What does an inclusive sci-fi con look like? A Post-Nine Worlds Roundtable
A little late in being posted, perhaps, but hopefully still of interest! In which three BadReppers – Hannah Chutzpah, Stephen B and Viktoriya – chat about their experiences at Nine Worlds Geekfest this summer, and more generally about conventions, fandom and feminism.
A more inclusive con?
Stephen B: “I first noticed how unusually inclusive Nine Worlds was about two minutes after collecting my badge from the front desk. Wandering down the corridor I found myself in… a geek feminism session.
“I was greeted cheerfully and given a quick intro to what was going on, and then left to join the various groups sitting around the (very popular) room at tables and in small lively seated circles on the floor. The crowd in this room didn’t know my views or that I write for BadRep, and I’m a straight white male – generally not a famously marginalised group – but I felt immediately welcome.
“In the next room along, Bronies were playing guitar and handing out cupcakes. They also had a rave DJ. In that moment, I suspected this wasn’t going to be a typical SF convention.”
Viktoriya: “I went to Nine Worlds and I wasn’t groped, harassed, belittled or condescended to. I felt comfortable enough to walk around dressed in my own clothes, and not necessarily the elaborate armour of ballgowns, cosplay or similar I’d adopted when frequenting prior conventions.
“More to the point, I felt comfortable enough to go around ON MY OWN. I can’t stress this enough. I stopped going to conventions because it had become apparent to me that I was paying a great deal of money to attend an event where it was pretty much guaranteed that I would be assaulted in some way, whereas daily assault is something most women can have for free simply by walking down the street in London. Why pay for the privilege?”
“Not being groped, forcibly intoxicated, called a cocktease, an uppity feminist, a silly little girl, or asked to kiss someone for the amusement of male onlookers – it was like a whole new world.”
“Also, I managed to convince my work friend to come with me to Nine Worlds. You guys, you have no idea of the stress associated with this.
“What if someone was a dick to her? What if she was assaulted? What if she hated it? Then I would be the work friend who convinced her to spend money on the the thing that was dreadful.
“So not being groped, forcibly intoxicated, called a cocktease, an uppity feminist, a silly little girl, or asked to kiss someone for the amusement of male onlookers – it was like a whole new world.”
Stephen: “It seems that every big convention recently has had a wave of harassment and bad experiences for some attendees. NineWorlds appeared to do things right instead, with a kick-ass anti-harassment policy and some seriously great content.”
Running a content track
Hannah Chutzpah: “It was an honour and a privilege to be asked to run the creative writing track. I spent pretty much the whole run-up panicking and convinced my everything would be a huge disaster…. right up until the second session where my longtime frenemy – author Chris Farnell – gave a talk on ‘Working the Time Machine: writing time travel so it makes sense’.
“We had a packed out room, with people hanging out the doors. Then, as the crowds left and I patted Chris and myself on the back, starting to believe this whole thing might work – this toy car, sent by the Bronies (pictured) whirred through the door full of cupcakes.”
Fandom and atmosphere
Stephen: “Nine Worlds is set up to include a wide range of fandoms and geekery, and all the different fans are welcome in the same space. There was so much going on, I barely saw the other Team BadRep folks.”
“It wasn’t just ‘here’s the gay corner’, so it felt much more open to (say) the B and the T and the Q of ‘LGBTQ*’. Which – as a bi girl – I found very, very refreshing.”
Hannah: “I didn’t get out to as much of the rest of the fest as you two, but the main thing which spilled across every room, hallway, lobby, breakfast bar and so on was the extremely friendly and welcoming nature of the whole conference.
“The only other geek con I’ve been to was the SFX weekender, which wasn’t unfriendly , but I also can’t remember half as much mingling (or half as many reasons to mingle) as there were here.”
Stephen: “I’m not a convention-goer. The friendly atmosphere and lack of judging at Nine Worlds was the kind of pleasant, safe space I’d assume any good con would try for, but from everything I’ve heard in recent years this one got it unusually right.
“I saw tweets from people saying that having dedicated LGBTQ* content made such a difference to their time there. Even the Bronies didn’t seem to get the usual derision, mostly because they were just unrelentingly happy and frequently gave you cake.”
Hannah: The two standout workshops for me, personally, were fantasy novelist Tom Pollock’s creative writing workshop on Making Monsters – which generated at least one idea I’m going to be writing into a short story.
“Two takeaway things for me were her describing procrastination as a fear-based behaviour, and
that perfectionism is fear’s favourite coat. Emma – thank you. That stuff really spoke to me. Like, more than my shrink does.”
Viktoriya: “It was wonderful to have so many different tracks, and to NOT have diversity and inclusiveness be shunted off to the side with, “oh, well, we’re covering that in X track” – rather, you had panels on inclusiveness and discrimination across all the different tracks.
Hannah: “And since it wasn’t ‘here’s the gay corner’ it felt much more open to (say) the B and the T and the Q sections. Which – as a bi girl – I found very, very refreshing.”
