Debunking the Fairy Tale of WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

This isn’t the blog entry about WisCon that I wanted to write.

WisCon 38 was the first WisCon I’d ever attended. I’d heard about the self-styled “World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention” for years, but for whatever reason, I’d somehow gotten it into my head that this was a convention for Published Names and Academics With Experience, neither of which I remotely qualified for as a Mere Mortal If Enthusiastic (and Mouthy) Fan. I was thankfully disabused of this notion and I think it’s fair to say that going to WisCon this year was a life-changing experience. From participating as a panelist and peer with creators whom I’d admired for years (five panels in four days!), to seeing my friends (many of them first-time WisCon attendees as well) taking their first steps as panelists and moderators, to getting to know favorite writers and building new friendships that had started online, to being in the audience for Hiromi Goto’s and NK Jemisin’s incredibly moving and inspiring speeches, WisCon 38 challenged my perceptions, expanded my awareness and left me charged with determination to take what I’d learned and push my own work to new levels. In short, despite powering through one of the nastiest cold/flu bugs I’d had in ages (and it finally caught up with me on the drive home), this is what it felt like leaving WisCon:

lokisucceedI’d fully intended to have a glowing, gushing and rather fangirlish entry about my WisCon experiences up within a week of returning from the con, but that cold bug decided to fight eviction for nearly a month, things at work got busy and life generally got in the way.

And then the first rumbles of “All was not right in the state of WisCon” started showing up on my radar.

TroyEyesWide

Lauren Jankowski had been a panelist on a panel idea that I’d submitted and that most of my friends ended up as panelists for, at which point she talked about the fact that she’d been harassed at the previous WisCon and was stunned to find her harasser back at the con, despite knowing that he’d been publicly outed as harassing another attendee at the previous WisCon as well. It wasn’t until after the con that I made the connection between Jankowski’s harassment and the well-publicized incident of former Tor editor Jim Frenkel harassing Elise Matthesen, and that the person who berated Jankowski and threw a book at her head and the person who harassed Matthesen were the same person. In my mind, I’d automatically assumed that after everything that happened to Elise and Frenkel’s subsequent departure from Tor, there was no way that he’d be back at WisCon, not after all the press, the revelations that Frenkel had been an industry missing stair for decades, and with WisCon being the sort of con that was supposed to be looking out for its attendees and fixing those stairs. This wasn’t just any con, this was WisCon, a con with Stated Principles about feminism, and anyway, after the debacle less than two years ago from ReaderCon’s terrible mishandling of Rene Walling’s harassment of Genevieve Valentine, another con couldn’t possibly be making the same mistake of prioritizing the redemption of a known harasser over the safety and comfort of the victims. There had to be an explanation for why he was back at WisCon, I just had to wait patiently for it and it would all make sense.

What’s that warning about being careful for what you wish for?

So I held off on writing about my first WisCon, and kept holding off as more information bubbled to the surface: the fact that Jankowski had been erroneously told that Frenkel was back at the con because Matthesen had said he should be allowed to return; that there were missing or misplaced reports and miscommunications within the concom; that Frenkel had been volunteering in the con suite (and that he’d been on panel programming before protests led to his removal) because he was there to “prove he’d done nothing wrong.” The more I heard, the more deflated and incredulous I became.

LestradeMollyReally

I waited because surely WisCon would fix this. Mistakes happen, vital information can slip through the cracks and it’s not like anyone made these decisions purposely to hurt anyone, right? Yes, I know, intent isn’t magic, but at the very least, the con apologized to Matthesen and Jankowski for their errors, created a subcommittee to deal with the Frenkel situation specifically, and would make a statement about his ability to attend future WisCons. Surely WisCon would get their shit together and make this right.

From the WisCon Subcommittee’s Statement on Jim Frenkel (which was notably released on Friday, otherwise known as “The day you release news you hope won’t blow up on the newswires”):

WisCon will (provisionally) not allow Jim Frenkel to return for a period of four years (until after WisCon 42 in 2018). This is “provisional” because if Jim Frenkel chooses to present substantive, grounded evidence of behavioral and attitude improvement between the end of WisCon 39 in 2015 and the end of the four-year provisional period, WisCon will entertain that evidence. We will also take into account any reports of continued problematic behavior.

Allowing Jim Frenkel to return is not guaranteed at any time, including following WisCon 42; the convention’s decision will always be dependent on compelling evidence of behavioral change, and our commitment to the safety of our members. If he is permitted to return at any time, there will be an additional one-year ban on appearing on programming or volunteering in public spaces. Any consideration of allowing him to return will be publicized in WisCon publications and social media at least three months before a final decision is made.

