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Explaining WisCon
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alexandraerin
So, somebody on Twitter asked me to "explain the WisCon thing". I've received a few similar messages on Tumblr. This post is intended for people who have zero familiarity. It is an overview and does not cover every detail. It's just an attempt to explain what WisCon is and what's going on with it.

WisCon is a 38 year old science fiction and fantasy convention held in Madison, Wisconsin. It differs from what a lot of people think of when they hear "sci-fi convention" in three major ways.

One is that it is more of a literary and academic convention than a comic book convention. Although the focus is no longer solely on books (if it ever was solely) and there has been more discussion of things like comic books, the internet, and geek culture in general in recent years, it's still more academic in approach. There's not the same culture of cosplay at WisCon, for instance, and the crowd maybe skews a bit older... which is not to say that there aren't young people in attendance, which is important for when we get to "what's going on with WisCon".

Two is that WisCon has an explicitly feminist and implicitly progressive stance as an oganization. It calls itself the world's first feminist sf/f con, and actively tries to promote inclusivity and sensitivity along a number of axes.

Three is that the con is entirely member-run. People on the outside commenting about WisCon-related situations often get the wrong idea about things because of this. For instance, assuming that people who are appearing at WisCon are invited guests. With the exception of guests of honor (of which there are usually two), WisCon does not invite people to come and speak; members of the con (people who buy their admission to the con) volunteer their expertise and experience to participate in panels and speak on subjects.

Although there is a parent entity that is the corporate body of the convention, the immediate governing body of the convention is the convention committee, or "ConCom", which is what you might call a super committee consisting of every single person who volunteers to keep the con running. The current ConCom is in excess of 80 people. The ConCom uses two major tools to come to decisions: the group as a whole uses consensus-building discussions, and sometimes out of that discussion a new sub-committee will arise to deal with a specific aspect or issue.

So that's what WisCon is. A sci-fi/fantasy con strongly rooted in literary endeavors (writing, publishing), with a stated feminist bent, operated by consensus of the members who do the work.

What's going on is that in 2013, there were two formal complaints of harassment filed against long-time member and one-time guest of honor James "Jim" Frenkel, then an editor at Tor. Mr. Frenkel has a long-standing history of harassing behavior towards women, including sexual harassment and violent or frightening outbursts. The 2013 complaints included one of each.

There was a lot of ball-dropping and buck-passing--despite the complainants themselves taking pains to be heard and following up more than they should have needed to--and Mr. Frenkel attended WisCon 38 in 2014 with nothing having officially been done.

It's hard to sum up what happened leading up to the con or after, but the short version is: WisCon failed to address the complaints at all until after the con was over, and has failed to address them in a meaningful way so far afterwards.

If you would like to read more on this topic, I recommend reading this post by Natalie Luhrs, which has evolved to be a round-up of other people's reactions and bits of news.

There are signs that things are moving slowly in the right direction. The "slowly" is substantially because of things relating to point three above. At this point the bigger problems in the present have to do with failures of transparency and over-correction to the wrong lessons in past failings. I'm not going to expand on that right now, though, because I am optimistic and I don't wish to write a post-mortem when the patient may be on the verge of recovery.

I will say that a lot of people who are closer to the inside than I am have said that a lot of the problems stem from people who put loyalty--to the con, if not specifically to its one-time luminaries like Mr. Frenkel--over safety.

Me personally?

I am fiercely loyal to WisCon.

And it is out of this loyalty that I speak out the way that I do.

Because the con is not James Frenkel. The con is not the ConCom, or its co-chairs, or its ruling cliques. The con is not even the institution or phenomenon of WisCon. The con is its membership. The members are the con. That's where our loyalties have to lie: not with anyone because they were there at the beginning, but with everyone who will be there at WisCon 39. And WisCon 40. And WisCon 41. We have an obligation to everyone who shows up. The things we get out of the con--and I have gotten so much from WisCon--are what we owe to the people who will attend it in the future.

And where we have been failed... or where we have ourselves failed... we owe them better.

That's why I'm not giving up.

This entry automatically cross-posted from http://alexandraerin.dreamwidth.org/586889.html. Comment hither or thither. Void where yon.

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You explain Frenkel's behavior at the 2013 WisCon; was there it, (or any kind of WisCon sin) repeated in 2014?

If any was reported, it did not attract the same level of attention as the 2013 complaints.

However, I must point out that such reports are confidential. The only reason we know as much about the 2013 ones as we do is that the failure to act on the confidential reports resulted in the complainants taking to the internet to attract attention, at first without naming the perpetrator, until others heard familiar notes and began to connect the dots to their own stories from earlier years.

He volunteered in the 2014 ConSuite (which is a lounge where free concession stand-style food is prepared and served throughout the con's operating hours) throughout the weekend, for the stated purpose of "making amends" and showing he's done nothing wrong (which leaves the question, amends for what?), with the effect of making a lot of women feel unsafe about using it.

Personally, I don't believe it's likely he did anything egregious this year, nor do I believe it's likely he would be on anything but his best behavior if allowed back next year. Too many eyes are on him.

But I doubt that would last forever. I'm sure his checkered history involves other periods of good behavior after close calls with real consequences. You don't create a trail of incidents as long as his without learning how to navigate those waters.

A lot of the eyes that would be on him are invested in the idea of a redemption arc and eager to see him on his best behavior so they can conclude that he's Learned A Valuable Lesson. And every year, there will be more new people who weren't there when it happened, don't know who Jim Frenkel is, and don't know what behavior to watch out for.

One of the best summations I've seen for why a lifetime ban in order was that WisCon doesn't have the resources or acumen to provide parole hearings or judge people's sincere rehabilitation. A ban is not punishment inflicted for actions, it is a consequence of them.

That is, the point is not, "You sinned and must suffer," but "you having a good time at this particular con is not worth the risk to others who also go to this con."

If this approach seems to leave no room for change and growth, I'd point out that one thing I'd expect from someone who has taken responsibility for his actions is to accept the consequences of those actions, and accept that the breach of trust may not ever be fully repaired.

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