On WisCon, and Who Is Allowed To Feel Welcome

Before WisCon I was having a conversation with a person who used to come to the con but does not, anymore. I asked why and they said, “WisCon isn’t fun, anymore,” and I thought about that for a while.

This person is not the only person to have expressed such a sentiment to me before that moment. I’ve heard from others over the years, usually people who have stopped coming since MoonFail[1] but a few are people who stopped coming in the last couple of years during the major shakeup that started with FrenkelFail and that the con is still emerging from.

  • WisCon isn’t that fun.
  • I’m not comfortable there.
  • I feel unwelcome.
  • I don’t like the vibe, anymore.

I’ve listened to these people and, in some cases, internalized these complaints and thought about whether or not there is something that needs to be done.

That’s what happened right before the con got started. I internalized that person’s issues.

And then the POC Dinner happened.

Okay, I say happened like Woop, it appeared! No. I organized it this year, as I have done in many previous years, and several wonderful and amazing volunteers helped me out at con.

The room was packed. I think we had 80 people all told. It was loud. There was so much joyous conversation and laughter. It was a room full of People of Color and Native folk having a good time and I loved it.

Loved it even though I stress myself out a bit every year trying to pull it together. Because each year since it went from being an informal lunch to a coordinated dinner in 2009, more and more and more POC have come to the con. We’ve had to switch locations and food plans and even how we collect the money many times to accommodate all the people who come. I can’t really complain about that.

Because there is this beautiful space, this wonderful moment, right before the con gets underway where we can all be together and see each other and know that the people in the room have our backs at the con.

Every year someone or two someones or half a dozen someones comes up to me to say:

  • Thank you.
  • This was amazing.
  • I’ve never experienced anything like this at an SF convention before.
  • I never felt so welcomed and like I belong.
  • When I first heard about this I thought it was gonna be 20 people but it was so many!
  • I didn’t think a con could be like this for a person like me.
  • This meant the world to me.

Almost as long as we’ve been having a POC Dinner, we’ve had the POC Safer Space at the con. It’s a place where POC and Native people can go to just be around each other and have discussions about our own stuff. A place where we acknowledge that we come from many different backgrounds, even as we all huddle under this one umbrella, and that it’s important to be able to talk and have community and decompress away from the white gaze. That doesn’t mean we’re all only ever going to be in that room—we came to WisCon, after all, and want to participate in all of it. It does mean that there are still people at the con giving us reason to want to talk amongst ourselves.

Every year I hear from people:

  • Thank you for that space.
  • Thank you for fighting for that space.
  • It was important for me to be able to process what happened on that panel.
  • It was crucial that I have somewhere to go besides my room so I could be calm and safe but not alone.

When I first started coming to WisCon in 2003 there were a handful of non-white people in attendance. I don’t think I counted that year. I did the next year. Still a handful. Other folks remember when it was a literal handful—five people out of 800-1000.

This is still the case at a lot of other SF cons right now. Small, midsized, local, regional, large, allegedly global…

People who go to them can often count the POC because they stand out. They recognize (or think they recognize) those people the next time and the time after because they are so few. That was WisCon. Until we changed it.

I think it started in earnest around 2009 after that horrendous winter of RaceFail and a bunch of white folks showing their asses on the Internet. Some of those white folks were WisCon regulars. And some of us were determined they weren’t going to chase us away.

The first time I came to WisCon I knew I wanted to come every year, again and again, for the rest of my life. Yes, there were few brown people. I was used to that. Yes, there were incidents around me and my brown-ness. I was used to that. It was much less terrible than WorldCon. And the wonderful experiences far, far outweighed the unpleasant ones. The panels were amazing, the speeches were amazing, the people I met were amazing.

I wasn’t gonna give that up over Faily McFailerson and her cronies.

I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

More people of color started to come because they wanted to meet this one person, because they had a friend going, because high profile brown folks told other brown folks to come and see how a con could be.

They came and saw that WisCon wasn’t a perfect con but that it had potential. That there were some panels about POC-specific issues. That there was a group of us who tried to make it our business to be welcoming. And when those moments of the con going south happened, some of us made it our business to fight to make change to that WisCon could be a better space for everyone. Everyone.

