So, apparently some number of WisCon people have been complaining about things like the ConSuite (a salon room where food is prepared and served, for free, by unpaid volunteers who are giving up their own con time and energy to make sure that those who can’t leave the hotel or afford restaurants or who don’t have the time, energy, and wherewithal to figure out meals are served).
In the past two years, the ConSuite has gone from stuff like hot dogs and ramens to full kitchen meals and catered fare prepared and served by trained and certified food handling people who are still, I point out, unpaid volunteers who are members of the con who have actually, in fact, shelled out money to be there serving food when they could be making connections, hanging out with friends, or attending programming items. They are chronically understaffed and underappreciated.
These complaints go hand in hand with another set of complaints, that WisCon has become less “welcoming” and that it was “alienating” this year. Now, I don’t know who these complaints are coming from, because I’m hearing about them second hand. They’re apparently popping up on Facebook, and possibly on Twitter, but they’re coming from people I don’t know and am not friends with. Boy howdy, seeing the blistering air around the blogs of a lot of the WisCon folks I am friends with makes me feel like I have done an exceptional job cultivating my social media experience, that I don’t have to see what they see and put up with what they put up.
So I couldn’t put faces or names to these complaints, and yet… an image forms. And with that image comes a suspicion, that rather than anyone or anything making these people feel unwelcome, what is happening is that they are noticing that other people are being welcomed, and they feel that this is taking away things that are owed to them: the right to be centered in all occasions, the right to dominate any room, the right to behave as they please.
WisCon has always prided itself on being a progressive and inclusive institution, but to some people, inclusiveness is a treat that people who label themselves progressive are allowed to dole out, always in exchange for proper gratitude and obedience. Making other people—with a strong emphasis on other—is their privilege, with a strong emphasis on privilege. Seeing other people making themselves comfortable? Seeing other people making each other comfortable? Watching the formal power structures created to enable the con to function work to make everybody comfortable?
These things make the complainers very uncomfortable.
And the thing is: every year that we don’t coddle those kinds of complaints, we shake a few of the people who make them lose. Sometimes it’s an official action, when they react badly to being reminded that they have agreed to, for a period of 3 to 5 days, treat their fellow human beings as human beings. Sometimes it’s them stomping off in a huff and then sniffing noisily on Facebook about how a thing that used to be “theirs” was taken away by those people. Sometimes it’s nothing so melodramatic, but when the times come for them to allot their time and money for con travel, this one just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.
I spent a good portion of the weekend talking to newbies and other people I didn’t know, because as I mentioned in a previous blog post, this was the year when it hit me that I’m not a newbie or outsider myself, and I decided it was time to do what I could to help others feel as safe, welcome, and included as people had done for me. And my impression was that we succeeded in putting on a very welcoming con. Person after person remarked on how different it was from other cons, how much safer they felt to be themselves or to hang out in the public spaces. Three times during the span of the con, I heard one first timer say “I’m definitely coming back.” and another person peripheral to the conversation heard and agreed.
That seems pretty welcoming to me.
I mean, there were people who had negative experiences. There are still older white men who stand too close to people in empty elevators, and who clap hands on others without invitation. There are still white women who apparently think that everything is there for their benefit, even things purchased for private functions with private funds. There are people who think it’s their job to evaluate whether those who use assistive devices or make use of disability access resources are trying hard enough or really need/deserve the accommodations they have. There are people whose name tag always seems to be conveniently turned around when they lean in to say something awful before vanishing into the crowd.
But here’s a crucial point, for me: the people who related such encounters to me are people who also told me they had such a good time they’re coming back next year. And I suspect at least some of the people involved won’t be.
I told people all weekend long that my experience is that every year, WisCon gets better. I didn’t want to bring up negatives in a conversation that was mostly squee, but part of what I meant was: every year there are fewer of the people who see the Concourse Hotel as their grand feudal estate and everyone who isn’t in some exalted circle with them as their serfs, and more people who see it as a place where we can come together and be ourselves, to treat each other respectfully and be treated with respect.
And no one person should have to bear the brunt of putting up with bad treatment until the bad actors give up and go home, or transgress in a way that allows for an official response that sends them there. No. I would not for anything tell anyone, “Put up with creepy elevator dude. Put up with the invasive questions and rude assumptions. It will all be worth it when you’re still here and they’re not.” I have friends—good friends, dear friends—who will probably never trust WisCon as an institution or environment again, due to patterns of failure to welcome and protect, and I grieve for what they’ve suffered and what we have lost by their absence.
But it’s better, and it’s getting better, and it will continue to get better, and I for one intend to stick around to see how high it goes.