It’s Sukkot at present, and I’m given to understand that many Jewish schools are closed, thus explaining the presence of about 40 young ultra-Orthodox girls and a few of their much younger brothers at the rink today. I’m an easier crier, and these girls in their tights and dresses and sweaters, helping each other stumble across the ice as wordless, lyrical music played brought me close.
They watched me as I got ready, hoping maybe that I was any good, what with my own skates and the tight leggings. I don’t know if they saw Jewishness in my features and, if they did, if it mattered to them. But despite being secular and from a mixed home, I was moved to be so entirely amongst people at least somewhat like me.
The ice was soup because it was abruptly 82 out, and the rink is under a bubble on a roof. I could have done more if I hadn’t been so unnerved by puddles, but maybe I am always looking for something to be unnerved by. I think on Sunday when my instructor offers to help me to get to our section of the ice for class, I should tell him I think I should try to do it myself.
I do better when someone is metaphorically holding my hand and telling me I can do this and am allowed to do this. Subsequently, I have a lots of thoughts — that would be more comfortable in any other week in America’s national life — about the notion of the ordeal and my need to be good and, also, how easy it is to be generous with people instead of cruel, even when you’re pushing them.
It’s interesting to me, how often people mistake cruelty for exactitude. Certainly, I have.
But not here. Strangers chatted with me and offered help and encouragement yet again today. More than anything, people in this whole ice skating thing have been kind to me. I’ve done a lot of very challenging things in my life, that were hard and orderly and lonely, and quite appropriately involved coaching and training and self-discipline and all the brutality those things can entail. I tend to be fond of it. I am, after all, quite brutal with myself by nature.
But while I will accept that during those other endeavors — at 16 and at 36 (we won’t discus my 20s because, mostly, you wouldn’t understand) — I was not really able to accept kindness, I must also note that there was also much less on offer. And there was, frankly, no reason for it. You can make someone push themselves far beyond what they think is possible by telling them they are good just as readily — and maybe more so — than by being cold, or telling them they don’t.
It’s hard to explain how grateful I am at the warmth I find on the ice… and how much I wonder if this is tragic. Shouldn’t there have always been more kindness along the way?
Hi! If you’re reading this it’s possible you’ve recently found my oft-neglected personal blog because of recent articles in Broadly, PinkNews and TeenVogue about a fan theory that Severus Snape is trans.
These pieces reference a post I made on this blog about how JKR’s character has many female associations in the text. That’s pretty cool someone read my thing. But I don’t think I deserve to take credit or blame (although why blame? if a theory doesn’t work for you, discard it and move on!) for this fan theory, and in the interest of full disclosure, it wasn’t where I was going at the time. But if people want to build on things I’ve said to get there, I’m okay with that too.
Because that’s the thing about stories and textual analysis. We all see different things and we all find different talismans, friends, and mentors in the ghostly true unreal people found in books. Snape was/is a super important character to me and helped me navigate a lot of stuff around a difficult childhood, a sense of exile, and the repercussions that had on me both good and terrible.
Anyway! These days, I’m mostly a romance novelist (go to Avian30.com if you’re curious), who writes all sorts of characters including heroes and villains and sometimes even bisexual, genderqueer people like me.
(which is to say, I did not declare Snape’s gender in the original piece, I was interested in a textural pattern I noticed that perhaps influenced the characters relateability for some female readers, and of course played into the long-standing tradition of queering the villain — which is both a thing that has been a matter of oppression and a way we have historically used to circumvent prohibitions against telling queer stories)
If something I wrote helped you get to trans Snape and that’s awesome for you? Awesome! If something I wrote makes you go grrrrrrr argggggggggh and have your totally different Snape theory? That’s cool too.
So what do I think of Snape? I think he’s a character we keep grappling with, and I think that’s what matters. Always.
Every year on November 5, I post Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I never meant for it to be a tradition — one year it was a whim, and for a few years after that that someone would ask about it or say they looked forward to it, and then it just became a thing.
Some years, I’ve just posted the letter. Some years, I’ve written more. But no year has been quite like this year, and I’ve been noodling at the edges of this post for months. Don’t get excited about that. That doesn’t necessarily herald fine writing, probably quite the opposite. It’s just a way of saying 2016 has been a long, strange, horrible slog for me too. And then on Tuesday we vote.
