Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule/Desert Hearts dir. Donna Deitch.

Desert of the Heart is a classic novel by Jane Rule which explores the lives of women in America in the 1960ss. Set against the backdrop of the Nevada Desert and exploring life in the 1950s when women’s lives were very much restricted, it explores the relationship between an English Professor and a young woman living on a ranch in Reno, and provides an explicit account of emergent lesbian love and its challenges. Rule evokes a vivid and detailed world in which the attraction between two women, as problematic as it is, signifies life, energy, and vitality.

The 1985 film inspired by the book, Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch, is as transgressive and thought provoking as the book, but for different reasons. It is the first lesbian film of its type which presents both the angst of lesbian life and love and a potential happy ending, unlike its predecessors such as The Killing of Sister George and The Children’s Hour. It was also the very first lesbian film I ever saw.

I was 19 years old, at my first ever ‘grown-up’ lesbian party, in a house actually owned by a lesbian couple. Everything was new. I knew nothing of how gay people could live together, and had come to my awareness of my sexuality in my own ‘desert of the heart’ with no idea of what it meant to be attracted to my own sex. I remember the room was full of women, of various ages, styles and sizes, and I was on a date with a woman I had been attracted to for months. I settled down in front of the sofa, on the floor, to watch the film, which everyone else had seen many times, and it was only during the hotel room scene that I realised they were all watching me, and my reactions, rather than the film!

The film and book are radically different in many ways, and in particular, the relationship between Cay/Ann and the stepmother Frances differs strongly. However, the narratives resonate powerfully for me and for many people I have talked to because of the issue of the close relationship between a mother and her daughter/stepdaughter and the issues with that daughter developing a close bond with another woman. This raises some interesting questions about the nature of women’s intimate and close relationships and for this reason the book is very much on my recommended reading list for friends and the film remains one of my favourites. The book in particular speaks strongly to me of the tension between family and romantic love, and in particular, the loss that many LGBT+ people have faced, having to choose between their family and their identity, when family cannot accept their gender or sexuality. To lose the support and love of your birth family is tragic, but for many it is simply a fact of their life.

In the wider context of LGBT+ history, both the book and the film are products of their time, but still relevant now. Many women did not (and still do not) identify an attraction to women until later in their lives, often after marrying and having children. This may indeed be the same for people of all genders, and it makes me reflect on the ways in which we are ‘channelled’ towards certain expectations and choices in life. Our collective history certainly shows that regardless of the social, political and legal conditions in which our lives take place, we still fight for the freedom to live and love honestly and without oppression. This is more apparent than ever in today’s changing global and political landscape. The value of works such as these lies in their ability to ground us both in the past and in the reaffirmation of our commitment to a better future, for all.

February 8th, 2017

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