Posts Tagged ‘misgendering’

In the past 24 hours, there’s been a significant online blowup surrounding the programming for Worldcon 76 and the convention’s treatment of marginalised creators, including those who are Hugo nominees. These problems have unfolded from several quarters, and while at this time of writing the con is taking steps to try and redress the problems, the damage they’ve done – and how it came to happen in the first place – merits significant discussion.

But first, some recent background:

On July 11, the organisers of Worldcon 76 created a minor furore when they sent out an email stating that, counter to longstanding tradition, formalwear was required for those attending the Hugo Awards. “We ask that everyone attending the ceremony wear semi-formal dress,” read the missive, sent by Jessica Guggenheim and Randall Shepherd, “as we are striving for an elegant, professional looking event.”

Affectionately described as “nerd prom” by many congoers, the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.

People pushed back against the change on Twitter, with the subsequent conversation revealing, rather confusingly, that the dress code email hadn’t been sent to everyone. Originally, it was thought that it must have been sent exclusively to Hugo nominees, but even within this smaller group, multiple people reported that they hadn’t received it. A week after the initial email was sent, the official Worldcon Twitter account appeared to reverse its decision, stating that formal attire isn’t required at the Hugo Awards ceremony.” However, it was notable that this statement made no reference either to the original email or to the pushback against it; rather, it was issued in response to a poll tweet by Campbell Award nominee Rebecca Roanhorse – who hadn’t received the original email and was unaware of the discourse around it – asking about what people wear to the Hugos.

As a result of all this, there’s been plenty of public discussion about clothing and the Hugos. What I have not yet seen discussed, but which strikes me as being deeply relevant to the issues that came to light yesterday, is the program participant survey.

When the link to fill in the survey was sent out in early May, I received it twice: one email, sent on the 12th, was addressed to me as a Hugo nominee, while the other, sent on the 7th, was the generic version sent to all attendees. Though I didn’t have the presence of mind to screenshot it at the time, I found it odd that the survey, in asking if members had previous experience appearing at conventions, went the extra step of requesting information about individuals who could verify that experience without expressly stating what form that information should take or how it would be used. Did they want the names of people with whom I’d previously appeared on panels, or the names of conrunners who’d greenlit my appearances previously? In either case, did they plan to contact those people? Was I meant to provide email addresses or contact details for third parties who hadn’t necessarily consented to having their details given out? Or did they just want to know that these people existed?

It was an intimidating question for even an experienced congoer to answer: I don’t keep a handy record of fellow panellists past, I’ve got no idea who ran the programming for most of the cons I’ve attended, and I felt wary of giving names in any case because I wasn’t sure whether I’d be signing someone up to vouch for me by doing so. Traditionally, if you’re asked to have a third party act as your reference in a professional context, it’s polite to give them a heads up about it; here, though, it wasn’t clear that anyone I named would actually be contacted. In the end, I settled for listing the cons at which I’d previously appeared, with an added note about why I felt the question was poorly worded. At the time, I wrote it off as an unintentional error: the sort of thing that might reasonably happen if someone had used a more business-y survey as a template without thinking through the implications. If anyone else was similarly confused by the request for references, I suspect that they, too, assumed it was just a weirdly worded question and answered as best they could.

In light of recent events, however, I’m lead to believe that the choice of wording was deliberate, after all: a way to gatekeep panellists by seeing whose “references” were names that met with the program runners’ approval.

Which leads us to what happened yesterday – or rather, to the many things that happened yesterday. Given the complicating factors of timezones, retweets and Twitter’s maddening decision to show tweets out of order, I can’t vouch for the exact chronology of events, but the order of each issue by bullet-point is an approximation how I saw the main events unfold, with the most salient responses to each issue included in its summary. So:

  • Hugo nominee Bogi Takács reported that Worldcon was using a bio for em that misspelled eir name and changed eir pronouns to he/him, which Bogi has never used. In response, div head of programming Christine Doyle rebuked Bogi for raising the issue publicly rather than in private and falsely claimed that Worldcon hadn’t changed the bio, saying instead that they’d Googled and found it that way. This is demonstrably a lie, as typing the exact wording of the bio as written by Worldcon into Google as a quote-search produces zero results. Bogi’s partner, Rose Lemberg, then reported receiving an email apologising to Bogi, but simultaneously expressing a wish that e hadn’t complained in public; in response, Rose resigned from programming. Several hours later, con chair Kevin Roche apologised to Bogi from the official Worldcon account, but made no reference either to the email received by Lemberg or to the actions of  Doyle.
  • Hugo nominee JY Yang reported that a fellow Worldcon attendee, who later identified herself as writer Nibedita Sen, had received an email from a member of the Worldcon programming team stating that:

    Finally – and this has come up a few times – there’s a generation of amazing Hugo finalists who represent a set of voices that is exciting to nominators, but completely unfamiliar to many folks who will be attending. I can give you a concrete example of this: we have no panel explaining what #ownvoices is, and I’ve had to field multiple questions essentially asking me, “What is that?” I suspect that *everyone* at Wiscon is familiar with the hashtag and its significance. I would guess maybe 20% of Worldcon 76 members know what it means.

    As this email was part of an ongoing correspondence between Sen and the programmer about the lack of #ownvoices panels and the predominance of straight white men in the programming – and as Yang had earlier reported being denied the panels they’d specifically requested and given a reading, which they’d asked not to have, instead – this was widely interpreted as an admission that the Worldcon programmers had actively denied or limited panel opportunities to marginalised writers, including some Hugo nominees, on the basis that they weren’t famous enough in the wider community. Two Hugo nominees who were initially thought to have been denied panelling were Vina Jie-Min Prasad and N.K. Jemisin; however, both clarified that they had specifically asked not to be on panels. Though Jemisin had been scheduled to give a two-hour workshop, she subsequently withdrew from programming and asked that the slot be used to showcase #ownvoices panels instead. Other writers also began to resign their programming in protest, including Charlie Jane Anders, JY Yang, Mary Robinette Kowal and Annalee Newitz.

  • Commensurate with this, I noticed that Christine Doyle, div head of programming, had assigned herself multiple programming items. Though several of these were feedback meetings directly related to her role in running the convention, others were regular panel appearances. Given that unfamiliarity to congoers was directly cited in the correspondence to Nibedita Sen as a reason for keeping new voices off the programming, this struck me as base hypocrisy: Doyle is an anaesthesiologist who also does convention administration, and while that might make her an interesting speaker, it does not make her a known, recognisable figure within the SFF community. That being so, if she was capable of acknowledging that lack of notoriety didn’t impact her own ability to contribute, she has no excuse for failing to extend the same courtesy to marginalised writers whose careers, unlike her own, could be greatly impacted by a Worldcon appearance.
  • Worldcon member Greg van Eekhout, who is a person of colour, reported that although his suggested panel description had been accepted and used verbatim, neither he nor any of his suggested panellists had been included as participants. It was similarly reported by Jaymee Goh that a panel originally proposed with a majority of POC as speakers had instead been given to speakers who were predominantly white.
  • Hugo nominee Grace P. Fong reported that Worldcon had taken her public bio, altered it for their official use, and then paired it with a photo taken from her private Facebook page, all without asking permission.

In response to all these issues and the conversations surrounding them, Kevin Roche issued a public apology and had all programming for the convention taken down, with the intention that the entire program would be redone. Speaking on both Facebook and Twitter, Roche said:

I directed the Program Division to take down the preliminary program information that was released yesterday evening. There were too many errors and problems in it to leave it up.

I am sorry we slighted and angered so many of the people we are gathering to meet, honor, and celebrate. This was a mistake, our mistake. We were trying to build a program reflecting the diversity of fandom and respectful of intersectionality. I am heartbroken that we failed so completely.

We are tearing the program apart and starting over. It was intended to be a reflection of the cultures, passions, and experiences of Worldcon membership, with room for both new voices and old. What we released yesterday failed to do that; we must do better.

Many of you have offered to help us do a better job. Thank you. We cannot accept all those offers, but yes, we will be turning to some of you to help us do it better this time.

We will continue to reach out to the Hugo Finalists we have missed connections with, to ensure any who wish to be on the program will have a place on it.