If you follow my Twitter you know I talk about this election a lot and work with data regards it, as I have for many elections previous. You probably also know that I love politics as a sport, and suffer from the same disease much of our media does — a bias towards strong narrative, towards anxiety, towards running up to the cliff edge but not going over it.
Which makes it pretty hard to say, This is election is really scary. This is not hyperbole. You need to pay attention. Especially when half of the discussions about Trump seem to come down to whether he’s an actual fascist or just stylistically fascist as if one of those scenarios is going to turn out totally okay if he wins the presidency.
Look, 2016 has been a weird year full of heartbreak and loss. Change too — some of it good, and none of it that I’m ready for yet. Over and over again, terror felt like my watch word – medical terror, financial terror, political terror. The terror too of being left behind. Of not being enough. Of failing. And failure.
Meanwhile, Brexit’s a nightmare; Trump is unthinkable; and a regional political scandal involving someone I went to university with has forced me to relive the very chunk of time in which I first encountered V for Vendetta. That, too, was not a good year.
Valerie’s Letter – and Valerie herself – always fascinated me for how it, and she, are a demand for humanity against all evidence to the contrary. It is certitude in the face of gaslighting, identity in the face of how easily our bodies are discounted, dissembled, and dissolved. Valerie’s letter says, No. I am not who you say I am. I am who I say I am. I am who my story says I am. I may be a writer, but that is something very hard for me.
Writing is swimming against the tide.
It is for me I know I know I know I am not a person and I know I know I know I am not good and I know I know it is because I am queer and have a cunt and believe I am something other than the things that have happened to me and have a right to say all of it regardless of your contempt or the lack of simplicity and purity in anything that I’ve ever done or anything that I ever am.
It’s the drowning breath. It’s not yet. It is the reminder I am nowhere as near okay or as functional as I can mostly pretend to be. It is about mortality and precariousness.
So here’s what I want to say about Valerie’s Letter this year: The story is the most important thing. Your story is the most important thing.
Because stories are weapons. And shields. Tools. Strategies and tactics. And I believe they can help save us from all sorts of things – from this particular tide of political darkness sweeping increasingly from country to country, from the hatred of our neighbors, from our own self-doubt, and from our own despair. I believe stories are what give us the power to fight when there are no other options, and I believe they are succor against the coming dark when there are even fewer options than that.
How will stories matter as this year comes to a close? As 2017 dawns as a messy aftermath or a darker road? I don’t know. In a year like 2016 — when I’m just trying to get through, when we’re all just trying to get through — I am not really sure that I care.
But I do know that I still exist.
And so do you.
And so does Valerie.
If you are a person with a say in your government, please use it.
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’m currently in the slightly bizarre position of writing a personal essay in the voice of a person who doesn’t exist, because the two-book mini-series (surely someone will excoriate me if I use the admittedly absurd word, duology) Erin and I are currently writing involves, among other things, a travel writer who can’t get his manuscript about Vienna right.
I was in Vienna for my day job in January and February 2016, in the midst of ball season. I found out that ball season is even a thing that exists about a week before I got on the plane. While I was uncertain if I would actually go through with attending one (ticketing is somewhat complex, involving admittance, seating, and a number of other items, all assembled separately into a single ticket), I packed a formal gown (let’s be real, a multi-purpose bridesmaids dress), spent as much time on Google translate as I could, and then as the date of the one that seemed likely approached, wavered back and forth.
I don’t speak German, although I have gotten to a point where I can do social niceties and follow the gist of a conversation had in my presence. My contemporary social dancing is adequate at best, and while I can do the sort of waltz favored in the U.S., a Viennese waltz is completely beyond my skill set. Strangers scare me. Men, at this point in my life, are largely a foreign country. And Viennese social customs, as I am given to understand them, suggested none of this would even matter, as the let’s-make-temporary-friends with strangers behavior common in the U.S., and that I’ve often encountered in the U.K., doesn’t seem to be a thing there.
If I went to the ball I would be alone, confused, unable to dance, and with little opportunity to engage strangers should I have even found the nerve, which I tend to do once I cycle through the sort of fretting above.
In the end, though, I bought tickets to the Zuckerbaeckerball, as it was recommended to me by a random Tumblr person and was one of the few to fit in with a heavy work and travel schedule. Held at the Hoffburg Imperial Palace, a short walk from where I was staying, the Zuckerbaeckerball is put on by the sugar-baking industry (cakes not breads!) and like any proper ball has debutantes.
