• Sigrid Ellis

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    Sigrid Ellis is co-editor of the Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords and Chicks Dig Comics anthologies. She edits the best-selling Pretty Deadly from Image Comics. She is the flash-fiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction, from Lightspeed Press. She edited the Hugo-nominated Apex Magazine for 2014. She lives with her partner, their two homeschooled children, her partner’s boyfriend, and a host of vertebrate and invertebrate pets in Saint Paul, MN.
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    July 2014
    S M T W T F S

Wiscon, Policy, Feminsim, Change

[ETA: I am leaving in all the typos, because this is getting linked and re-tweeted. My apologies. Now you know why Apex Magazine has a copyeditor who is not me.]

[ETA 2: DAMMIT, I am correcting Jacquelyn Gill’s name.]

Part 1: The Background

On Friday the Wiscon subcommittee on Jim Frenkel made their statement.

I had some things to say about it and Storified the resulting Twitter-stream.

And then I blogged a bit more about it.

And then a Wiscon Disciplinary Subcommittee member, Jacquelyn Gill, blogs about her experience and her assessment of the process.

I specifically want to quote Gill here:

“Clearly, by trying to think about this in terms of a judiciary board, we let down many in the broader membership who don’t feel safe because they know that Frenkel isn’t permanently, unequivocally banned. In that case, we didn’t need a disciplinary board; we needed something else, like a ConCom or membership vote on whether he be allowed to attend. Procedurally and philosophically, those are two different things.”

And she goes on to say:

“As Frenkel’s disciplinary sub-committee, we tried hard to set a clear precedence in terms of our procedure. This was the first trial run of such a disciplinary board, and in the aftermath, I am realizing that there are weaknesses in this model. I do think that the decision we made was fair and just from the perspective of our Code of Conduct, but it’s become clear from the community reaction it’s not what the membership, or even many of the members of the ConCom, wanted.”

This morning, Kameron Hurley posted Burn It All Down: Wiscon’s Failure of Feminism. I’d like to quote a couple of passages from her post as well:

“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?”


“[Y]ou 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.”

What I saw yesterday on Twitter indicates that the preponderance of folks talking right now agree with Hurley. That Wiscon, as a private space, gets to do what it wants, and that the decision of the Subcommittee is therefore a failure of will and intention. The decision is taking Frenkel’s side. The decision is a failure to defend women.

This post is not about that. This post is about process. It’s about policy. It’s about doing better going forward.

Part 2: The Judicial Model and It’s Problems

I have a few issues and concerns with Gill’s depiction of events. NOTE: I am not criticizing Gill, here. I think that her rendition of events sounds exactly like every sort of concom decision of moderate complexity I’ve ever witnessed. Better than a lot of them, to be honest. I’ve served in Ops, I’ve seen how decisions get made in the moment, and then how the ball gets dropped afterwards. This whole process sounds … about average for how a decentralized group decision gets processed.

[Digression: conventions don’t do a really good job of talking to each other AS INSTITUTIONS. We rely on bar conversations and smoffing — in itself a word opaque to newcomers, it means “secret masters of fandom talking” — to transmit good ideas and warn against bad ones. This is, frankly, insufficient for the needs of the day. CONvergence, Wiscon, Geek Girl Con, I care about y’all. Get your shit together and start sharing policies and procedures with other conventions. Stop struggling along, work together.]

I do wish that, under the judicial board model used, the Frenkel Subcommittee had interviewed victims and witnesses. I wish that an open statement had been made pointing to the Code of Conduct, his violations of it, and where the subcommittee’s decision fell on an openly known schedule of penalties. I wish that the evidentiary bar was openly discussed and known.

If you are going to use a judicial model, commit. Dammit.

Yet one of the primary concerns of concoms in general in all incidents of conflict is to preserve the confidentiality of the victims. In a court- or trial-based model in the U.S., by-and-large the accused gets to know who their accuser is. The defendant gets to hear all the evidence and know where it originates. Can we use the judicial model AND preserve victim confidentiality? Can we give statements anonymously? How do we design a system that protects the rights of the victims and the accused? (NOTE: Protecting the rights of the accused is NOT THE SAME as defending the ability of harassers to harass. Not at all.)

