Abolitionist, activist, dwarf – we all need role models like Benjamin Lay

When I was 13, the awful “Mini-Me” hit our screens. When I was 31, I learned of Benjamin Lay.

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I have dwarfism. Long before I was ten I had heard of the Seven Dwarfs. Seven characters – all white, all male – each so one-dimensional they could be labelled as a single state of being (e.g., “Bashful”). When I was 13, the awful “Mini-Me” – a hyper-sexual, unintelligent, aggressive, replica of an average-height character – hit our screens in the Austin Powers films that would further fuel abuse towards people like me. When I was 31, I learned of Benjamin Lay.

Who was Benjamin Lay? Historian Marcus Rediker’s excellent book, published last year, illuminates the life of this extraordinary man. Born in England 1682, Lay was among the first-known white radical abolitionists. He was a sailor, glove-maker, and bookseller. He was fearless, compassionate, and principled. And he had dwarfism.

Once described as a “living stick of dynamite”, Lay was “one of the very first to call for the abolition of slavery”. He wrote one of the world's first abolitionist books – All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates – and called for the church to cast out slave owners. A Quaker, Lay became known for shocking and theatrical protests. In one spectacular demonstration in September 1738, he ran a sword through a bladder, hidden in a book, filled with red juice – spattering “blood” over slave-keepers present at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

At the time, many Quakers opposed Lay's abolitionist views. They disowned him, denounced his book, denied his right to speak at meetings, and even withheld his marriage certificate – to Sarah Lay, who also had dwarfism. Undeterred, Lay vehemently criticised Quakers who owned slaves, disrupted their meetings, and boycotted slave-produced commodities.

Life in a dwarf body shaped Lay’s abolitionist beliefs. He struggled to be taken seriously and considered equal – a battle that many people with dwarfism still fight today. As a dwarf person, he needed cutting repartee. Rediker records that a man once attempted to publicly mock Lay, announcing to him “I am your servant”. Lay stuck out his foot and replied, “Then clean my shoe” – embarrassing the bully. 

Lay’s dwarfism is partly why readers have probably never heard of him; some historians dismissed him as a “little hunchback”. But there is a bigger, more insidious reason as to why Lay is not a household name: because representations of people with dwarfism in media and popular culture are dominated by harmful stereotypes.

How many have consumed the spectacle of Mini-Me but have never heard of Seneb, a court official in Ancient Egypt? How many thought nothing of the violence towards dwarf bodies in films like Wolf of Wall Streetviolence often savagely re-enacted in real life – but have never heard of role models like Paul Steven Miller, Rebecca Cokley, Cara Reedy, John Young, Lisa Hammond, Meredith Eaton, or Dr Debra Keenahan? Representations have been so bad for so long that some average height people seem to herald the drunk, lecherous, womanizing, white male Tyrion Lannister (whom, as a dwarf person, I must confess I love and own), as a sort of dwarf prophet, as if he alone now compensates for centuries of ridicule and abuse.

Historical and cultural representations matter a great deal. Most average height people meet few, if any, people with dwarfism in real life. Sadly, many have been drip-fed harmful stereotypes – through pantomime, literature, film, and television, and the neglect of real life role models like Lay. Too often, media and popular culture lead us to believe that dwarfism is, at best, undesirable and, at worst, something to be ridiculed or feared. Sometimes, this translates into everyday behaviour: studies show 77 per cent of people with dwarfism have experienced verbal abuse, nearly two thirds have felt unsafe while out, and 12 per cent have experienced physical violence (including this writer).

Lay died in 1759. Two hundred and fifty years later, he is beginning to get the recognition he deserves – thanks to books like Rediker’s. I want to live in a world in which films like Austin Powers and Wolf of Wall Street flop, while movies about real life people like Lay smash box office records; in which schoolchildren learn about Seneb in history classes; in which dwarf bodies are celebrated and not fetishised or turned into spectacle for “entertainment”.

My parents raised me to know my value and be proud of who and what I am. When I have children I'm going to tell them stories about Benjamin Lay. And they will know of his deeds long before media and television tell them the names of those who propagate stereotypes of us and sustain the spectacle of our beautiful dwarf bodies.