While I grew up with debutantes (I’m still not joking when I compare my childhood to Metropolitan), I was certainly not one myself. My family wasn’t that type of important, didn’t have those sorts of means, and didn’t really see me as part of the social whirl that was expected by the world in which I was educated. Sure, I went to balls, like the Gold and Silver Ball of the Junior Committee of the Junior League of New York (a name only typed here so you can experience the full ridiculousness of this stuff), but they were practice for events of the sort I never graced. It’s all useful fodder for writing now, but I might have been better served as a person if my parents had just said no.
At any rate, every ball in Vienna has debutantes. And, arguably, everyone in Vienna who wants to be a debutante can be. With hundreds of balls each year representing industries and social clubs, and with balls being unavoidable in the city’s social scene, young men and women who wish to make their debuts, most certainly do.
At the Hoffburg, alone, I crowded into the main ballroom to see their presentation. I watched as row after row of girls kneeled as their dancemasters and ball officials passed before them. On their knees for ten minutes at a time, maybe more, as their escorts stood beside them, some of the girls shook. One, near me, had a fabulous butchy undercut, that had been smoothed down with product and had tiny flowers clipped into it.
After the debuts, the main ballroom floor was opened for a Viennese waltz. My feet aching, and with no hope of a dance partner, I fled to sit, but without a purchased seat (it felt too weird, to be stranded at a table of people whose language I did not speak, who would not welcome a stranger), I had nowhere to do so until I found an out of the way bathroom on a mezzanine level of the palace.
From my cubicle I listened as girls sixteen to twenty slammed in and out of the bathroom, fretting about make up and shoes and boys and parents. I, meanwhile, fretted about the hundred euros I’d spent to hide in a bathroom.
So I put my shoes back on, stood up straight, and remembered that years of my life had been dedicated to how to comport myself in this entirely unlikely circumstance. And so I found a perch on the edge of the ballroom from which to watch the proceedings and wait for some serendipity to find me.
It came when the music switched to American standards, and the bandleader played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” As I stood there, thinking about my Upper East Side childhood and how I was never meant to be — and never could be — the girl in that song, I wondered to what extent the song made sense in Vienna. Surely, no on there knew about the ten blocks that defined my childhood, but also surely there was a Viennese equivalent to it, and the song, and girls like me — with the song’s hot blood and wedged poorly into an an archaic social structure as beautiful as it is offensive.
I smiled as tears rolled down my cheeks. Serendipity. The most perfect moment. Even at a ball where I could not dance.
Today, I’m faced with describing a very different version of that moment as experienced by a lonely male writer, ten years my senior, who fit in exceptionally with the shared world of our childhoods, and for that, has managed far more contempt for it than I ever have, to his much greater happiness.
Long ago and far away, I didn’t just write personal essays, I blogged them. Over time, I stopped doing that, because while decades of people on the Internet telling me to shut the fuck up never worked in the moment, over time it erodes you.
This site then sort of morphed into my occasionally talking about my life and more often talking about media I loved. Think really hard, and I bet you can guess how that went too. Then Erin & I got a book deal, and another, and other, and most of my blogging was done over at Avian30 in service to that: New releases, my complex feelings about romcoms, the latest somewhat political dust-up in Romancelandia.
And then a funny thing happened on the way to the literary HEA (Happily Ever After for you non-romance types). The genre I was writing and publishing in suddenly and abruptly connected me to the past I had learned not to write, or even talk, about. My childhood — unhappy, sex-segregated, and intensely privileged although actually outside of my family’s means — abruptly made sense, as did the nature of my exile from it. It had been Pride & Prejudice with different dresses, and I had escaped it and the social tragedy of never marrying well by choosing my queerness — not just in regard to my bisexuality, but in regard to my appearance and politics — over everything else.
That lightbulb means I now have a lot of things to write about — including a memoir I long swore I had not interest in. Much of what I have to say, here and in that project, centers on the themes already found here: queerness, class, exile, and loss. Being a tween and teen in the ’80s in New York means I grew up clumsily amid two dying worlds. The first, a New York Society that didn’t know how to stop believing in its long-expired relevance. The second, the New York arts scenes collapsing under the weight and terror of AIDS. My parents were painters.