Stephen: “On the Friday night I went to a swordfighting workshop with Miltos Yerolemou, the actor who played Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones.
“It was a lot of fun, and at least two thirds of the attendees were women (one of whom was you, Viktoriya, and I totally clocked your expression of demonic glee when you got to swing a very large wooden sword, which suggested you enjoyed the session!).”
Viktoriya: “I loved that there was a knitting track, and a My Little Pony track, and a board games track. It stressed the diversity of interests that are brought together under the fandom and geek umbrellas in a way that cannot be present in any single-show or single-theme convention.
“The fact that the ‘celebrity guests’ were actually there for panels, activities and workshops primarily, with singing autographs very much a secondary activity, was even better. I despair of the autograph factories modern conventions have become. Queueing for eight hours is not my idea of fun.”
Viktoriya: “Well, OK, let me argue with myself for a little bit. I’m going to nitpick here, not out of anger but because the organisers have shown a genuine interest in learning from their mistakes and in improving the experience in coming years.
“So, accessibility. I don’t know what the experience was for those attendees with limited mobility, but I am relatively able-bodied and even I found it a bit cumbersome navigating the stairs in two hotels with only the few lifts.
“Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in a convention: committing to doing better next time when mistakes are made.”
“Some of the multimedia was a little difficult to engage with without risking pain – strobe lighting, very loud soundscape, and so on.
“Bringing in a general warning system (a sign on the door?) of strobe lighting for those affected by it, and doing a soundcheck before launching the sound and leaving it at whatever level, would be good.”
Stephen: “I went to the board games hotel only briefly, and there were lots of steep stairs, but then that’s the one used for loads of much bigger cons, so I’m sure they must have a solution in place?”
Viktoriya: “Well, big cons tend to have a like it or lump it policy. They have priority queuing for fans with mobility issues, but that’s about it as far as I’m aware. Individual cons may have a better provision, but I don’t know.”
“Then there’s the issue of diversity in organisers and session leads. Part of this is maybe due to the fact that it was the first Nine Worlds, but the organisers, session leads and attendees were overwhelmingly white.
“Take the panel on Problematic Issues – some odd things were said during this sessions, and it was also an entirely white panel (so discussing representations of race was rather awkward). I think it was trying to cover too many fandom issues: racism in fanfic and fandom, fetishing gay sex, writing male characters and ignoring female ones, reaffirming heteronormative norms, etc. In an hour.
“Contrast this with the Racefail 101 panel in the Books track, which brought together awesome writers of colour to focus on writing characters of colour, and seeking out writers of colour.
“Given the number of tracks and the number of organisers required, I’d suggest that the lead organisers work on diversifying the track leads.”
“With accessibility, big cons tend to have a like-it-or-lump-it policy. They have priority queuing for fans with mobility issues, but often that’s about it.”
“Finally, I disagree with Steve on the inclusiveness extended to the Bronies, mostly because in the sessions I was present at, they were frequently the butt of the joke.
“Fundamentally, I think it’s uncool to include something as a track (and therefore give implicit approval of its existence) and then spend the weekend being a bit weirded out by it. I don’t claim to be part of the MLP fandom, but I thought it was a bit harsh.”
Stephen: “I didn’t see the panels where Bronies were mocked, but I did see a lot of people commenting out loud that this was their first experience of them and they thought Bronies were awesome.”
Viktoriya: “I wonder if part of it isn’t a reflexive ‘let’s build a hierarchy’ instinct. Certainly there was that feeling at times at the fanfic panels, and some of the comments re: board gaming from attendees. The Bronies were the only ones where I heard panellists commenting on it, though, and there is some evidence that attendees felt a bit singled out.”
“What I do think is great is that the organisers of the Problematic Issues panel realised what had gone wrong, and have publically acknowledged it and committed to doing better next time.
“Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in a convention. There were a few tweeted mentions of positive and negative feedback (which, to their credit, the Nine Worlds twitter feed retweeted).”
Let’s wrap this up…
Hannah: “I think everyone involved understands it was a first attempt at a huge thing and the learning curve was, and will continue to be, pretty damn steep – but I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it or more excited about next year.”
Viktoriya: “Since there’s a year until the next Nine Worlds I guess I’ll conclude with some general links on the inclusion and harassment issues – if you’re thinking of going to a convention and are concerned about safety, or if you have been harassed at a convention and want to know how to report it, have a look at these resources:
- Elise Mathesen’s experience of reporting sexual harassment here, including a contact and resource list for reporting it here.
- Carrie Cuinn’s experiences and guide for reporting are here and here
- Finally, the odious Ted Beale was recently finally expelled from SFWA. NK Jemisin has written a blisteringy on-point post on racism and misogyny in SFF, Beale’s expulsion, and the behaviour which led to it.
“Most of all, I loved the fact that I enjoyed Nine Worlds so much, I have already decided I’m going next year. No uncertainty, no hmm-maybe and oh-yes-perhaps. I’m going next year because it was wonderful. How can you argue with that?”