Based on the policies adopted by WisCon’s Harassment Policy Committee before WisCon 38 in 2014, Jim Frenkel has the right to appeal this decision to SF3, WisCon’s governing body. If he enters an appeal, we will make public statements both when he does so and when the appeal ruling is issued.

JonStewartFacepalmAt which point, the SF/F community exploded. Again.

Initially, my understanding of the decision was that Frenkel was banned for a minimum of four years before the con would consider letting him return, which was an oddly arbitrary number (and more on that in a minute), but the wording wasn’t actually all that clear, and several people pointed out how it could be interpreted to say that Frenkel was only banned for one year but could appeal and return before the four year period was up if the con deemed him sufficiently contrite. While that’s apparently not the case, the damage from the unclear wording was done. Further, the entire decision bafflingly seemed to put Frenkel’s possible redemption front and center, rather than the needs of the people he harassed – both those who spoke up and those who have not. In the words of Natalie Luhrs (who’s been doing a fantastic job curating as many links and relevant informational updates in the wake of the Subcommittee’s decision):

Jim Frenkel has a right to appeal this decision to SF3, WisCon’s governing body. Elise Matthesen and Lauren Jankowski do not. Neither does the membership.

WisCon has, with this decision, decided to prioritize Jim Frenkel’s reformation and redemption over the safety of the women who reported his harassment a year ago and over the safety of all the women over the years that chose not to report.

AbedNotAGoodIdeaI’m not going to rehash all the ways in which this decision was wrong, as others have done so far more eloquently and passionately than I can at this point. (Seriously, read everything that Luhrs has linked to in her post, which she’s been updating for several days running, and search the #WisCon hashtag on Twitter to see the conversation going on there.) Suffice to say, I’m incredibly disappointed, saddened, frustrated and angry all at once about the Subcommittee’s decision. It breaks my heart to see so many people, many of whom I’d met because of WisCon, stating that because of this decision, they’re questioning their desire to return or outright refusing to come back unless radical changes are made to the Subcommittee’s decision, the staffing of the concom, and the way the con is being run. The friend who encouraged me and my friends to come to the con because she’d never miss a WisCon unless she were dead is now upset that she told us to come to an event that has let her and so many others down so badly (she has nothing to apologize for, this is on WisCon, not her). It’s only been two months since I attended WisCon, but I can no longer say with confidence that WisCon is not like other cons, that it’s a place where I can enthusiastically encourage people to attend because here is a safe place to talk about feminism, social issues and how it all intersects with our love of SF/F. It sucks, but nothing’s perfect and life is full of disappointments, right?

sadStitch

If only that were the end of it.

If there’s one advantage to how technology has changed the way we communicate, it’s that news no longer stays buried until long after the initial furor has died down. In response to public demands for accountability and an explanation of what in the hell the Subcommittee was thinking, the news that’s been coming in a steady and quickening pace from within the ConCom and Subcommittee about how the Frenkel decision was made has been more than a little disturbing. Not only were some of the committee members unaware of the particulars of the ReaderCon/Valentine/Walling situation and how that provided a roadmap to avoid repeating their mistakes (one of the results being the entire board resigning because they had messed things up so badly that nothing they did would be trusted by the community), they were unaware of the sum total of Frenkel’s behavior and history because that information had been cherry-picked by the person who was appointed as the Member Advocate and ostensibly supposed to be advocating for Frenkel’s victims. Further, Jankowski and Matthesen were not followed up with during the process, nor was their input solicited regarding the Subcommittee’s decision before the decision was announced – but guess whose input was solicited instead.

love-actually-bill-nighy-holiday

The fact that Frenkel’s input was asked for prior to the Subcommittee’s public announcement about their decision is critical because of that curious “four year” time limit appended to this provisional ban from WisCon. Apparently the ban’s period was determined due to Frenkel’s assertion that he was prevented from publicly apologizing and addressing his actions because of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) he had with MacMillan (of which Tor is a subsidiary) that prevented him from speaking about anything related to his departure from Tor for a period of five years. The Subcommittee subsequently took Frenkel at his word and never confirmed this assertion with MacMillan. At least not until after this whole mess blew up. MacMillan’s response to Subcommittee member Antarcticlust’s inquiry should surprise no one at this point:

A known harasser, someone who has been an industry missing stair for decades, whose questionable work history has led to many who worked with him as their editor to ask each other, “Have you been Frenkeled yet?”, who claimed contrition for similar actions in 2010 but apparently didn’t actually learn anything, who had the arrogance to show up at WisCon 38 to “prove he did nothing wrong,” lied to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. 

I am Jane’s total lack of surprise.