As it stands, I have seen people angry that Frenkel was so severely punished based on “hearsay” and “one incident.” This is the consequence of keeping information secret, hidden, and confidential. I have ALSO seen people angry that all the reports against him from other conventions and conferences was NOT held against him, angry that decades of systematic abuse of power wasn’t being considered. This is the consequence of attempting a model of trial for one crime at a time.

Are we trying him? Was this a trial? Was he charged with one incident of harassment? A dozen over many years? No-one outside of the subcommittee knew what the subcommittee was intending to do before it was done. If we are to be courts, let us make proper courts. Elise Matthesen pointed out (in a private email, and I have her permission to quote her,) that what we have here is not a judiciary model, but judiciary model cosplay. All the seeming, not enough function.

What we have re-created is secret tribunals, in which people are accused secretly, the evidence and witnesses are secret, and the punishment is meted out according to unknown criteria.

I am strongly reminded of the fact that revolutions are by-and-large run by very smart people, dedicated to strong principles, with all the good intention in the world.

Part 3: Systems Questions, Analysis, and Procedures

But, on to my main point.

The Wiscon statement is not merely about Jim Frenkel. It’s about policy. It’s about establishing a precedent. Institutions need to not respond to Just This One Case, they must respond to the cases that follow.

I urge all of you reading this to ponder your best convention harassment policy. Now imagine that your enemies, the people you distrust, those who have harmed you, are running the con next year. Do you want them implementing the policies you just advocated?

Consider — harassment does not merely mean sexual harassment. Imagine you are talking at a con and I find your views threatening. I feel unsafe. I feel attacked. I report you to the convention for creating an unsafe space. Do you want to be the recipient of this?

Consider — have you ever had a relationship end poorly? Romantic, familial, friendship, whatever? Have you ever witnessed the end of a bad breakup? Do you recall the back and forth as people advocated different versions of events? Does your policy withstand accidental manipulation from well-intentioned people who strongly advocate a single recollection of events?

NONE OF THESE QUESTIONS are doubting the reports against Frenkel. I am not saying that the people who reported him for harassment are wrong, or exaggerating, or melodramatic.

NOR am I saying that what you are proposing — yes you, there on Twitter and on your blog, talking about this issue — is stupid or misguided or doomed to fail.




I am saying we need to think about it. I am saying we need to know our goals as organizations. I am saying the establishing policy is difficult. That institutional policy needs to take into account ethical agents, and misinformed agents, and malicious agents. Policy needs to examine power differentials, it needs to have standards for what constitutes harm, standards for what constitutes report or rumor or fact.

This conversation needs to be about making conventions welcoming, safe, fair, and just. If a policy rests on “but everyone knows I’m a good person, and we all know that guy is a creeper,” that is neither fair nor just nor safe.

Rose Fox said yesterday on Twitter, quoting from Gill’s blog post, “‘I am starting to think that a judicial model is not actually what the community wants.’ Where have you BEEN. Of course it’s not.”

I am not certain I agree with Fox. I am not certain I disagree, either.

It cannot be the job of a convention staff to weigh five, fifteen, forty years of backstory, personal reputation, and hearsay in order to assess each report. Institutions need a standard that is clear to everyone when they first attend a convention. “These are the rules; here is what we will do if you break them. Here is our Standard of Conduct; here is the schedule of penalties for violating it.”

It IS a convention’s job to create clear policy that gives attendees the reasonable expectation that they will be free from verbal and physical harm and intimidation, and that violators of these expectations will be dealt with in a way that ensues the behavior will not be repeated at the convention. It IS a convention’s job to inform specific, named individuals of the guidelines for implementing those policies and endow them with the authority, knowledge, and skill-set to do so.

[Digression: And that’s a whole other thing. The knowledge and skills. Who is qualified to investigate a report of harassment? How do we separate victim advocacy from fair and just investigation? Do we train a pool of people internationally to be experts in these matter? Who pays for that? Do we rely on new, and presumed impartial, volunteers in each case? How do we retain the VITAL institutional memory and knowledge base without creating institutional parties of power with vested interests in their own success?

Dear Reader, dear, dear Reader, I beg of you — if you know how to solve these problems, please let the U. S. court system know. Please.]

