well as numerous literary honours for her books and essays exploring themes of homosexuality.
Her activism also brought her to the frontlines in Little Sister’s court case against Canada Customs censorship, where she testified on behalf of the gay bookstore and freedom of expression.
Rule was also “extremely generous, totally literate, political [and] wise,” says Evelyn White, a fellow author and longtime friend.
The conference was “very much in the spirit of Jane Rule,” White says.
The seminars were a way of bringing like-minded people together to discuss complex issues pertaining to literacy, politics, sexuality and relationships, she says.
While much of the conference was devoted to examining Rule’s body of work, a discussion panel concerning the protection of gay and transgender sex trade workers also drew attention to the history of queer space in Vancouver. Becki Ross, lesbian and instructor in the sociology department at UBC, talked about the forced dissolution of the active sex trade in the West End nearly 30 years ago.
“Prostitutes were relocated to Mt Pleasant in the early ’80s then to the industrial eastside where they began to go missing in numbers,” she said.
Calling the eastside industrial zone the “killing fields of tomorrow,” Ross said the 2010 Olympic Games set for Vancouver/Whistler next year could further impact the safety of Vancouver sex trade workers, pushing them further out of their respective communities.
Overall, Stewart says the conference was a success, attracting a large demographic of people from ages 18 to 80.
“Discussions about sexuality open up so many spaces,” says Stewart.
“These are issues important to everybody. It’s about empowerment,” she says.