So this weekend I was at the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention in London (LonCon3). It was the first WorldCon I’d been to and as well as the convention there was an academic track (Diversity in Speculative Fiction). I went as I was invited by a colleague to present a paper (which I did, on porn parodies. It went down well – no pun intended…). I also agreed to volunteer so was on several panels to do with sexuality, gender, and fandom. It was a long convention – Thursday to Monday – and I was pretty exhausted by the end, but it was an interesting experience that I’m still thinking about. I wanted to post some initial thoughts though.
To start with, I cannot imagine how difficult a convention/conference like that was to organise. I’ve organised events in work as well as co-organising the Fan Studies Network conference (which is taking place in September and you should definitely come) and that’s hard enough with a few hundred attendees, much less a few thousand. I know things will go wrong, people will drop out and you cannot control the actions of panellists or attendees, so this isn’t directed at the organisers at all. I was really surprised at some of the behaviour I saw though. The first was a panellist, a Star Trek novelist, who referred to LGBT issues as ‘LGB, whatever. Too many initials’. For a science fiction convention, much less one with an academic track on diversity, I was shocked. I mean, Star Trek – for all its faults – was one of the first series to really address diversity, sexism and racism. For someone who is a self-confessed fan and novel writer to be so dismissive was appalling. And that wasn’t the only dismissive attitude I saw in relation to LGBTQIA people. Another panellist used the offhand ‘gender-whatever’ in discussing diversity. I tweeted about these instances, as did others, and from what I’ve heard they weren’t the only ones. But on the flip side I also saw how quickly the con organisers were to deal with racism and how supported one of my fellow panellists felt by them. His story isn’t mine to tell, so I’m only going to record what I saw and felt, but it’s important to note that he was happy with the support the con organisers gave him. In the Being A Fan of Problematic Things panel we discussed a range of things, from trolling to online etiquette to racism. At one point an audience member asked a question, which actually became more of a rant about left-wing liberal nutjobs repressing her right to say what she wanted to, which in this case was a particularly nasty racial slur beginning with N, which she used in full. I was taken aback by how someone could use that word in the 21st century and think it was acceptable, and I was disapponted that our moderator didn’t shut her down immediately. It was left to us panellists to tell her that we were moving on, but not without some argument on her part and a few other audience members saying that we were repressing her right to free speech (yeah. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences and why the hell would you use a word knowing that it would upset or offend someone. I mean who does that). The conversation did, eventually, move on and by the end of the panel we had some really interesting questions about being a fan of problematic things (something I’d have liked to discuss more). Immediately after the panel ended James Bacon, the programme director, came over to us and apologised for what had happened and assured us it would be dealt with as it was a breach of the code of conduct. James seemed genuinely upset by it and I was was (perhaps mistakenly) under the impression that the audience member would be removed from the con. I found out the following day that hadn’t happened, despite additional harrassment taking place, and I don’t know why. I’m sure there were reasons for it, but I was disappointed that she hadn’t been banned from the con. The behaviour that she displayed was entirely out of order, upsetting and in clear breach of the code of conduct. Hopefully that will be a lesson for future cons though.
The other thing I found disconcerting was the clear divides between factions of fans. I know that fandom is not homogenous. The work I’m doing on my PhD has demonstrated that, as well as my own experiences within fandom, but I’d never come across such clear divisions between literature and media fans, offline (older) and online (younger) fans, and academics and non-academics. As someone who’s both an academic and a fan I didn’t feel like having the academic track worked that well. I don’t know what’s been done at previous WorldCons, but several people seemed unhappy with academics being on panels and audiences being expected to listen to them without engaging in dialogue until a pre-determined time. Now I don’t think that fans’ voices aren’t important to listen to (I wouldn’t be in fan studies if I thought that) but if you’re paying to attend a convention and you’re going to a panel on a particular topic surely it’s because you want to hear what those people have to say? You don’t have to agree with them – there were several panellists I didn’t agree with – but that doesn’t mean you get to interrupt them, shout at them, speak over them or click your fingers at them. You can walk out, and lots of people walked out of panels I was on, you can zone out and play on your phone (I saw that a lot too), you can tweet your annoyance or take notes and blog about everything you disagree with later on. But surely there should be an element of respect. And that goes for panellists too. I saw a younger panellist talked over because of her age and the fact she wasn’t in pre-internet fandoms, and I heard about young, comic-con attending fans being referred to as morons.
I know so far it sounds like I’m just complaining about the con but I did have a good time and I met some amazing people. I got to talk (finally) to Cheryl Morgan and met Roz Kaveney. I caught up with friends and colleagues from overseas, met up with people I’ve been talking to on Twitter for years, and met the amazing Mark Does Stuff and bonded over The X-Files. I also saw an excellent panel by Karen Hellekson on affirmational and transformational Doctor Who videos, which included the amazing vid Handlebars. Seriously, you need to check that vid out. Karen’s posted links to all of the videos she showed on her blog (okay, Handlebars isn’t there but you can Google it) and I’d definitely recommend checking them out. I had some great conversations about fandom, Tumblr, history, fandom, cultural differences, fandom…you get the idea. I made contacts professionally and I made friends personally. And as the con went on my experiences became better. One of the best panels I went to was called Representation, Whitewashing, and Internationalism in Fandom. The panellists were Zen Cho, Mark Oshiro (who I knew I had to go and see after sharing a panel with him the day before), Eylul Dogruel (who I’d met at the European Fandom conference in Amsterdam last year), Russell Smith and Andrea Horbinski. I’m so glad I went. I’m white and while I’m a woman who has/had mental health problems I’m still in possession of a pretty high amount of white privilege. Listening to panellists talk about their experiences of racism was a humbling experience because although I try to learn as much as I can about racism and diversity there are things I get wrong, and things I don’t even realise. Eylul made a really good point that while white, Western society concerns itself with racism there are other issues like discrimination due to religion or cultural identity which are just as important. I’d never considered that, even though I’ve lived with news stories about the IRA and the troubles in Northern Ireland, which are due to religion not race. Although I live tweeted the panel I wanted to stay quiet and listen during it. A lot of people asked questions, some I thought were interesting, some which made me think some more, and I tweeted those where I could. But I’m glad I went and listened and thought about my own actions. It seems like white, Western society really could do with listening more and thinking about our actions, particularly given the events taking place in Ferguson.
On the whole I’m glad I went. I don’t know if I’d go to another WorldCon, but this year’s gave me a lot to think about, a lot of awesomely geeky t-shirts and lot of new friends and acquaintances. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.