Is that a judiciary model? Is that a disciplinary model? Is it an arbitration? Are conventions run by concom fiat? Are they run by hereditary councils? Is it nepotism and favor? Do those who do the work earn the right to speak? They are NOT democracies or representative democracies, and never have been. Is the model for conflict resolution to be one of consensus building and mutual understanding? Are we to take South Africa’s reconciliation boards as our method?

Part 4: Questions Going Forward

I’m going to quote Kameron Hurley again:

“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?”

I am reminded of Babylon 5, of the Shadows and the Vorlons.

Who are you?
What do you want?

As communities we need to answer these questions. What sort of institutions do we want to be? How will we make ourselves into those things? How will we face the unintended consequences?

I urge you all, reading this, to genuinely think about what you want to see done. At Wiscon, or, if you have had enough of that, at whatever convention you hold dear. Talk about your position openly. Stand by it. Listen to others. Ask hard questions. Respond thoughtfully to challenges. Think about it carefully. Think about how you want the future to unfold.

Which way to you want to fuck up? Do you want to get an innocent person banned from a con and blacklisted elsewhere? Do you want to allow a sexual predator to volunteer at a con? Do you want the ill-informed and uncertain deciding the fates of other people? Do you want power concentrated in the hands of an unelected and un-removable elite? Do you want a bland, middle-of-the-road position that screws up a little bit in every direction and makes everyone angry with you all the time?

Think about it.

Be the change you want to see in the world.



15 Responses

  1. For a few years now, I’ve wondered why I’ve not gone to Wiscon.

    Now, I wonder why I *would*.

    I think the “middle of the road” position is, consciously or otherwise, intended to avoid “false positives” –not to protect the Frenkels, mind, but to avoid the truly innocent being blacklisted.

    As you have said on twitter, recently, the questions of process are not easy ones to work through. Metaphors about fixing an airplane while flying it come to mind.

    Does Wiscon need a year off to get its stuff together and really spend the time taking a good look at these hard questions?

    (And your point about needing people *trained* in these sorts of issues, Sigrid? Spot on.)

  2. Paul — Last night over dinner my girlfriend said *I* should get on the Wiscon Harassment committee. I RECOILED IN HORROR. I am JUST BARELY smart enough to understand that I have not a fucking clue how to proceed in answering these questions.

    And … I can’t say you SHOULD come to Wiscon. But I am still going. I’m opting for forcing change from within, and possibly being corrupted further. I expect I am ALREADY corrupted. As I’ve said repeatedly, these people are my friends. My ex-lovers. My peers. We have history together. I’m not some raging outsider looking to burn it all down. I’m NOT the champion of radical change.

    But if you are? If you are a champion of radical change? Come to Wiscon. Bring the fight to us. Let’s all hash it out, find the schisms and the common ground.

  3. […] Sigrid Ellis on WisCon, Policy, Feminism, Change […]

  4. I love your thoughtful response to all of this.
    I *love* the fact that you are making it clear and stating upfront: whatever choice you make, you will be wrong – from someone’s perspective. But own it and commit to your path.

    I, for one, had decided I was going to Wiscon next year, after talking to you and several other people about it. This doesn’t even count as a bump in the road towards changing my mind. I’m still planning on going.
    The fact that they’re talking about things and making decisions is fantastic and a sign that this con is thriving, not dying. There are always problems at cons. This is a big one, sure. But it’s the response to it that’s the key. Do the organizers trying to sweep it under the rug, or do they try to fix it? Also long as they’re pushing to fix things, they’re moving in the right direction.

  5. Sigrid, having read what you wrote here…I think that your sense of understanding that you haven’t got a fucking clue might be a refreshing change from believing that being of Good Heart and having witnessed other fail in other places is enough.

  6. Hey Sigrid! One of your slushers here. 🙂 Quick correction: Rose Fox is genderqueer and uses they pronouns, could you please remove the “Ms” before Fox? Thanks!

  7. @stackscene — thank you! Done!

  8. Sigrid, thanks for putting pen to paper (as it were) and voicing concerns about the process and policies required to get this right. I’ve given this a little thought myself since it came up, and all I can come up with is that it’s a horribly complex mess … and then you elucidated that nicely.
    My only $0.02 would be to underline the “keep it open and transparent” part of your post. Moving forward is going to be painful no matter how it happens, but it shouldn’t happen in the dark. And FFS, please write it all down in a “lessons learned” document, people.
    Again, thanks much for this.

