Jane Rule is the author of Lesbian Images and several novels, the most recent being The Young in One Another's Arms. So's Your Grandmother will be her regular column in TBP.
It is said of the community I live in that we don't co-operate for anything short of a forest fire. This is an exaggeration. We have not only a volunteer fire department but a community hall and a park we supervise ourselves. However, any newly proposed community responsibility elicits no more than indifference or bickering. Most people have stayed or come here out of an appetite for solitude, to avoid the interference that government is allowed in larger communities, or the allegiance required by groups with similar beliefs and aims. When we talk, we expect to disagree. All communities are, in fact, enemy territory for the individual, even those which profess for consensus, because none can accommodate comfortably all anyone is. This community doesn't try.
It is in just this climate, a microcosm of indifference, misunderstanding, and mistrust, I like to learn how to live. When the CBC tried to do a programme suggesting that we are turning into an artists' colony, everyone scoffed, including the people interviewed. Because there are a number of independent women here, rumour in the San Francisco bars has it that this island is about to be renamed Lesbos. If I ever did find myself in an artists' colony or lesbian community, I'd move.
Once I wanted very much to belong. Moving from place to place where I was always the stranger, object of suspicion and scorn, I dreamed of being with friends I had known all my life not just for security but for the positive pleasure of shared experiences, shared attitudes.
Once I stayed in a town long enough to go back to school a second year, and there in the classroom was a new student, fat, nearly blind, and terrified. I was allowed to join the rest of the class in chasing her across the playground, down the steps and into the street. I threw one of her galoshes at her. Alone on my way home, I threw up my lunch and breakfast. I have never since met solidarity that didn't sooner or later have to do with throwing galoshes or worse, and my stomach for it is no stronger than it was when I was ten.
Lack of solidarity here is our greatest virtue. We are good citizens to the extent that we agree to disagree with only an occasional flare of righteous indignation at an NDP billboard in front of someone's house, a women's liberation sticker on one of the Easter eggs at the hunt, a Jesus Christ Superstar button, an Anita Bryant bumper sticker, all which are the signs of our diversity. I stay fairly visible not only because my books are exchanged at the monthly fire hall book sale, not only because I occasionally say my piece on the CBC, but because I refer to myself as lesbian in ordinary conversation at the post office or on the dock. My young nieces come here for the summer, my parents for their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Friends arrive who are black, oriental, in nun's robes, in blue jeans, on crutches, with guitars, bicycles, kites, portfolios, in Land Rovers and Lincolns. They do not look like, nor are they, an army. They are known and watched as I am to see what there is to fear. The only fantasy I have about a takeover of this island is by the trees; there are enough loggers to prevent that. They are visible, too.
"The forest is our garden," they say. "Trees are weeds."
Elisabeth Hopkins, who lives just up the road, has given me a watercolour of a stump. On my study door is a copy of the Emily Carr "Scorned as Timber, Beloved of Sky," trees tall, spindly and lightstruck standing singly in the wreckage of a lumbering off. In the scrub forest I see the branches of a fallen tree begin to behave like trees themselves, growing upward. I write in my notebook, "I should write a novel called Stumps."
"Writers?" the real estate agent says to an interviewer, "Sure, they come over here on Canada Council Grants to write dirty books."
We all resent each other's use of the raw material. But nobody in this kind of small community can trust the prejudice of enough other people to act. We are an environment in political balance, each with enough natural enemies to keep our numbers down if we are to stay adequately nourished. In such a place it is easiest to learn both the danger and necessity of visibility. It is as clear what it would cost the island economy to kill me as to kill a logger, real estate agent, fisherman, school teacher. Human beings tolerate what they understand they have to tolerate. Only visibility is instruction. One of my neighbours said to another, after reading Lesbian Images, "I'd rather not know, but, as long as she doesn't try to convert me, it's her business how she lives."
In a city that "would rather not know," visibility is a harder business. The police enjoy protecting that ignorance, bolstering prejudice in raids on everything from steam baths to newspapers, providing lurid copy. People begin to think they don't have to tolerate that. Nothing as simple as a parade will change their minds. Only when a community knows that everywhere, in all circumstances, it is shared by gay people does it learn, as San Francisco has, that it must accept us as part of the political reality. If we stay invisible or withdraw into protective communities, we are dangerously disturbing the political balance on which we need to depend.
Here on this cranky little island, the lesson is clear. No matter how much we may quarrel about how to live, no matter how grudgingly we accept each other's company, no matter what conflicting uses we put our forest to, we know that we don't want to burn it down. We have only ourselves to depend on, and everyone is needed. Lightning, a tourist, a defective woodstove could still defeat us and may, but we do have some protection from the destructiveness in ourselves because we live without police or parades and with a great deal we'd rather not know and have to know in order to survive.