One of the things I’ve always loved about fantasy is the way that it enables us to envision a world better than our own. When I was little these worlds were better because they had magic spells and invisibility cloaks, but as I’ve gotten older, while I still love the magic of fantasy, I also love the way secondary worlds aren’t bound by the same injustices and prejudices as our own. A heroine in a fantasy world can be judged on her skill, not her beauty, reminding the reader that we should treat the women in our lives similarly. If we cannot imagine an equal society, we cannot strive to create one in reality, but if we can imagine it in fiction, we’re one step closer towards it being a reality.
And so I knew, when I created the society my WIP is set in, that it would feature equality between men and women, and I quickly realised that if men and women are equal, then relationships of any gender configuration are likewise equal, because so much of homophobia is rooted in patriarchal gender essentialism. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what such a gender-equal world would look like, such as how women would be addressed and where surnames come from (spoiler: not the father/husband).
The other day, it struck me quite suddenly that this world is not as equal as I believe. I use he/she pronouns for all my characters, who are all cisgender. Where, you may ask, are the transgender or non-binary characters? The sad, embarrassing fact is that it never occurred to me to write them. I panicked. Here I was, trying to represent a gender-equal society when thanks to my own ingrained biases I had overlooked a key aspect of gender equality. How could I fix this? I can’t pretend to have a gender-equal society without delving into the lives of transgender and non-binary people in this world, but clearly I have ingrained biases about gender identity, and my friends are all cisgender, so how can I possibly sensitively and respectfully write a transgender character?
The fact is I can’t, and quite frankly I shouldn’t try, because transgender readers deserve better than that; they deserve to see themselves represented fairly and respectfully in fantasy (and all genres) by writers who know what they’re talking about. Yes, I have a responsibility to learn about their experiences and challenges, but because it makes me a decent human being, not to prop up my own worldbuilding.
It was arrogant of me to presume I was even capable of writing a perfectly equal society, when I come from a place of so much privilege. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, white and middle-class, and all of those privileges mean I have unexamined biases and am ignorant of my own ignorance.
I’ve been trying to create a perfectly equal world, but I am a product of this unequal society I live in and my own privileged background. There are a lot of social justice issues I simply don’t know enough about to sensitively portray people from these backgrounds in my writing. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t learn – I unreservedly should – but it does mean I should think twice about my own worldbuilding. I’m not creating a perfectly equal world. I’m creating a world that’s more equal than the one we live in, and I hope that in fifty years’ time people will pick up my book and snark at how backwards people were in the early 21st century.