When I was fifteen, I spent a summer at Yale University and dyed my naturally dark brown hair black. When I returned home, my father and I had a fight about it.
“It’s my hair!” I said.
“No,” he said. “It’s not.”
Did he mean my hair belonged to him? or to God? or to society? Or was he just saying a reflexive and nonsensical no in the face of a teenager that had triggered a somewhat irrational alarm in him?
I never received clarity from my now-late father on what he meant. But the story — a bit funny, a bit awkward, a bit sinister — is one I’ve come back to over and over. My autonomy is my everything. It always has been. It always will be.
People who have known me a long time may side-eye this. What about that disaster of a relationship in your 20s? What about that BDSM thing you went through? What about Miss Hewitt’s and rich husbands? What about all the things you have tried to give yourself up to?
“A congenital defect,” I say.
One I shared with my father.
Like me, he was an obsessive and a seeker, even if we obsessed on and sought different things. Unlike me, he was not a queer and girl-like creature, ordered to perform a life of being a perfect possession. Sometimes, you must go deep into a thing to realize it will always be ill-fitting, that it will always be a form of poison.
Every year on November 5, I write about Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I write about coming out or politics or medical horror. I write about love or cadence or grace. I write about surviving the 1980s. Or I write about right now.
Last year, I wrote about the election that hadn’t happened yet. This year, I need hardly tell you what has.
So this year, I am writing about autonomy. I am writing about how so many of us — whether we pay attention to it or not — live our lives like we belong to our parents or our partners or our children or our jobs or our biology.
I am writing about how often this way of living is not the positive these are my people, this is my community, this is where I find home, but instead how often it is this is what limits me, this is what little I am allowed, this is the box and the pain and the punishment of what the world has made me at the hands of others.
All we have is right now. All we have is ourselves. Sometimes that seems lonely and like very little. But it is also power and freedom; possibility and resistance. It is ambition. And it is war.
2017 has chosen to be a certain way. So be it. I too — and in fact all of us — can also choose our own ways.
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.