For all that I once talked about these parts of my life enough to be scolded for doing so, I’ve never really talked about them. I showed people what was beautiful about them, even when I was trying to describe what was terrible. In part, this happened because I didn’t really understand them or what had happened to me in them. For me, wounds have always been a seductive thing, as has been the attempt to borrow privilege to salve them. Sometimes, it seemed the only way I could survive.
At 43 I have been partnered to a woman for nine years, have just started wearing makeup every day in the last three months, and am, at the moment, working on a romance novel about two people who are utterly different from me but who happen to both be evacuees from childhoods not so dissimilar to mine.
I’m going to start posting more here. Not, for the moment, systematically. Or, perhaps, with any great art. But I have stories to tell that live at the intersection of one world that probably should have died out by now, and another that should never have incurred the great losses it has.
That’s strange. And cut into me and difficult. And it deserves my words, in large part because it’s how I acquired the ability to do anything of interest with words. We’ll see how it goes.
If you’re popping over from the Salon piece, you can see near daily blogging from my co-author and I over at our shared website Avian30. We have a short story coming out next week, and are currently in edits on 4 novels (two with publishers, one on a complex revise-and-resubmit journey, one in preparation for submission), and are writing a few other things right now as well. Also, we did the cover reveal for Starling last week, so you might want to check that out.
Also, P.S., I didn’t choose the title, although were I in the editorial position on that, I probably would have gone a similar route.
Okay, now that everyone has read that, a few bullet points:
I have no solutions and I have no causes. If you think I was suggesting either, that was not my intent. I don’t blame stories, girls, or mental illness. What I suspect I blame is a world that makes us want to escape from it so badly and a societal pressure to keep our passions secret, which then may just warp them in the dark.
Most people I know, and strangers who have reached out to me, have mostly been really cool about the piece. I appreciate that. Of course, it’s your prerogative not to be. For the record though, I am not reading comments on Salon or on Salon’s Facebook, because I’m really busy and once I saw that thread that somehow made it about Ayn Rand and then mis-gendered her, I was like “Nope, the Internet can go on without me on this one.”
If you are someone who wants to connect with me on the Internet in response to this piece, Twitter seems like a nice choice. I’m a little weirded out by friends requests from people I don’t know on Facebook in response to a story about friendships gone weird. Right? Like I think that’s reasonable? Doing my best here, this is not a normal Monday.
Anyway, that’s it, and my Penny Dreadful recap will be up at Romance @ Random within a few hours.
Last night Patty and I went to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which is an oddly thoughtful and sweet movie that I smiled through nearly all of it. The quibbles I had with it were largely quibbles I have about all of Jarmusch’s work and so aren’t really of note; I am simply not quite the perfect audience for his work.
What has lingered with me however, is the film’s relationship to AIDS. All modern vampire films have one, of course, whether they intend to or not. And Only Lovers Left Alive‘s is troubling.
A young vampire behaves promiscuously and causes a great deal of trouble, her actions blamed on blood poisoning. Kit Marlowe (yes, gay! atheist! spy! Kit Marlowe) also dies from drinking contaminated blood towards the end of the film in a scene I found quite moving thanks to the grief of his student Bilal (played by Slimane Dazi). That Adam (Tom Hiddleston) declares he wants the girl (and not the boy) in a kissing couple he and Eve (Tilda Swinton) attack at the end of the film felt like another minor thread in a discomforting construction of an unnamed AIDS.
That the source of contamination is, of course, mortal humans is less interesting than the fact that they are referred to throughout the film only as zombies: We are all slow and we are all diseased. Modern zombie films also touch heavily on AIDS allegories for the “one drop of blood and you’re dead” trope that raises the specter of the early years of the epidemic in the U.S. (often referred to as “the plague years”).
Only Lovers Left Alive is a lovely film, filled with great warmth and delightful oddities. But while also suggesting uncomfortable questions and viewpoints about gentrification and colonialism, it seems very much like a throwback to a certain type of fear — and judgement — about AIDS, who’s at risk, and what the moral landscape is around sickness.
My friend Becca notes that, if you’re into astrology, we’re in a sort of Saturn return for AIDS/HIV. If you’re not into astrology, basically, we’re telling AIDS stories again all of a sudden — because some of us have forgotten and some of us finally feel like we can talk about the trauma. From last year’s Dallas Buyers Club to HBO’s upcoming The Normal Heart, we’ve returned to a certain narrative place lately, and in light of that, it feels impossible to exempt Only Lovers Left Alive from that particular landscape.