My whopper of a doozy Wiscon 39 report

It’s done! It’s all over! I can finally relax!!! Actually, no I can’t because my brother in law comes in two weeks but ALL MY CONS ARE DONE (for now).

This was the most intense con season I had. Not so much because of the work I had to do as WisCon’s GoH Liasion for Alaya Dawn Johnson. That was fun and easy. A big part of it had to do that that WisCon took place during the same week that my dayjob moved to a new building, which was a culmination of six stressful months in the making. But the biggest part of why it was intense was because WisCon, like so many other things happening in other circles of my life, is going through a shift, mainly due to fallout from the last couple of years and people leaving the concom, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Too long a story: you can catch it here and here.

Being on the ground here in the Madison, I got to hear a lot of views .I listened to those pushing for change. I listened to those who were hurt and outraged at what was going on. I listened to those who didn’t understand what was going on. I listened to people on the concom, those who left and those who came on. I listened to people here in Madison and those who came to WisCon from far off. I’ve listened and watched and had numerous conversations with people. 

I’m going to be up front. I don’t know feminist movement history well. I can’t even say fully that I’m a feminist. My reluctance of labeling myself as such falls in line with the whole feminist/womanist discussion, the latter of which I gravitate more towards. (Note to self: add Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose to the to-read pile.) So it was interesting to hear all the different opinions of how WisCon was in regards to first wave feminism versus second wave feminism versus…whatever wave we happen to be in now. I think, however there’s more to it than that. 

Before I get into that, first, I feel compelled to give you a back history on my own experience with cons. Because context and all. 

My first con was OddCon in 2009. It was the first time I met an editor, Jim Frenkel. We wound up talking for a while about the writing biz. I thought him an odd bird who swore too much, but it was neat to learn that there was an actual editor who lived in my town. Later, I was taken aside and given the missing stair talk. You know what I mean. Since I had just met him, I duly noted it and decided to keep an eye on him, just in case. I should also note that to me, he was professional, courteous, and generally friendly.

To me. That’s something you should note.
 
My next con was Wiscon. Although Oddcon was my first con, WisCon I consider to be my home con because it was there I meet other geeks of color. I didn’t feel like I stood out in the crowd as the only token black geek person. For someone who grew up in a Christian household, WisCon shook my worldview by introducing me to people I would have never met otherwise: atheists, Muslim. queer, trans, poly and yes, feminists, mingling with straight, Christian, monogamous folk. For the first time, I begun to get a glimpse of what the words ‘mullticultural’ and ‘diversity’ meant. Not just in a racial sense, but in a community sense.
 
Here’s the thing about diversity, though. When people talk about wanting more “diversity”, they seem to have this this magical kumbaya utopia of happy smiling people of all hues holding hands. Look at us, we’re all different and yet look how we’re all the same. In reality though? Diversity is messy. Complicated. Filled with groups stepping on each others toes and then looking hurt when those groups yelp in pain. A community could either let that happen and alienate the very diversity it is trying to draw in, or they can work to make all the groups within itself feel safe. It’s a tricky balancing act, especially when have a group who have worked for years to get the community to its diverse state. 
 
In the case of Frenkel, that was a no-brainer. With all the testimony and evidence that’s out there, there’s no question that he needed to be banned from Wiscon. The problem with that is that it felt to me that everyone dusted their hands off and said, “Well done. We don’t have to deal with Frenkel anymore.” And that was that…until I saw him at a local function three months later. Just because he’s barred from Wiscon doesn’t mean he’s barred anywhere else. 

 

And that’s the thing. Being local, Frenkel always shown me that side of professional courtesy because 1) I’m local, 2) I’m not his type (thankfully). A lot of people are yelling online for his head, but here, in Madison, he acts different. There are people who’ve known him in Madison and have always seen that friendly side. And if they never go online, they don’t know. So yes, they find it hard to believe when they hear the stories. I’m not excusing his behavior. Nor of those of his supporters. But I want you to see what I’m dealing with. 

So what do I do? Treat him like a pariah? Go out of my way to avoid him forever and ever? Or do I keep on doing what I’m doing now, keep a wary eye on him,  Those who know his harassing side have done their best to warn others of his behavior. I reckon I’ll fall in the same boat. I don’t know.

And if you are someone like me who’s conflict avoidant, that can be a hard thing.
 
It’s almost the same thing with Richard Russell, to a lesser extent. I’ve only seen Richard at cons. In fact, got to play a zombie game with him at this year’s Oddcon. I also was on WisCon’s concom last year, so I got to see the emails he were sending regarding the POC safer space. That was disappointing, because I remember him coming to the first panel I ever moderated (Why are all the Black Kids Sitting in the Middle of the Cafeteria). I could’ve sworn he was the one who sat and listened to our stories, and then him speaking up saying now he understood why safer spaces were a good thing. Maybe that wasn’t him. I don’t know. I do remember the emails from him in the concom leading up to that panel, which intimidated me a little.  He saw POC safer space as us ‘segregating ourselves’. 
 
I don’t heavily use the POC safer space, but as a black woman, I totally understand why there’s a need for one. We have something similar at my dayjob when we do conferences in that we present ‘lounges’ for staff of different ethinicities to sit, chill, and process what’s happening at the conference in a safe place. It’s not exclusive; technically, anyone of any ethnicity can come into the lounge at any time. But here’s the thing–the privacy is honored, because everyone respects the space and its purpose. Everyone knows it’s to provide a safe surroundings for those People of Color to talk and process what’s happening around them in a safe environment, without the eyes of other (read: white) staff.
 