I say again: Everyone.

Unless.

Unless you’re a person who makes a space worse for certain people. People you know you can step on because they’re stepped on everywhere. People who are marginalized even in spaces that are supposed to be a refuge for marginalized people. But you know, like I know, that there are hierarchies, and intersections, and even in a feminist space some feminists are “less important” than others. Or, at least, that’s how things were for some for a long while. Until we changed it. And that right there is what’s making some people mad. And the people mad about that? Are not going to see WisCon as a better space for them.

Kanye Shrug

Oh well.

Because here’s the thing: 99% of the people I have seen or heard complaining about how WisCon isn’t comfortable for them and WisCon isn’t fun are white people. Not 100%. But 99%. It’s a bunch.

You know what else I’ve noticed about the people making these complaints? A lot of them are cisgender, a lot of them are men, a lot of them are people with privilege along multiple axes. Funny that.

And while it makes me sad at any time for folks to feel excluded, or like a space has been taken away from them, I have to say:

Where were you when this was other people feeling this way?

Where were you when people who are marginalized in nearly every other fandom space and came to WisCon thinking it would be different said they felt uncomfortable, unwelcome, threatened, unsafe?

I don’t remember seeing some of your faces when the fight for the Safer Space happened[2]. I don’t remember you chiming in when a guy on the concom[3] was abusing members of the concom (those who weren’t his friends…) and then people at the convention. I don’t recall you having any kind of problem when volunteers were leaving left and right because they were treated horribly by the “Old Guard” runners of the con[4]. I don’t remember you standing up to the woman the co-chairs had to ban last year[5] because she verbally abused everyone from hotel staff to volunteers at the reg desk every single year[6].

I don’t even remember some of you ever saying “Hey, I’ll do some work to make WisCon run smoothly for all attendees.[7]

Meanwhile, the people who I and others have worked hard to make feel welcome and relatively safe and empowered to report incidents of microagression or just plain old aggression have said:

  • Thank you.
  • This was so important to me.
  • How can I help?
  • You do so much and you look exhausted, can I get you something?
  • Can I be part of making this all work next time?

As N K Jemisin said in her speech at WisCon 38: “If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you?[8]

I ride or die for the people who have felt uncomfortable and pushed out and marginalized historically in this community, and at this con. I ride or die for the people who have come to me, sometimes with tears in their eyes, to tell me they’ve never felt more welcome and wanted and embraced by a con before this one[9].

I am not unwilling to ride or die for all y’all. I’ll say it again: I want WisCon to be a better space for everyone. I want you to surf this wave of change with us. But only if you’re willing to make the con better for both you and yours as well as me and mine, she and hers, they and theirs, Jackie an’ ’em, and all the other folks who want it to be great for all of us together.

If you’re uncomfortable now, but weren’t before, then think about that. Really think about it. Consider if you were making people uncomfortable before, even without thought or intention. Consider that you’re feeling left out because, in the course of our claiming a space for ourselves, we made clear to you just how much you or people like you contributed to our pain, our lack of fun, our lack of safety. Ponder the puzzle of how a con dedicated to feminism, populated by many amazing people, somehow ended up being a place where people who weren’t the right color, the right class, the right age, the right level of ability, the right gender presentation felt like they didn’t fully belong. And delve deep into the mystery of how fixing that problem is the thing that’s made you run away[10].

