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Today I can't human: why gender diversity matters in fiction

Updated: 1 day ago

stylised painting of a woodland. Snow on ground, and a figure sits hunched with their head in their hands.

Remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. I can still picture the day the RAF came to our school. They had a quiz and the prize was a poster of the helicopters they flew. Honestly, I've never tried to win anything as badly as I tried to win that poster. And I did win. I won by miles. I also learned something two seconds later that has taken me a lifetime to unlearn.

I learned that in the RAF women not only didn't fly helicopters, they didn't fly anything. I could have trained to work in admin, from what I remember, that was it. If I'd been someone else, I might have fought for change. I might have called them out as a patriarchal, heterosexual bias, gender binary model of perceived normality, but it was the 1970s and I didn't even have a word for vegetarian.

That's the thing, I didn't know what I didn't know. And although being told women didn't fly aircraft felt devastatingly unfair, that sense of unfairness didn't translate into my external world. Being who I was, I had no choice but to internalise it. The world can't be wrong, therefore I must be wrong. The categories of existence were being quietly established around me without making a big song and dance about it and I was so much smaller for not knowing it.

That doesn't mean the people around me were fascists, it means that I existed in an environment where gender inclusion was mummy gerbil eating both sexes of her babies. Believe it or not, my first homosexual encounter as a young adult was watching an episode of M*A*S*H, and my heart resonated not with Hawkeye's compassion towards a soldier who'd been beaten by his own regiment for being gay, but with his everyday acceptance of a different sexual orientation. It was beautiful. And it didn't feel like destroying society, it felt like expanding it.

As a cisgender woman, I might not have felt entirely comfortable with the rules, but I could still fit myself to the established gender categories without much of a struggle. I could certainly see myself in the literature I was reading, and when the time came, it gave me something to push against. Had I grown up unable to find a category to fit me? It's impossible to speculate. I was a sensitive, obedient child. I suspect I'd have spent my life in an allotted category, feeling like a lost and broken thing that didn't belong anywhere. Thankfully, there are braver souls than me in this world.

I've carried that M*A*S*H episode around with me in the same way I carried how gorgeously free David Bowie's representation of gender was. To write a gender diverse character is an act of gratitude. Allowing your readers to see the world from a new perspective is like allowing them to see the Earth from orbit. As creatures of the universe, we are a paradox of such pitiful insignificance and unfathomable importance.

Watching our species grumble, stumble and fumble its way towards an inclusive, diverse and more representative picture of what it is to be human has been an honour and a privilege.

Q: I'm not transgender woman so isn't it more respectful to not write transgender characters?

This is a tricky gatekeeper. It gets rolled out time and time again because it's such a hard one to answer. There's been some cringe-terrible representations of women written by men, and men by women no doubt. From my experience, writers rarely stick to writing what they know. Kafka's Gregor Samsa would have woken up as a writer from Prague and Tolkien's masterpiece would have been a very different read altogether.

One option is in only writing the internal narrative of characters you represent - if you're a woman, you know how men act, but you have no idea how they think so don't write it. A good middle road is to use a sensitivity reader. In the end it comes down to finding your own answer to the question. If you're losing sleep over including gender diversity in your work, then don't do it. If you do want to include it but don't know where to start, read books that already have it right. Most of all, set an intention to do your best and always treat your diverse characters as more than human props in your story. If it smells like a stereotype, then it is a stereotype.

As writers, the characters we bring to life are important in ways we can never imagine. Including gender diversity in fiction is not only representative of the society we're growing into, it's a tribute to all the beautiful souls who quietly put their hand up when the world said they could never fly helicopters.

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