At the time of this writing, no new program has been released, nor is it clear what this will mean for those writers who stepped down from panels in protest, given that the original programming has now been scrapped. There has been no official word about who was responsible for the emails to Rose Lemberg and Nibedita Sen, nor has there been any comment on the actions of Christine Doyle, though I suspect that will eventually change.

Right now, my personal suspicion is that Worldcon 76 has been afflicted by a combination of bigotry – some likely subconscious, some very likely not – and poor coordination, with the latter significantly enabling the impact of the former. As much as I appreciate Kevin Roche stepping in to issue apologies and redo the programming, that these actions were necessary at all speaks, at absolute best, to an administrative setup wherein the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing, and at worst, to a gross case of insincere, post-facto ass-covering.

Even from the outside, it seemed clear well before yesterday that the programming for Worldcon was disorganised and running behind schedule. The “very preliminary programming” email I received on July 9 had me listed for no panels at all, confirming only that I’d be attending the Hugo Awards. When I queried whether I’d be on any panelling, the reply I received from Christine Doyle stated that, while I was “pencilled in” for some panels, “We were in the “get something out now” vs “get everyone scheduled” phase — and opted for the get something out now.” This didn’t exactly alleviate my worries, given that the con is due to start on August 16. (By comparison, the first full program schedule for MidAmericon II in 2016 was sent out on July 6, well in advance of the August 16 start date, with final corrections issued by August 4.)

I was more encouraged by the July 22 email I received from Leigh Ann Hildebrand, the LGBTQ+ content lead for programming, which listed 27 separate queer panel topics and asked which ones I’d like to be a part of. Thinking that these would be the only panels on which I might appear, I listed four but gave no order of preference; when the original program was sent out yesterday, I was therefore surprised to find that I’d been given two of the four, plus three other panels and a reading. In honesty, I was happy with the panels I’d been given – both in terms of topics and fellow panellists – but once it became apparent that other Hugo nominees had been offered far less, it was difficult not to feel angry on their behalf. Campbell Award nominee Rivers Solomon, whose expenses for attending Worldcon were crowdsourced by the SFF community, was offered only one item; to the best of my knowledge, JY Yang was given only a reading – or at least, this is what I inferred from their saying that they’d been left off the panelling items that they requested. Either way, it ought to be Worldcon 101 to try and accommodate both guests and award nominees from the outset instead of letting their contributions be afterthoughts, and whatever other factors are in play, it doesn’t escape notice that, overwhelmingly, those slighted by the programming are POC, non-American, queer or a combination of all three.

To be clear: I am deeply sympathetic to the nightmarish logistical difficulties inherent in scheduling any convention, let alone a large one. With the best will in the world, there’s a finite limit to how many people and how many events can be scheduled, which means that some people – even interesting, deserving ones – are always going to be left out, with the hows and whys of their exclusion vs the inclusion of others always up for debate. But when a member of the programming committee openly states that being Hugo nominated at the convention where those nominees are honoured isn’t enough to make you a noteworthy panel attendee, and where the white head of programming schedules herself on more panels than are given to some award-nominated people of colour, then simple logistical limits are not the problem: gatekeeping, and the bigotry which, whether openly or covertly, underlies it, are.

As more than one person pointed out on Twitter yesterday, there’s a sharp irony in claiming that Hugo nominees aren’t famous enough to attract the interest of Worldcon attendees when the former group is exclusively nominated and voted on by the latter. You literally cannot vote for the Hugo Awards without a Worldcon membership, and while there will certainly be congoers who didn’t vote for whatever reason, or who purchase their attending memberships after the voting has closed, anyone expecting to show up to a thousands-strong con and recognise the name of every single panellist on every single item is either a narcissist, a SMOF, or woefully unaware of the size of the SFF community. I’ve never been to even a small convention where I recognised every name on the menu – which is, I would argue, one of the many, crucial things that differentiates a convention from a clubhouse. You’re meant to find new people here: that’s how we grow the community.

