A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I was going to write you a short story for this week. I had it all planned out – two, in fact, so that I could choose. One set in the world of my second novel, and one about the horrors of waking up in a homogenous society where you do not belong. The latter I have actually started. Picture it:
You wake up, safe and warm and sleep-happy, and you trudge downstairs for breakfast. Maybe switch on the TV while the kettle boils, maybe read the paper.
And you go about your day.
Maybe you don’t notice it at first. Perhaps, outwardly, it’s all the same as it has always been. Perhaps the thing that makes you different isn’t visible. Maybe you don’t even know it yet.
But maybe, maybe, someone’s gaze lingers a half second too long.
Maybe someone cracks a joke and everybody laughs but you. Not you. You just feel uncomfortable.
Maybe there is more than that. Perhaps, while you slept, the nation changed. Decided on a standard, voted on what everyone should be, and everyone should strive for.
For most, perhaps, it’s easy. The changes they would have to make to fit – to be acceptable – are small. But you? Can you do it? Should you? What will happen if you don’t?
I was going to write you that story. But it isn’t fiction. We’re already there.
I was going to write you something else, something happier, perhaps (we’d see how it panned out). A kid outside of a fixed binary, excited to maybe, maybe, this year, get to choose a Halloween costume that fit. The Doctor (Eleven, duh: bowties are cool) or Jack Sparrow, or Mercutio, complete with flouncy shirt and rapier. A kid excited for a night where people become something different; one night to slip under the radar and express themselves without harassment.
Someone just a little bit like me, in love with the magic and the possibility, but scared, too, if they’re honest.
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Much better.’
And then I discovered the ‘I am Caitlyn’ Halloween costume* (yeah, I know, I’m late to this ragey party – hush) and…I’m still going to write that story (and I promise to share it when I’m done) but I need to talk to you guys about something first. Because in our world, we so often do not get to write our stories. People tell them for us.
The media takes us and dramaticises, misgenders and deadnames us, borrows parts of us without permission (Channel 4, I’m looking at you), stares at us like we are monsters who belong in a perpetual Halloween.
They make us different, strange, delusional. Something to be mocked and ridiculed. A joke.
And instead of confidence and bowties and fitting right inside your skin, we get to see exactly how we don’t belong.
It isn’t just transfolk. It’s anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘norm’ of cis, het, white, able-bodied, neuro-normative, middle class and affluent. Any one of us who identifies outside of that could tell you stories, ranging from a mild discomfort and frustration to, ‘Oh, crap, how am I going to get out of this alive?’
The kinds of nightmares where you’re in a slasher film and running running running but you cannot get away?
People live it every day.
This world is full of horror stories. Real ones.
The suicide and murder rates across minorities.
Ghosts of people trying to make do with not enough of anything.
Stories twisted or forgotten. Drowned.
And I talk a lot about diversity in stories: fair representation, the importance of seeing narratives and raising voices, research and respect. But we need more than that. We need it off the page, because those real life representations get into people’s heads.
People’s Halloween costumes** seems like such a small and petty thing to moan about, in the wider context of all that. It isn’t violence. It isn’t cutting benefits or access to support. It isn’t saying nasty things about us, at us or behind our backs. I know. But seeing people as a costume? At best, it’s buying into stereotypes. Worse, it’s showing us as something monstrous, to be laughed at, something to be fetishized or not quite real? It’s showing people what you think of us; that this is our worth, right here. It might seem like a bit of fun. It might even seem like you’re being supportive: ‘I like Caitlyn’, or, ‘I just think (Native American) Indians are cool,’ or something similar. But I promise you that most people aren’t seeing beyond your outfit to actual people with jobs and families and hopes and dreams and histories. They’re seeing people dress up as scary, wild, imagined creatures, and you’re putting us among them.
Please don’t. People notice. And I’m tired of living in a horror story.
*lots of people have done an excellent job of explaining why it’s wrong and gross and offensive; why it harms. I’m not going to repeat it all. If you’re curious, try Google. (See also: every minority costume, ever.)
**I’m not saying that you can’t dress as your minority heroes, just as I’m not saying you can’t write minority characters and stories. All I’m saying is that you should be aware of the context and history and how what you do might be seen by others.
Sarah Benwell lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but they’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and loves nothing more than acquainting themself with both.
Their debut YA novel, THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is available in all good bookstores.