Burn it All Down: Wiscon’s Failure of Feminism

There are two ways to change an organization: the first is from the inside out – joining existing structures, working one’s way up through them, turning like minds to your cause, and revolutionizing the institution from the inside out.

The other way to do it is to burn the fucker down to the ground. 

The first way is much harder, as there’s a very real and proven possibility that by joining an existing structure, you’ll eventually be corrupted by it. This happens to every starry-eyed politician, and most working women battling their way up the corporate hierarchy. You become corrupted by the very system you go in to revolutionize, and then you become the very thing you hated. You become everything you ever fought against.

Revolution is, on the surface, easier. But it’s messier. Bloodier. People are hurt. It involves, often, literally destroying everything that has been built before and starting over from scratch.

Revolution is a hard thing to stomach.

I’m pretty familiar with Wiscon’s failures, from the Moonfail incident to resistance to POC safer spaces and concerns related to intersectionality. I’ll admit that my cozy white feminist self, during Moonfail, kept thinking that it was simply that the concom needed to educate itself. Those running this space might know cozy white feminism, but intersectional feminism, racism, and other –isms were less visible to those making the final decisions. They needed to take the time to educate themselves; it was going to be a long road, but they’d get there. I figured they’d spend some time with a fucking book, diversify membership, look to structure more inclusive conversations.

But feminism? Feminism of the very basic variety – like, women being legally and socially entitled to be treated as human beings and not hunks of meat? The very idea the convention was founded on? Surely they understood that. Surely there would be no learning curve on this very basic, very simple tenet that the con had been built around nearly 40 years ago.

That’s why the jaw-dropping “decision” of the concom (or, at least, those with “decider” power within the concom) to continue to allow a serial harasser who’s been a problem in the field for over 20 years – who, last year, resigned due to public outcry over said behavior – to attend the convention, with only a short ban of a few years, is so bizarre and horrifying. No, he’s not permanently banned. In fact, right up until Wiscon rolled out this year, he was still on the preliminary programming. One wonders what someone would have had to do, then, to get permanently banned from Wiscon – harass people for thirty years? Why this oversight? Was no one paying attention? And then once people were paying attention, how the fuck could you ban someone for just a couple years who’s been a serial harasser making women feel unsafe and reducing them to hunks of meat for twenty years, pending “good behavior”?

Good fucking behavior? What the fuck is a concom, a fucking parole board? And how the fuck does he demonstrate “good behavior” – by coming into con spaces and *not* leering at women who are already moving to different rooms to avoid him?

Oh, wait, there are still young and newer women in the field who won’t run, who won’t know, and I’m sure that putting him in a position to “prove” himself in front of them, after proving for 20 years that he  just makes people feel unsafe through inappropriate harassing behavior, will somehow be to the betterment of the community as a whole? And what kind of “good feminist guy” continues to try and push into feminist spaces knowing his behavior insults and demeans the very women he purports to respect so very much?

What?

How in the fucking world did a feminist convention come to value the hurt feelings of a serial harasser over the safety of its membership?

What the fuck does Wiscon – does any of us – stand for if we back down in the face of white male power, of a former industry editor, a former Guest of Honor, a friend, in truth, to many on the concom?

If you don’t stand for your principles when it really matters, why should anyone believe you stand for anything?

Wiscon bills itself as the “world’s leading feminist science fiction convention.” In Wiscon’s Statement of Principles it notes that “WisCon’s commitment to feminism is also reflected in our processes” and “WisCon’s commitment to feminist science fiction and feminist process is a commitment to ensuring that our future is not just for  white, well-off, able-bodied, straight men, but rather includes everyone.”

It’s worth noting that the best way to test a person’s or organization’s principles is to pit them against the cause or behavior they’ve taken a stand against by putting them in a place where they’re going to piss off people and hurt feelings – and their own personal interests – if they stand by those principles. In this case, Wiscon ended up going up against a sexist, white, well-off, able-bodied straight man with a history of harassing the very women the convention purports to be there to advocate for.

And those on the concom with the ultimate deciding power told us exactly who they really are, and where they really stand.

Just as one shouldn’t sign a petition saying you won’t attend a convention that doesn’t have a harassment policy unless you intend to follow it even at great loss or discomfort to yourself, so you shouldn’t purport to be a fucking feminist fucking science fiction fucking convention if you can’t even uphold the basic tenants of feminism and provide a reasonably less sexist environment for discussions to take place. You can point out sexism when it exists, and remove people from conversations and spaces who are derailing those conversations and actively endangering the women whose voices you say are so equal. Like, you can do that, because you’re a private event and you can set a code of conduct that is, you know, not sexist.

Fascinating, I know. Fucking miraculous.

You can even kick people the fuck out who’ve been a problem for twenty years.

But, as with every other convention in the fucking world, Wiscon has demonstrated that some are more equal than others.

hester_buildituptoburnitdown1And they are the well-connected white straight guys.

Same as it ever was.

They may as well have put up a big fucking sign to every predator in the field saying, “Come on over, parrot some loving-kindness about women being equal, and you’re totally welcome to join us in our spaces! It will take twenty years of you harassing women at our con before we do anything, and then we’ll only ask you not to come for a few years. Just say, after twenty years, that you’re super sorry. You can do whatever you want to the people at our convention. Just promise to do better next time!”