I would love to have the same thing happen at WisCon, but I don’t think we’re at that point. I would love to explore more on how culture dynamics change when another group that is not the normative comes in and grows, but that’s a whole other blog post, and this is supposed to be a con report. Interestingly enough, at this year’s WisCon, I don’t think the POC safer space room wasn’t used all that much. Because this year’s concom was committed in limiting microagressions, a lot of POC felt safer and were able to interact more outside the room. That didn’t mean everything was hunky dory, but it did feel that this year’s WisCon was a lot more relaxed, at least from my perspective. 
 
Which in itself was interesting, because again, I was hearing reports from those who were local who weren’t having the same experience–they reported that people were being rude, challenging them when they brought up Richard Russell. There was one point where I was checking out my social media, and it was as if there were two WisCons–the first being where a lot of my POC friends were saying this was the best WisCon they’ve been, and some of the local friends saying that they would never attend WisCon again. I don’t know how to bridge that. I doubt if I have the responsibility. And right now, frankly I just don’t have the time or the energy to do so. 
 
There was a panel that addressed the whole thing very well, I think: the “What Happened at WisCon Last Summer” panel on Sunday. I was only able to attend the last 20 minutes of it, but I was heartened to see it packed with people from all different sides of the issue. There were many people who spoke at the panel, including myself, who shared some raw things and feelings that should not have gone outside of that room. And as I tweeted, it was a hard panel. But it was a necessary one. Jeanne Gomoll was up on the panel, bless her heart. She did a hard thing, being up there in front of everyone, but I was glad she was there, as well as Mikki Kendall–who, may I say, was absolutely a rock star as a com chair. She took a hard hard job, but she did it. A lot of people voiced their hurt, and there were misunderstandings that needed clearing up. Debbie Notkin was also on it. I wanted to hug her.
 
I wished it was taped, though I understand why it wasn’t, but Kat Tanaka Okopnik tweeted most of it and its up in storfied form, thanks to Sasha_feather. I highly suggest reading it, even if some parts would be difficult to take in. But that is what the true meaning of living in diversity means. It’s recognizing that there are others who don’t see things the way you do, and then working through those hard bits to make things easier for everyone. I was so heartened to see not just remote fans, but local fans, in that room, and it gave me hope. It showed me that both sides were willing to fight for WisCon. The direction it’s going is ultimately going to be awesome. And for those who said that they aren’t going to Wiscon ever again, that saddens me, but it’s within their rights. There’s always Oddcon, and that seems to be where they’re gravitating to.
 
I had the privilege of going through not one, but two rough church splits. This is a pretty much par for the course.
 
One more thing. There was almost a period last summer that I seriously did consider stepping down from the concom–that was when I saw I also saw people railing against others on the concom who, while not innocent, were also working the best they could under the circumstances. But the amount of anger was so great, so vitriolic, that it made me wonder: if I screwed up in my job, would they talk that way about me?
 
I’m not going to wring my hands and cry out “Can’t we all just get along?!” I’m not that naive. If there is one thing I got out of what happened last year is that anger can have its place, and when it’s used to address a wrong, it has power to bring about change for the good. I don’t show anger easily, but I respect the ones that do. We need their voices, desperately, otherwise the harmful things will continue unabated.
On the flip side, it doesn’t do any good to attack people just because you don’t like the way they do things. I had enough going on in my life without watching the people I care deeply about trash other people who I care deeply about. So because I am nonconfrontational in nature, I disengaged. I don’t speak for all concom volunteers, but I’m pretty sure many are conflict averse people like me, preferring to keep quiet, stay to the sidelines, and if things don’t look like they’re going to change, they quietly slip away. You get enough of that happening, and that can kill a con. 
 
The reason I stuck it out was because there were a few who, despite their anger, were dedicated in making WisCon safe for everyone, even those who made them angry in the first place. They also acknowledged the hard work that the former concom members had done, and wanted to honor them. It was those gestures that made me stay on. And thus, I’ve come full circle to the main point of this report. It’s all about respect. Cons are hard work, and there needs to be a balance between anger and restoration. And yes, I’m letting my Christian tendencies show, but really. If WisCon is going to move full steam ahead, we need to acknowledge the hard work the local fandom has done to get Wiscon to the point where it is now. And yes, local fandom needs to understand that WisCon needs to change, needs to make itself safe for all participants, if it is to make any difference in the future. 
 
So how was my WisCon this year? I had a blast. It was a real joy to serve as Alaya Dawn Johnson’s liaison. It was good to see friends again, and make new ones, and even see ones that weren’t attending Wiscon. I am looking so forward to next year, with Justine Larbalestier and Sofia Samatar and (gasp) Nalo Hopkinson. 
 
And I’m going to keep on figuring out how to do the local con thing. And oh yeah…I went to the Nebulas. Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. But that will have to be in the next post. This con report has been two years in the making, see, and frankly, I’m exhausted. Y’all can wait until next week for that report, can you?
 
Sure you can.
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3 Responses

  1. Thank you for your listening, your heart, and for this excellent run-down of your perspectives and experiences. I’m grateful for it, and for all your incredible hard work and effort!

  2. Great blog on Wiscon! I was so glad to read with you.

    Yes, do read In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. It’s great.

    I’m a second wave feminist, in case you haven’t guessed.

    Carol Anne

  3. […] mainly because I now know people up there. But this year I’m scaling back on volunteering. I feel like after what happened last year,  I need to remember why I like going to cons in the first […]

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