Footnotes

  1. For context, please read my post and Jim C. Hines’ follow up post.[]
  2. Yes, this is something that we had to fight for. And the person talked about in the footnote below this? Was the main person fighting against it. I believe the spectre of a lawsuit against the con if the Safer Space happened was brought up in public to other concom members.[]
  3. There’s an entire other post in the footnotes to follow. I felt it was important to give actual names here. If you say “I feel uncomfortable/unwelcome at WisCon because of what you did to Richard Russell”? Then what you’re saying is you feel unwelcome because Richard violated the Statement of Principles, which we explicitly made apply to the concom and not just the convention itself. You’re saying you side with a person who routinely abused concom members who were younger, who were not white, who were essentially not the friend group/local community he was a part of. And while you may have heard all kinds of stories from Richard about what we did and why, the bottom line is that he was told, repeatedly, over years, to stop. He did not stop. He was told, repeatedly, over years, why his words and actions were harmful and harmful mostly to People of Color on the concom. He did not stop. He was told, repeatedly, that his abusive behavior drove volunteers away from the concom and attendees away from WisCon. He did not stop. And let’s be clear on one point: We didn’t ban him from WisCon, we removed him from the concom because he was abusive. So if you feel unwelcome because of what we did to Richard Russell, then you are okay with Richard making others feel unwelcome and unsafe. And to that I say: Fuck you.[]
  4. Once again, I am gonna name names. In my post, Sometimes Allies Are Bad Actors, I quote Mikki Kendall pointing out that just because a person has done work, good work, for the con, for fandom, for the people they love, doesn’t mean they can’t be problematic and doesn’t mean they have treated everyone equally. Jeanne Gomoll started WisCon and has been a friend to many people and has done much good work. Jeanne also sometimes shit all over the work and contributions of WisCon volunteers and concom members who were not in her friend group/local community (do you see a theme emerging?). There were people who tried to volunteer and felt disrespected and dismissed by Jeanne and then left because of that. There were people who left upset because of Jeanne’s unwavering support of Richard Russell, who, as I have mentioned, was verbally abusive to members of the concom. But not to her. But not to her friends. And so we were terrible people for deciding that members of the concom had to be held to the same standards of conduct that we hold our attendees to. And so Jeanne decided to leave the concom over this. No one tossed her out. Another long time WisCon runner? Hope of ConSuite fame. Another person saying far and wide how horrendously the new WisCon runners have treated her. Hope harassed the person who took over running the ConSuite (a position Hope vacated officially a month before the con last year) several times during WisCon 39 and had to be restricted to food access only so she had less opportunity to harass folks there. She then repeated this behavior at this year’s con. And, beyond that, my understanding is that there were volunteers that felt some kind of way about how Hope treated them for years and years. Not a new problem. So if you’re feeling unwelcome because your good friend Jeanne or your good friend Hope were drummed out of WisCon and made to feel unwelcome, then what you’re saying is that the people they harassed or made to feel unwelcome don’t matter. That it only matters how they feel, because they’re your friends. And to that I say: Fuck you.[]
  5. The woman’s name is Alyson L. Abramowitz. She was banned last year for screaming at the hotel staff before she even got to WisCon. This was not out of character for her, since she’s been yelling and screaming at hotel folks, Reg folks, and plenty of other folks—volunteers and attendees—for all the many years she’d been coming to the con. This is why she was banned. And, when it happened, so many people went: phew! Glad she’s not coming. She made my con experience terrible when I was around her. One of those people was me. If you feel unwelcome because your good friend Alyson was so cruelly banned from the con for making other people feel unwelcome, then you’re saying that her behavior towards others doesn’t matter because she’s your friend. And to that I say: Fuck you.[]
  6. We had a panel at WisCon 39 in which a lot of the stuff from the above footnotes was discussed. Here’s a Storify of the live tweets from it.[]
  7. Anyone wanna place bets on how many people will respond to this by saying: “But I did do yadda yadda!” and ignore the qualifiers there and everywhere in this post?[]
  8. Just want to point out here that Nora publicly left the concom because of MoonFail, and that her experience and reaction was emblematic of the way many people felt. Those volunteers I mentioned in footnotes above? The ones who left because of the Bad Actors? Listen to what Nora has to say and then multiply by many.[]
  9. There’s an entire side conversation to be had about how, years ago, this was the experience of many of the (now) long-time attendees. A con the centers feminism? Where we talk about women and science fiction and writing? There’s nothing like this anywhere else! How many of you experienced that back then? Why then do you not understand why this is important for the people experiencing it now?[]
  10. There are a ton of links I want you to read in relation to this post:

Comments

  1. Jude says

    Thank you — and everyone who has been working so hard — so much. We missed Wiscon last year, but made it this year and it was FANTASTIC. It was amazing to see so many POCs and genderqueer people at Wiscon, such a change from my first Wiscon in 2007, such a change from EVERY OTHER CON I’VE BEEN TO in 30 years of congoing. This progress is why Wiscon is the one con I really love.