Wiscon has shown its true colors in this decision, and it’s this: “feminism” is just a marketing phrase, just another way to differentiate a regional con from some other cons. As has been pointed out by others, “feminist convention” means exactly fucking nothing; never has, though I sorely wished it and hoped for it and so assumed the best with this rather obvious incident – I mean, a serial harasser with 20 years of known issues; should be a no-brainer to boot them from a feminist convention right? Wrong. It’s just another convention. Another space you navigate within a massively sexist society, a space that shelters abusers and harassers above those they target. It’s a safe space for the world’s many predators, even and especially men, many of whom have gone there for the cookies for decades, and never been called on it.

Wiscon is not your friend. Wiscon is not your ally. Wiscon is a part of this fucked up world; a world that will contort itself in uncomfortable ways to pretend to uphold its principles while shitting on those it pretends to advocate for.

At least San Diego Comicon doesn’t fucking pretend to be anything but a promotional brofest.  It doesn’t pretend it’s interested in giving a shit about anything but itself and your money.

I was recently asked about harassment at conventions by a reporter from the LA Times. Yes, once again, we’re about to be in the news for more of this embarrassing bullshit, and how lovely it would have been to point out that Wiscon, at least, has a fucking backbone. But as I pointed out to the reporter, what we see happening at cons – the protection of harassers above those they’ve targeted – is no different than what we see in the world outside conventions. All we have – the only difference in our community – is we have this dialogue. We have a call-out culture. And now, more than ever, it’s becoming possible to build the social spaces we want to build.

But not if we aren’t courageous enough to seize that opportunity.

Much ink has been spilled about the internal politics of Wiscon, about the infighting, the old feuds, the endless circles of emails and wayward, tardy responses from folks involved in decision making who do this all for free, who volunteer their time. We should cut people slack, folks tell me. We should understand it’s not simple. It’s not cut and dry. It’s not easy. And lord yes – I certainly know this decision wasn’t handed down by a majority of the concom. I know there are a lot of Wiscon’s volunteers who find this decision reprehensible.

But here’s the thing, folks: if you say you are a fucking feminist convention with principles, you must abide by them – everyone who runs the convention, every volunteer, must abide by them. Fuck politics. Fuck hand wringing. If you volunteer for a thing and you are not up to the task for, if you cannot step up and make a difficult fucking decision, then you need to step down and pass it off to someone else, or stop pretending you have principles. Say you’re a con that sometimes talks about feminism. Don’t pretend you’re a feminist con.

Wiscon is a mirror of a world that has lofty pretty ambitions, but can’t even abide by its own principles. Without a revolution, an influx of bold new volunteers to join those already pushing back, it is a broken, mewling, thrashing mess of politics and infighting, frantically gnawing off its own arm on one side while engaged in an endless circle jerk with the other.

A lot like the SFWA has been. The SFWA has had to nearly burn itself down several times to start marching toward relevance.

I hope Wiscon does the same, and tears itself apart and starts over. I hope the half of the volunteers who know this is an absolutely abysmal betrayal of their principles and membership burn it all fucking down. Because this is not some democratic decision. There are passionate volunteers who’ve been with Wiscon forever who think this is the biggest shit in the universe, too. But they aren’t the people with the final vote.

They need more progressive, hard-working volunteers. They need even more people who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power, and do the work of running a convention.

And if Wiscon can’t fix itself from the inside, if there isn’t an internal coup and huge influx of volunteers to fix this broken shit, let’s be real – Wiscon has demonstrated with this final cherry of an act that its purpose, its principles, are hollow bullshit. It is built on nothing but webbed, interconnected relationships spanning decades that build the real policy: just like any other con, just like the real world, it’s who you know, and how “important” you are that will save you, even if you’re serially harassing women or abusing children.

So if you want a statement of principles, here’s mine: Wiscon can fuck itself.

I hope it burns down to the ground. I hope for a hundred thousand real feminist convention heads to sprout from its ashes, and for feminist programming to continue to light up the panels at CONvergence and ReaderCon and conventions like them all across the country.

I hope we don’t need Wiscon anymore.

And I hope that when it burns down to the fucking ground its founders look up from the ruin and realize that in its destruction they have actually achieved everything they dreamed:

Because instead of a monolithic feminism in its tiny, backbiting little place, they will have created the most indestructible future of them all – a future helmed by a diverse and indestructible multitude of people even bolder, even more progressive, even more radical and extraordinary than those they dreamed of.

And I look forward to the day, in 30 years, when young women come by and burn out this new crop of feminists for being too backward and conservative.

I look forward to that day for myself, too. I look forward to being held up by radical young feminists as all that’s wrong in the world – because then I’ll know I’ve done my job in helping to nurture folks far braver than I.

People who are so fucking done with my bullshit.

So, now it’s in your hands, my friends. You can volunteer to become a member of Wiscon, take up the fight from within with the volunteers inside fighting the good fight, or go start your own truly progressive cons, and support those working to become more progressive.

Some of you, I know, will do both (bless you).

There’s a future that needs building, but somebody who’s actually courageous and principled needs to take up the fucking spade and build it.

Is it you?

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