On LonCon3, Diversity and Hierarchies

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.

19 thoughts on “On LonCon3, Diversity and Hierarchies

  1. Thank you so much for your write up, this was very interesting to read!
    I think you’re entirely correct that con organisers can’t control panellists or audience members, but it’s such a shame to me that they should even have to! Some of the comments I heard, including a few that you’ve written down here, really make me despair at the bigoted and exclusionary opinions of some fans (obviously, not all fans! I did meet plenty of lovely ones!). I know that a lot of the people saying problematic things are not ill-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean some of the things I heard or heard about weren’t very off-putting.
    Your point about audience respect of panellists is also really good! I know, as an audience member, it can be really hard not to try to add all your amazingly relevant points/experiences/diatribes to the panel’s conversation, but at the end of the day, if you’re not on the panel, you’re not on the panel. We have a myriad of ways to get our opinions heard without rudely interrupting or derailing the people we’ve come along to see. I definitely admired a few mods over the con who were very adept at dealing with these situations – it’s just a shame that, since panel members/mods are drawn from a pool of volunteers that not everyone is so capable (not blaming them, it can be a very tough thing to do!)
    It sounds like you went to some great panels, which I’m sad to have missed. I have to admit, after a first few ill-informed comments/questions, I rather gave up on panels that were going to discuss issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and prejudices within fandom. Maybe I should have perservered!
    Also IDK if you remember me all that much, since we really didn’t get a chance to talk, but I’m @cwena on twitter, we chatted for a little bit after the Contemporary Fandom panel? It was great to meet you, even if it was only brief! (Also omg sorry for long wordvomitty comment!)

    • You’re welcome-thank you for the comment!

      It is a huge shame that organisers should have to. I heard one Twitter comment about Nine Worlds (that I didn’t go to this year) having too large a code of conduct and surely most of it is comon sense, but a lot of people don’t seem to have much common sense when it comes to behaviour at cons! You’re right that a lot of people saying things weren’t ill intentioned, but it is definitely still off putting. I did think some of the mods were excellent though, and honestly I’m not sure how I’d have dealt with some of the questions/comments if I was moderating those panels.

      I totally understand you giving up on panels on diversity too. I nearly didn’t go to the whitewashing one, and I wasn’t looking forward to the Queer Desires one I was speaking on, but they both actually went really well. I did live tweet the Whitewashing one if you particularly want to trawl through my TL 😉

      And I definitely remember you! It was great to meet you (briefly!) too

  2. Thanks for this write up – I was the one on the panel sitting next to the woman who said LBG whatever and while I did say I thought she was wrong I wish I had made more of a point of how unacceptable that phrasing was, I was just so shocked I didn’t manage much. I saw you on a few panels and you spoke excellently. I am disappointed the woman from the audience of your Problematic panel didn’t get removed, I had heard she was. Also very sad I missed the Whitewashing panel – I chose diversity in YA over it which was excellent, but that was my most frustrating clash of the weekend.

    • Thanks for the comment! In all honesty I was so shocked by what she said that I didn’t hear anything afterwards, so not including your response is no reflection at all on if I thought you (anyone) should have said more-I just didn’t hear you! Andbi think that’s a common reaction (that we kick ourselves for later on). I certainly wish I’d spoken out more a few times.

      I’m happy to be proved wrong about the Problematic Things audience member being removed but from what I heard the following day she wasn’t. I was considering th e Diversity in YA panel as well-it sounded like it woyld have been a great companion to the Whitewashing panel. How was it in the end? And thank you very much for your lovely comment about me speaking!

      • The Diversity in YA panel was really excellent actually! There was one stupid audience comment, but one of the more minor ones. All the speakers were excellent, and it meant I discovered Mary Anne Mohanraj who I just think is wonderful (and as someone currently writing erotica and hoping to write YA in the future I love see other people who are in both genres). It was definitely one of my favourites of the weekend, even as I’d have liked to see the other.

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  4. Great review, Bethan. I feel kind of fortunate that I was able to avoid the worst of those panels – the couple I attended were pretty well-handled, I thought. Since it was also my first Worldcon I’d be interested to know whether the academic track thing has been done before, and if so how they worked out. Having academic panels in a fan convention is an interesting idea, but I think it opens up academics and audience members alike to a lot of vulnerabilities, especially in a group of people that is as diverse as fans. On reflection, I suppose there was bound to be some sort of upset, and I am quite surprised that some of the panels didn’t meet with more disruption than actually happened.
    I was interested to read your mention about mental health… For me personally that is a more significant issue than race or sexuality, and I wish it could be addressed more, both in these contexts and more in general. But I guess that’s another story! Thanks again for sharing! 🙂

    • Thanks Ludi! I feel like the con got better as it went on and the inappropriate comments became fewer (at least in the panels I was on). From what Emma said to me on Twitter earlier I think they have done academic conferences at other WorldCons, but I’m not sure how they differed, if at all.

      Yeah I mentioned mental health in the queer desires panel and a quick look through this blog will show it’s a subject close to my heart 😉 I’d have liked to see our discussed a lie more at the con but maybe another one will look at it…

      • I was really pleased when I heard you mention mental health during the Queer Desires panel, because the two issues are so often inter-related. LGBTQIA folks are at greater risk of experiencing mental health difficulties than straight/cis folks (quite likely due to contributing factors like discrimination and invisibility taking their toll) and are less likely to be able to access appropriate, accepting, and validating mental health treatment. I have done volunteer work with same sex attracted and gender diverse young people with mental health issues, a number of whom were avid fantasy and science fiction readers, so it’s a subject I care about a great deal too.

      • Oh thank you! The two issues really can be related and I think it’s important that mental health issues are looked at. I did a lot of voluntary work with people who self harm, suffer from mental health issues and eating disorders before I started the PhD and a lot of them were LBGTQIA. It was a lot more difficult for them to access tretreatment and things like discrimination definitely factored into their self harming.

  5. It was really nice to meet you, even though the circumstances ended up being a bit weird. Did you come to the fan shaming panel? I was so grateful we ran out of time and I could shut down the last question, which was so amazingly packed with unrecognized fan shaming (and personally insulting) that I might have had a hard time being professional and civil.

    • It was really good to me you as well. I couldn’y make it to the Fan Shaming panel sadly – I stepped in for a friend and presented her paper at the same time your panel was on – but I would have loved to have been there. Sounds like that last question was a bit of a nightmare but I hope it went well otherwise?

      • Good lord, it’s been way too long since I have been on social media. YES, the question was a nightmare, but also OMG HOW DO YOU NOT SEE THE IRONY??? (said one part of my brain as I listened to the person talking about how she was glad that her group of vanilla con-runners and fans had figured out how to make it difficult for fans who were also into (wtfever form of kink was too much kink for the vanillas) to attend cons… in a panel on fan shaming).
        I don’t know if they make a clue bat big enough for that nonsense.

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