Reading the words that Worldcon sent to Nibedita Sen, I was reminded powerfully of something once tweeted by the Merriam- Webster Dictionary:

People keep

1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means

then

2) asking why we added it to the dictionary

Structurally, this works as a perfect analogue to the problem of Worldcon’s attitude to marginalised creators: the programmers keep saying attendees don’t know what #ownvoices is, then asking why we want it added to the program. Personally, I cannot think of anything more boring than attending a convention that doesn’t expose me to any writers, concepts or arguments that I didn’t know already. Given the frequency with which left-leaning SFF is accused of being an echo chamber, the claim that 80% of Worldcon attendees neither know nor want to know about #ownvoices would seem to point the finger firmly in the opposite direction, if not for the fact that, by the email-writer’s own admission, they’d already been fielding multiple queries about it from newcomers to the concept. The question of what #ownvoices is and why it matters is exactly the sort of thing that a panel – or panels, even – would be well-placed to answer: instead, the programmer erred in favour of dismissal.

My first ever Worldcon was AussieCon 4, which was held in Melbourne in 2010. My very first novel, Solace & Grief, had just been released by Ford Street Publishing, a local Australian press, and even though I was certain that almost nobody would know who I was, I was thrilled to be in attendance. Conveniently, the venue was a mere half-hour’s walk from my house, and because I had no idea how exhausting big cons could be, I decided I’d get there on foot every day instead of taking the tram. I’d also applied to be on panelling, and as I was a new local voice with a book just out, I ended up with seven panel items, a reading and a signing. Giddy with excitement, I waved off more experienced friends who knew exactly how much of a workload that was, and ended up falling asleep at my signing table, dead tired. Which, to be fair, wasn’t much of a loss; only one person came to get a book signed, and that was someone I knew. But the rest of the time, I had a blast: I shared a reading space with China Mieville, was on a vampires vs werewolves team debate with George R. R. Martin, and spoke on a webcomics panel with Phil and Kaja Folio. I even managed to cozen my way into the Hugo afterparty as a friend’s plus one, and spent the whole time vibrating at the frequency of glee.

Looking back, AussieCon 4 was a landmark experience for me, both personally and professionally. I hung out with people from my writing group, met online friends for the first time IRL and made plenty of new ones, too. During the dead dog gathering at the con bar, I met two girls, long-time BFFs, who’d attended the con as fans and were planning to write a book together. We talked about writing and agents and writing in general and decided to keep in touch online. Eight years later, the average SFF reader would be far more likely to recognise their names than mine: Meagan Spooner and Amie Kaufman, who are New York Times bestselling authors.

I’ve been to two other Worldcons since then – LonCon 3 in 2014, MidAmericon II in 2016 – and plenty of other cons besides, but I’ve never forgotten how that first Worldcon made me feel welcome and important, even though I was a total newbie. That’s the sort of experience that all new writers deserve to have, especially those who’ve had to struggle to break into the industry; who are writing from traditionally marginalised perspectives. I might have been a newbie in 2010, but I still had luck and privilege on my side: luck, in that my first big con was held just down the street from where I lived around the time my book came out; privilege, in that the Australian SFF scene is comparatively small and close-knit, so that as a white, middle-class, native English speaker living in a major city, I’d found it comparatively easy to break into that social scene and make friends with other writers.

After everything that’s happened, I won’t fault anyone who chooses not to attend Worldcon 76, or who resigns from their programming even after the new program, whatever it may be, comes out; nor will I fault anyone who chooses still to go and participate. I will say, though, that it frustrates me how discrimination of this sort always ends up having a double impact on marginalised writers, as they are both the most frequently targeted and the first to resign in solidarity with the mistreatment of others. The Worldcon program is changing, but the people who stepped down from programming to force that change were overwhelmingly POC, women, queer folk, disabled folk, immigrant voices and marginalised writers from around the world – exactly the same people whose mistreatment by the programmers was the problem in the first place. Those with the fewest seats at the table shouldn’t have to step aside to effect better treatment for those who take their place while the majority, unaffected, stays where they are. That doesn’t increase the number of marginalised speakers; it just treats them as a resource to churn through, burning them out and replacing them while claiming to give them a platform.

I don’t know what the new program will look like, but I hope it will do justice to the whole SFF community – and that we’ll get it in time for those deciding whether to come to make an informed decision.

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