  9. I love the term “judicial cos-play.” A judiciary model actually requires vastly more infrastructure than a convention can command. Police to investigate, a prosecutor to assemble a case, a defender to disassemble the case, a jury to evaluate facts (which are pre-selected), a judge to keep everything in bounds, a whole huge number of checks and balances, which don’t work all that well, but are better than many of the alternatives. We absolutely cannot, as a convention, use a judicial model. Zero-tolerance models have little overhead, but are hugely prone to being gamed, and tend to have spectacular failure modes. (See any high school which uses one. Injustices abound.)

    Me, I’m trying to think through these issues for Mnstf and Minicon, and it’s fucking hard. You are asking the right questions.

  10. I’m looking at this from the outside (never attended Wiscon and I’ve only read a couple of your blog posts). You seem to be asking good questions. I’ve often thought the only people given positions of power should be ones who don’t want it (recoiling/running is smart & less likely to abuse power).

    You know that you don’t know stuff. But you might have something other members of the committees don’t seem to have (from looking in from the outside & reading some of their comments & blog posts on topic) – knowing who to talk to/how to find information on similar situations & having watched other failures and how those cons did/didn’t fix things.

    IMHO people handling harassment at cons need basic training. Can local rape crisis center can provide yearly training? Is the ADA initiative able to provide training?

    Could the harassment committee have staggered terms starting after 2-3 years so there is turnover but always older members to train or some kind of 1 year transition with each term lasting 3 or 5 years with the 2 or 4 year be transitioning new committee?

    There has to be a way to consider outside information such as job loss and possible a database where conventions share why they’ve banned someone (security & confidentiality would be critical).

    I agree that there must be a way to say x is banned for violating codes a & c multiple times over the last # of years or for violating a in such a way that we don’t feel we could guarantee attendees safety if we allowed x to continue attending. It shouldn’t have to require explicit details of what was done to whom.

  11. My feelings on this sort of thing are much more elementary, I think, than many others I’m seeing. I am sometimes guilty of more black-and-white judgements than others, however, and I’m prepared to believe that I’m oversimplifying here, and that if I were actually involved in running a con at the kind of level that had to deal with this sort of thing, I might be more nuanced in practice.

    However…my feeling at the level I **am** at is basically this:

    A convention is a private party.

    Someone pisses in the punch, they’re not invited any more. That simple. That complicated. I don’t care why they pissed in the punch. I don’t even care if some people think punch tastes better pissed in. Someone pisses in the punch, they’re gone, and they never, ever come back. Because, dude, my punch!

    Your point about whether I would trust my worst enemy to implement a given policy is a good one up to a point…except that if my worst enemy were running a con…I wouldn’t go! Any more than I would go to their birthday party if I somehow got accidentally invited or asked along as a +1. I would not trust my worst enemy (if I had one) to correctly operate a toaster, so I certainly wouldn’t trust them to run a convention with ANY set of policies 🙂

  12. Thank you! I forgot it wouldn’t show my actual name once I logged in, this is Emily. 🙂

  13. Hi there. I’m the Social Media Manager for GeekGirlCon and would like to speak with other folks who plan other conventions. If anyone wishes to send me an email, I welcome the conversation.

    Thank you.

  14. PS. Perhaps my email would be helpful: kristine (at) geekgirlcon (dot) com.

  15. Very well-written and well-thought-out post, dealing with a difficult question.

    With crimes like harassment that often can’t be proven (and are even kind of hard to define the boundaries of), it may be truly impossible to write a policy that doesn’t punish some innocent people and/or leave some harmful people running free.

    And this is a problem of actual judicial systems too, not just convention policies.

    There may be no good answer, but kudos to you for asking good questions and pointing out how complex the issue really is.

    I don’t know many of the details of this particular instance; in fact I’m very new to Wiscon; next year will be my first time. I started following your blog partly to learn about Wiscon.

    Needless to say, this is a kind of overwhelming time to join the party. I’m trying to do what I can to make sure next year is a fun experience, and not have the enjoyment of the con swallowed up in drama and controversy. But it’s going to be hard.

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