Cons Need to Stop Using the “We’re Just Fans” Defense When Things Go Terribly Wrong
This morning social media pointed me to an in-depth post about harassment and OdysseyCon, a small science fiction convention. As has become the norm in recent years, it seems as though con organizers handled a situation badly, which snowballed into reactions of condemnation and dismay from the community.
What’s especially frustrating is that we saw yet another attempt to dodge responsibility by falling back on the old we’re a “volunteer organization” with a con “run by fans, for fans” excuse, as though the lack of professional full-time organizers explains what went down. It doesn’t.
Other than covering NYCC every year, I’m more of an armchair con-watcher than an active attendee. But enough of my social circle is enthusiastic about cons that I end up getting exposed to a lot of the drama secondhand. What occurred in regards to OdysseyCon is quite the, well, odyssey, and it’s very much worth reading writer Natale Luhrs’ comprehensive account, where she also links to all the relevant ConCom statements and reactions from the SFF community.
To summarize Luhrs, who is a finalist this year for the Best Fan Writer Hugo, the situation began when Monica Valentinelli, a writer, editor and game dev who was set to be OdysseyCon’s guest of honor, expressed her discomfort with a member of the ConCom who was also guest liaison. This was based on personal experiences she had with the man in question, Jim Frenkel, who has a very long and checkered history in relation to cons and women.
In response to an email Valentinelli sent asserting that she was afraid for her safety, a male member of the Con committee took it upon himself to write back to her. He then responded with what was pretty much the textbook definition of gaslighting.
While I understand your position, I hope that I can encourage you to reconsider. Jim Frenkel is, and has been for a long time, a member of the Odyssey Con concom, so he is very involved with the convention. As such, he is very concerned that nothing happen that will reflect badly on it. Having attended every prior OddCon myself, I can assure you that he has always behaved in a correct manner there. He does “yeoman duty” for the con every year, and is respected for his contributions.
I have known Jim personally for more than thirty years. Although there have been unfortunate events in the past, I do not now believe, nor have I ever, that Jim is dangerous to any one, in any way. I believe that the lamentably widely disseminated idea that he is, is exaggerated and grows from a lack of knowledge of the facts in his case. His reputation since the WisCon incident has been spotless.
I will, if you wish, take Jim off any panel that presently features both of you, which I hope you would find a reasonable compromise. Banning Jim entirely would be unfair to him, and, in refusing to attend if he is working the con at all, you are being unfair to yourself. Why let other people make your decisions for you? Come and see the man for yourself. You will see that he is a decent man, and not a monster.
Don’t take my word alone. I would urge you to reach out to some of our past guests. I’m sure you know Margaret Weis–she was a guest at last OddCon, why not get her opinion?
Thank you for your consideration,
Gregory G.H. Rihn
For all intents and purposes, Rihn probably meant well in sending this response. He likely imagined that he was being reassuring by telling her about his own feelings about his ol’ buddy Frenkel. But he forgot rule #1: BELIEVE WOMEN. The whole email positively reeks of patronizing “I’ve never experienced it, so it can’t really be so bad” mansplaining: I’m his friend, I’ve never seen him misbehave, give him a chance, you’re being unfair, the allegations against my pal have surely been exaggerated because I, a man, have never been subject to this behavior.
Apparently, Rihn sent that communique without the knowledge of the rest of the committee, but the damage was done—Valentinelli withdrew as guest of honor, as she explained here:
I told them that I, personally, had several problematic experiences with him, and that if he was still working the convention that I would have to withdraw. The response I received was incredibly dismissive of not only me, but of past reports as well. The e-mail went on to say how this individual was a long-time close friend of the concom, and I should judge his behavior for myself.
I have judged his behavior for myself, and I do not feel safe being in the same room with him let alone the same hotel. This blatant disregard of my concerns also worries me that should any new harassment complaints arise, that they would not be dealt with appropriately. I am extremely disappointed that a member of the concom would be more valued that an invited guest, and though I recognize the the invitation is an honor I cannot and do not find this resolution acceptable.
With the shit hitting the fan, Rihn sent a follow-up apologetic email for handling Valentinelli’s concerns “clumsily,” claiming that’d he’d mistakenly thought she hadn’t actually interacted in person with Frenkel before (and thus that he’d considered her previous concerns as pretty much baseless): ” … Had I understood that clearly, there would have been nothing to say in response.” Just. Yuck. Did she really need to spell out everything for him and provide physical proofs for Rihn to take her safety concerns to heart? Apparently.
The SFF community was not happy about these developments.
Because, be advised, a known harasser in SFF is welcome there as guest and panelist. They disregarded her concerns utterly. https://t.co/8FEzCWnlzc
— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) April 11, 2017
Following all of this, and considerable outrage from Con participants and attendees, the main organizing committee put out a statement that Luhrs describes as “a trashfire.” With the controversy ongoing, in the middle of the night last night they also added the statement below:
Here, they try to wriggle out of responsibility by reminding everyone that they’re just volunteers running a convention for fans, by fans. With a known harasser who has been banned from other Cons taking part, whose feelings are apparently valued more than the guest of honor. Or at least, he was given the benefit of the doubt when she was not.
I’m incredibly sick of that fall-back “we’re just fans” excuse, as though that’s somehow a free pass out of the land of responsibility. Fans don’t equate with poor decision-making, gaslighting, and shielding harassers. Fans who want to run a great, safe convention can and should be better.
But I’m still digging through all of this. For wise words and in-the-know takes, Luhrs points her readers to responses on OdysseyCon and the Frenkel matter from well-trusted names like Mary Robinette Kowal, Jim C. Hines, K. Tempest Bradford, Kelly McCullough and more. Kowal seems to speak for the majority when she writes, “Odyssey Con. What the fuck are you doing?”
Following these narratives feels like going down a rabbit hole—and like Alice, you won’t necessarily like what you find there. But it’s still an important journey to make.
(via Natalie Luhrs’ post, image: Shutterstock)
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