ImdoneirongiantFandom has traditionally depended on “back channels” of information to warn others about problematic and potentially dangerous people in the community, but the thing about those “back channels” is that they only protect you if you’re connected to people with experience in those communities who are willing to talk. People with little “name cred” or connections, people who enter WisCon alone and without anyone they know are vulnerable because there’s no guarantee anyone will take them aside and say, “Hey, you’ll have a good time here, but keep an eye out for So-and-So and don’t be alone with them.” My friends and I were extremely lucky because while we were WisCon first-timers, we were friends with con veterans who looked out for us, showed us the ropes and checked in regularly to make sure we were ok. Not everyone is so fortunate (and frankly when we realized Frenkel had been at the con, that ill feeling wasn’t just because some of us came back with a cold). It also assumes that the people who are “in the know” are also in positions of power and will be able to act as a shield for those who don’t. But that isn’t going to actually work if those in charge don’t actually know that vital information. Several members of the WisCon Subcommittee knew that Frenkel had an unsavory reputation but did not know that he had a history of harassment and ended up being played by a skilled manipulator. Whether through naivete, willful ignorance or casual dismissal of evidence, they failed the community they were meant to protect.

The WisCon Subcommittee is apparently revisiting the whole clusterfuck again and intends to reevaluate their decision in light of the vehement criticisms and new information. Given the (not surprising) revelation of Frenkel’s dishonesty, I can’t imagine how this is going to result in anything but the perma-banhammer being (finally) lowered. But with the sheer amount of jaw-dropping mishandling of the situation by the Subcommittee and ConCom, at this point any new decisions feel tantamount to offering everyone an extra hour in the ball pit.

I’ve only attended WisCon once, but that one time was made such a positive impact and demonstrated so vividly what cons could be like if they embraced these kinds of (often difficult but ultimately beneficial) discussions about how race, gender identity, and a whole host of other intersecting identity issues are reflected, deconstructed and analyzed within SF/F and fandom, that I feel bitterly, enragingly betrayed by WisCon for making a mistake on this scale.

StewarteatheartSo the question is: What now? Do we “burn it down” and rebuild from the ashes, as Kameron Hurley suggests? Do we walk away and find a new con to call home? And if those of us who do want to fix things roll up our sleeves and report for volunteer duty, how much will we actually be able to accomplish if there’s an entrenched mentality resistant to change? I honestly have no idea what I want to do about this. The more aware I become, the more I begin to feel similarly to Mikki Kendall (who also had an unpleasant run-in with Frenkel back in 2009):

I’m…whatever the feeling is past anger and sadness. Resigned maybe? Yeah that sounds right. Resigned to the idea that WisCon isn’t going to be a better space any time soon.

Or maybe at all. WisCon bills itself as a feminist sci-fi con. And compared to some others that I have attended, it is definitely better at paying lip service to being feminist than any of them. At times it is even feminist in its approach. But…that doesn’t make it good at it. That doesn’t make it more welcoming, safer, or significantly more adept at making policies than others. Being less awful isn’t the same as being good. So yes, treat WisCon as a fun place to go with your friends, expect to have some great convos, delicious food, and a whole lot of booze. But, don’t expect WisCon to be a safe space. Right now, don’t even expect it to be a better space. Expect it to be less awful. That’s it.

There’s also this Tweet by Sunny Moraine, which makes a point that should have been obvious to me in hindsight:

I didn’t come into WisCon being unaware of the larger historical context surrounding feminism, fandom and larger intersectional issues. Racefail ’09 happened. Moonfail happened and the POC Safe Space at WisCon had to be fought for. Rose Lemberg was harassed by FJ Bergmann at WisCon 37 and the con has yet to address it. I just thought that after all that, after the burgeoning conversations about the need for harassment policies, about how those policies aren’t worth the paper that they’re printed on if they’re not implemented correctly, after example after example after example of how easy it is to screw things up and how important it is to actually follow through with stated commitments to diversity, safe spaces and keeping a community safe, that WisCon would be different, that WisCon would be maybe not perfect, but better.

So if I’m going to be brutally honest with myself, WisCon isn’t actually all that different from other fandom communities where having particular forms of privilege and social clout insulates you from having to deal with problems within those communities. It’s just slightly better at hiding it, because so many other cons have been worse by comparison. And that’s just not good enough anymore, because frankly, we all deserve better than “Well at least we’re not THAT con over there.”

So please, WisCon, for the love of everything, get your shit together. Now. Before it’s too late. Because while I’m eternally grateful for everything I gained by attending WisCon 38, I can’t blithely ignore the obvious gaping hole between WisCon’s ideals and how WisCon has upheld those ideals. WisCon calls itself “The World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention.” Please actually make that a reality, because I am too old and too aware to believe in that fairy tale anymore.