  2. says

    I find all this so, so hopeful and amazing. I want to thank all of you who put in your time and heart and make this happen. To give people such spaces and places to belong. What I’m hearing here makes me hopeful for the future of cons like this one. And gives me (white, cis-gendered mom) an inclination to maybe get my introverted self out to cons again and get involved, volunteer where I can.

  3. Buzz Harris says

    The recent evolution of Wisconsin reminds me a great deal of the process that has taken place over the years at National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference. Creating Change became a place infused with an intersectional analysis of the queer political movement, and that was and sometimes still is a *bumpy ride*! The source of the conflict there basically came down to this: it’s pretty easy for most people to own their target identities, and folks are frequently and forcefully resistant to owning their power/privileged identities. The other piece is that even the best intentioned allies screw things up from time to time and set a target group (or groups) off.

    What we learned as Creating Change staff was just to expect that this would happen every year. And when it happened we always did three things: admitted that we had almost certainly screwed up, affirmed the right of the angry folk to be angry and to protest, and invited those we’d hurt to talk with the conference staff and leadership about how we could do things differently so that Creating Change became a better and more welcoming place. It’s never perfect, but that conference has become a powerful source of solidarity and more justice-oriented action in the queer movement.

    Thanks to everyone working to make Wiscon a better, more inclusive place.

  4. Deanne says

    Thank you for this roundup! I’d best get my membership for next year soon, because I think it’s going to sell out. We’re working through this stuff, thanks to you and everyone else telling their stories. <3

  5. Adrienne S. says

    I’ve only been to WisCon since the POC Safer Space was a feature. I mainly felt sad that it was necessary when I learned of it. I noticed that when non-binary and transgender people pointed out that they too would benefit from a safer space, WisCon again made the space available. And there have been fails, some of them major. But I am always left with the feeling that the WisCon ConCom and volunteers are actively working at moving forward and making the space better for everyone.* The efforts made to make dis-empowered groups feel safe enough to come have the side-effect of making me feel safer, not unsafe as a cis-gender white woman. My biggest fear is that I might be called out on some unexamined privilege (and it hasn’t even happened, everyone is really nice). And while that’s never fun, it’s not a safety issue.

    *PS thank you all, you don’t get near enough credit

  6. Kellycat says

    Thank you so much for working so hard to make WisCon a better class of convention. A fellow WOC friend of mine had mention going in the next few years and I immediately pushed back against the idea. I’ve had really bad experiences at cons before and heard WisCon was pretty racist but she assured me that it was getting better. This article really helped me to make my mind up. Guess I better start planning! You are doing so much good work. I wish there was a way to properly thank you. I really can’t express my gratitude enough.

  7. says

    I’m one of the people who no longer make Wiscon a priority, but it’s not because I feel uncomfortable. I am white. I happy for the POC safe place. I was never involved in any of the politics; never even knew about the controversies until after the cons. But for me, Wiscon started to become repetitive. The panels didn’t offer anything new in my opinion. So when I had to cut down on conventions. I think that sometimes the definition of Feminisim gets a bit narrow. I had a story where two women slept in the same bed together, and was criticized for “backing off” from them having sex. But the story was about friendship, not sex. I sleep in the same bed with my friends from time to time, and have no inclinations to have sex with them. So my question can’t two women sleeping in the same bed not having sex be as gender bending as two women who do? This is not anger, But it is a question that Wiscon programming and discussion has raised in my mind. I still have great affection for the convention and hope to attend again in the future. But I wanted to hop on here for the people who aren’t attending and say it’s not because I feel uncomfortable with the changes. Maybe, after a couple of years and the your hard work, Tempest, the panels have changed.

  8. says

    Thank you, Tempest. This is a cogent summary of 13 complex years, and I’m sure that, although you’ve done us all a service by patiently untangling the narrative, writing it was not fun. (Except maybe the fuck-yous….) Also, thanks for putting a date (2003) to your first WisCon attendance. (I was thinking 2003 or 2004. Your very presence is energizing.)