In July 2017 the internet exploded with the news that Jodie Whittaker had been cast in the role of Doctor Who. And while this move represented another move forward in the quest for gender equality, I’d suggest that real equality looks like this: mneh.
News stories that exclaim “ooh, look! A female hero / a Muslim mayor of London / a transgender person on the Vanity Fair cover!” tell us that we are making valuable progress towards equality, but also indicate that we aren’t there yet. We will know we have reached true equality when these events don’t make headlines because they are no big deal. (And of course the Who-related tantrums of the man-babies - "there'll be a Tardis full of bras!" - and the tabloids' decision to publish topless photos of Jodie Whittaker tell us there is still much work to do...)
It is really my children that have cemented this idea for me. Throughout their entire schooling they have had classmates with special needs. When my daughter was in preschool a researcher in early childhood friendships came to interview the children. Within the class was a boy with severe autism. The researcher began by asking general questions: Who are your friends? How do you know if someone is your friend? Then she started fishing for signs of exclusion: Is there anyone who isn’t your friend? Can you be friends with someone who is different from you? She was met with puzzled looks. Eventually she asked point-blank: What about Hugo? Is he your friend? The response of the children was more puzzled looks and “of course he is.” For them, Hugo wasn’t ‘special’. He was just one of them. No big deal.
This attitude has continued into their teenage years. At a recent school event, it brought tears to my eyes to see the way my daughter’s peers interacted with one of their classmates who has Asperger’s Syndrome, leading to some eccentric behaviours. There was certainly no teasing or exclusion. There were not even patronising gestures of ‘being nice to the special needs kid’. There was just normal, natural teenage socialising. No big deal.
Similarly, both of my daughters (who are in late high school) reported recently that a number of their classmates are identifying as gay, and some are openly forming relationships. In typical teenage fashion, one of the discussions went like this:
“Literally, most of the people in my class are gay!”
“Yeah, there must be at least six.”
“Out of 30? That’s more like a fifth.”
“Oh, maths!" (snort of disgust)
But I digress. When I asked how the other kids responded to this, they shrugged. “They don’t care.” No big deal. (Having worked with many LGBTI people to address the mental health fallout from discrimination and rejection, I did a little happy dance on hearing this.)
Stella Young was a comedian, teacher, writer and disability rights activist. Her death in 2014 robbed us of one of the funniest, sharpest commentators on equality. In her wonderful TED talk she skewers ‘inspiration porn’ – the well-meaning but ultimately discriminatory view that people living with disability are exceptional, as opposed to normal people getting on with life. “I want to live in a world” she says “where a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne high school is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.”
I want to live in a world where it is no big deal that the President is female, the CEO is transgender, the Oscar winners are black and my accountant is vision-impaired. So as we continue the fight, let's remember that it won’t be the landmarks 'firsts' that indicate the job is done. It will be the shrugs of “so what?”