DespicableMePleaseEDIT 7/23pm: I’d meant to include this Tweet from N.K. Jemisin but it slipped my mind in the initial draft. The irony of the fact that as WisCon 38’s Guest of Honor, she spoke of the need to “kick out” those who were making SF/F unsafe, when that’s exactly what WisCon failed to do, didn’t escape her.

If only WisCon had actually been listening. Because the rest of us certainly were.

10 thoughts on “Debunking the Fairy Tale of WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

  1. Pingback: WisCon: The Frenkel Decision — The Radish.

  2. This is an amazing write-up. I don’t have anything else to add about the situation. Just… amazing work. I weep for the loss of the world where you could have written the post you’d planned. The positive memories that have been tarnished by this are almost as sad as the future opportunities lost.

  3. Thank you so very much for writing up this report from your WisCon experience. I’ve had unfortunately similar experiences in another place I thought would be a “feminist safe space” which…was not. Ping me if you’d like to talk more. (I’m an acquaintance of Elise’s, btw.)

  4. this is very well written. Maybe this is a dumb question but if he threw a book at someone why weren’t charges filed? I imagine there were plenty of witnesses. If people are doing cosplay is there any check at the door to ensure weapons are not real? W/ all the shootings going on it seems sooner or later someone may do something really violent….think of the guy who shot Reagen to impress Jodi Foster. Or the guy who shot Lennon.

    • Sarah – I can’t speak for Lauren as to why charges weren’t filed (what happened was that he told her that she was “not a real writer” because she’s self-published, and then tossed her book at her because this occurred at her author’s table), but here’s some context:

      – WisCon is not the kind of con where people cosplay – this is much more of an academically-styled con where the focus is on panel discussions and readings. Costumes are minimal and the concerns often associated with weaponry aren’t something that WisCon deals with to the degree that larger, more generalized fan cons do. Also, at those kind of cons, there are ALWAYS security checks at the entrance – only certain kinds of “weapons” are allowed for cosplay, and they’re required to remain sheathed & are ziptied by security after inspection.

      – Frenkel is someone with very deep ties to the SF/F community as a former editor for Tor, particularly the community in Madison (which is WisCon’s hometown). It was actually really surprising to me when he was named after Elise Matthesen went public about the incident at WisCon 37. I didn’t link to everything because Natalie Luhrs post is a treasure trove of practically everything relevant and worth reading since the Subcommittee made their initial decision, but there are links in there explaining his history, which seems to be mostly that of microaggressions and behavior *just* skirting the line – what happened to Elise and Lauren seemed to be an escalation of previous behavior. I imagine it’s very intimidating to go up against someone like that who has backing as A Name in the community. There are also further links detailing how despite the fact that Lauren did report the incident to the con, which should have been the end of it, but her paperwork was either misplaced or disregarded, which compounded the problem.

    • I should clarify something: In my initial reply, I characterized Frenkel’s behavior as “seems to be mostly that of microaggressions and behavior *just* skirting the line,” which in retrospect was a poor choice of wording that mitigates what he was actually doing. What I meant to say was this seemed to be the general public perception of what he was doing, which was not actually the reality of the situation. That perception however, coupled with people being unaware of him being a missing stair, provided cover for his actions.

  5. At this point I feel like Wiscon has betrayed me thrice, almost. In addition to RF09 there was the incident with male survivors being told they would not be called on in the audience q&a of a rape panel because of the moderator’s “radical feminist” views. That person still is on programming, although is no longer placed on panels dealing with sexual assault despite all the survivors in the audience triggered by that conduct, including a first-timer who never intends to return (at least in part because people including myself had assured her WisCon wasn’t full of bullshit.) Then Moonfail. Now this. The cock may have crowed multiple times since the first betrayal, but while I’m not tapping out, not yet, I am not as forgiving as some historical slash mythological figures when organizations just Keep Effing Up and when those fuckups get progressively *worse* each time. I’m not sure what model of response or change is best yet, but the way Wiscon supposedly practices consensus model decision making…it has broken down time and again. The half-measures and subsequent remedial measures taken over the years have not produced fundamental change. But fundamental change is obviously necessary. It has been obvious to me for five years even though I’ve only made it to Wiscon for three of the past six. It has been obvious to longer-attending folks for longer. There’s deep rot that has to be cut out aggressively and decisively, and it has not happened. Every time we have accepted the half-measures the rot has deepened. Time for a new approach: this one ain’t working.

  6. Pingback: Procedure Fail: WisCon, Feminism and Safe Spaces

  7. Pingback: A Song of Ice and Linkspam | Geek Feminism Blog

  8. I was at another con earlier this year where Frenkel was on panels. When he introduced himself, he said he IS an editor for Tor. He played it off as if he still works for them. Funny, because he was fired last year. Wonder what Tor would think of him still touring the con circuit representing their company?

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