by Sarah Benwell
When I was a kid, I wanted to become a knight. To take on chivalry and honour and a bravery that was bigger than I’d ever felt in real life. I wanted to protect, defend, pick up a sword and fight for something good. I wanted to be Lancelot or Gawain or a knight of Gondor or Cair Paravel. And sometimes talking and writing about diversity feels a little bit like picking up that mantle.
I’ve talked a lot lately – in schools and cons and AGMs and right across the internet – about how crucial representation is.
How perhaps, if I’d seen genderfluid narratives when I was young, I would not have felt so very, very out of place. How I might have had a concrete answer to the many-times-asked, ‘Eurgh, what is it? A boy or a girl?’ How representation might have offered weapons to fight back with, or protective armour at the least: the knowledge that there are people like me, that there are words that describe and explain me, stories where we make it through.
I’ve talked a lot about how that narrative needs to extend right out of books and demonstrate that we are real. We’re not some made up, faddy thing. Not a horror story or a tragedy. That we’re people, and we’re right here in front of you, whole and fallible and fighting.
It’s all true.
How can anyone feel good, normal, okay, wanted, valued, if they cannot find themselves? With no role models to look up to, and no language to explain themselves? No stories. When society either confronts them or denies that they exist (and sometimes does both in one breath)?
You can’t. We need representation.
Having lived in the uncomfortable space where I do not belong, I’ll fight for something better. I’ll fight for everyone who does not have a voice. Who’s silenced by their situation, or still figuring things out. You have my sword, always and forever.
Things like #TransAwarenessWeek, diversity panels, #ownvoices, the accessible megaphone of social media, and a general increase in awareness and/or willingness to learn are all such important parts of this. They offer us the space to share, to educate, to find support and recognition as and when it’s needed.
But there are things that no one tells you when you pledge allegiance. With increased visibility, increased space and opportunity to talk, come certain expectations.
This week, #TransAwarenessWeek, I’m writing 4 blog posts on diversity, speaking to school librarians, working on a story with a genderfluid character.
I’ll run a lesson where we talk about why representing people fairly matters; we’ll talk labels, and I’ll let the room see all of mine – every label society pins on me.
Next week, I’m teaching a weekend course on diverse narratives and writing.
I love every single one of these things, and I’m grateful for the opportunities. They’re exciting and important and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
Sometimes I wish I could just talk about something else. That I could discuss which books I’ve read until they have fallen apart, or argue fantasy VS contemp, or tell you about my jar of readers’ tears or why pirates are the actual coolest, and post-it-notes are the greatest invention of all time.
Sometimes I wish I could go for a day and not weigh up how much to share, whether it’s safe or not.
Sometimes I wish that social media felt safer. That I didn’t have to walk the line between being heard and being far too loud. That I didn’t have to invite the trolls and questions into my life in order to have important conversations.
Sometimes I wish that I had role models. That I wasn’t trying to be one. That we didn’t have to pave the way.
This week, as well as all the awesome things, I feel super dysphoric – totally disgusted by body, uncomfortable in my own skin. This week my name and pronouns do not fit. The entire concept of me feels wrong.
This week, I’ve only had my gender questioned in the street once, but it’s once too many, and right now, I don’t have an answer to ‘what is it?’ that doesn’t make me want to cry.
This week I’ve tried to answer thoughtful, well meaning questions like, ‘How does your work contribute to trans/ nonbinary representation?’ and, ‘Why haven’t you written about people like you?’ (I’m working on it, actually, but questioning why it took me so long was uncomfortable, and the expectation that I should? Not fair.)
This week, I feel small and scared and utterly incapable of picking up a sword and being a defender.
I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know the answers. I’m not sure that I want to.
And that needs to be okay. Behind each knightly voice there is a person, and we can’t expect people to always want (or be able) to share. We should not expect them to write their life stories any more than we should demand dragons or romance or happy-ever-afters. We have no right to treat identity as a commodity.
And yet we do. The thing about having a voice is that when opportunities knock, you’re expected to use it.
You’re actually expected to talk. To be a voice for everyone who can’t. To be that role model you never had and let the world know it’s okay. To answer questions and boost signals whenever they appear.
You’re expected to know stuff – to be clued in on news and research and the latest books and characters and storylines.
You’re expected to write characters like you. To get it right. To carve that space out for yourself and others.
With knighthood, there are expectations – you answer the call of your king. And when it’s asked of you, you stand and fight. You asked for this. You pledged allegiance. It’s what you believe in. Pick up your sword, and do what’s right.
And I’m happy to. I’m really, truly glad I can.
Sarah Benwell is a perpetual student of the world, a writer and adventurer, who holds degrees in international education and writing for young people, and believes in the power of both to change the world.
Sarah’s debut young adult novel, The Last Leaves Falling, is published by Random House (UK) and Simon and Schuster (US).