I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.
I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.
Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.
I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.
In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…
… But within that inch we are free.
London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.
Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.
In 1988 there was the war…
… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.
In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.
They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.
It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…
… Except one.
An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.
I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.
I posted the film version in my Tumblr earlier, but this is the one from the original graphic novel, that a boyfriend (who was gay; I was something of an exception; hell, we even met at the campus LGBT group) made me read when I was eighteen and in the incredibly homophobic environment of our university.
I was already out, so it was not a catalyst for my coming out. But reading it meant I never, ever wanted to be in again, no matter what was happening, and could never stand myself on those occasions that it felt safer or easier to allow for misunderstanding to closet me.
I post it, and write about it pretty much every November 5th, because of the context in which it was written. And I post it here, in the graphic novel form, to tell you how terrifying it felt to read it in 1991 when it felt like a pretty terrible and frightening time to be gay; the 80s had been terrible, and it didn’t feel like they had ended. The tone of protests around AIDS — and I actively participated in those — was angry and frightened, directed at a government that we were sure wanted us dead and perhaps viewed the disease as a convenience.
I remember sitting in a restaurant now long gone in Washington DC that I much loved and jokingly called my lesbian blues bar and cafe, even though it wasn’t technically any of those things, with a group of my friends, and one of them, a woman, stealing a piece of cheese off my plate, popping it in her mouth, and asking, “yeah, but how are they going to get rid of us?”
I was 18, highly imaginative, political through what seemed like an utter lack of choice, and frightened. And “Valerie’s Letter,” in all the weird and possibly unhealthy ways I connect with fiction, was a constant reminder to me to be brave and kind and speak.
I fail at each of those things, especially kindness, at least as much as anyone else, but I’ve got to try with whatever I have left on any given day, because that one inch, if you aren’t paying attention can be stolen so quick and so fast.
I still sob reading this. I suppose I always will. I imagine a world where people won’t, because it won’t make any sense. It’s closer all the time.