WisCon…This is How You Fail
I have no intention of dropping out of attending WisCon. I have a lot of friends that go, and Wiscon is the only con where we can all get together. I refuse to give up my time with friends because of Jim Frenkel. This is not a new approach. It has been my approach since long before Frenkel being able to attend WisCon was ever in question. You see, I have never thought of WisCon as safe space. Not after 2009 (my first trip) and if I hoped it was safe space before then…well I was naive and I didn’t know any better. I do now. Race, gender, and class have all been issues at various points for me at WisCon. Most incidents fall into microaggression territory, and as a personal philosophy I tend not to let those dissuade me from things I want to do. That is an eminently personal choice, and should not be construed as telling anyone else what to do or how to feel. If my friends stop going, then so will I. That’s my standard. YMMV.
Now that we’ve gotten the niceties out of the way, let’s talk about Frenkel. More specifically, let’s talk about Frenkel, WisCon, and the response that has everyone up in arms. See back in 2009 when this picture of Frenkel staring at my breasts was taken it was in many ways just one of those things. It was my first time at a con, we were trying to get the now defunct Verb Noire off the ground, and Frenkel was an editor at Tor. It sucks, but as a woman trying (and yes, failing) to get a new business off the ground, there was no value add in me doing more about Frenkel ogling me than getting away from him. I had been warned a few minutes earlier about his long running pattern of bad behavior towards women, and was laboring under the impression that he was tolerated at WisCon because of his position at Tor. It’s awful to say this I suppose, but having worked in corporate America for some years I have a certain tolerance built up for moments like this one. That’s a me thing, it does not need to be a you thing.
Over the years since when I’ve gone to WisCon I’ve made a point of steering clear of Frenkel. I’ve warned others about him as necessary and life has gone on. During that time I’ve had other issues with WisCon from fighting about the POC safe space with certain members of the concom to MoonFail. I have had it driven home over and over again that feminist space is not safe space. And yes, I’ve chosen to keep going anyway, while fighting all those battles to make WisCon a better space. Not safe…just better. Then Frenkel tried it with someone willing to make a report to his employer (that saga is detailed elsewhere and is not my story to tell, though I will say that I submitted this picture and an explanation of it to MacMillan in the interests of full disclosure) and faced appropriate consequences as a result. Which…removes the professional stake reasons for WisCon to keep admitting him.
Fast forward to earlier this year when the subject of Frenkel attending WisCon & possibly being on programming was raised on the concom list. On April 14th I said:
So I’m going to stick my nose in & say that I have avoided Frenkel at Wiscon every year since my first trip to WisCon. The first time I met Frenkel he spent the entirety of a fortunately brief interaction staring at my breasts. There are pictures in case anyone wants proof. I have long operated under the assumption that his presence had to be tolerated because of his position with Tor. Now I have to ask exactly what is the value add of him being on programming? For that matter regardless of whose friend he is, the fact that Frenkel was someone for women to avoid was known long before 2009. This is one of those times when WisCon could avoid a problem, but I suspect things won’t be that easy. Personally I had no idea he was on any programming & assumed common sense would keep him from volunteering.
As we all know Frenkel did in fact attend Wiscon this year, and while he was not on any programming, he did volunteer in the con suite. There are any number of posts about the conversations he had with people, and how unhappy and unsafe some people felt as a result of his presence. For the record, I only saw him once, I side stepped having to interact with him at all. This is always my policy. This will always be my policy. See the aforementioned refusal to let people like him drive me away from things I enjoy doing. But note, I did attempt to tell the WisCon concom that this could only end in tears. And yes, it did lead us to the statement from a few days ago that is going to be clarified. I saw it before it dropped, but I apparently read it incorrectly, as I thought it was a four year ban followed by him having to apply to be allowed back at the con. I thought the language around that part of the process was a bit unclear, but it’s been a really hectic time in my life so I didn’t pause to ask for clarification.
I regret not digging in further, as I can now see that my understanding was incorrect. Although Frenkel’s presence is not a breaking point for me, I can absolutely see why it would be that way for others. Additionally, there’s the confusion in this thread about my report and it’s impact on the proceedings. I’ve written about the incident with Frenkel in the past, so when I was asked for the picture and the statement on June 2nd of this year I assumed it would be a factor in the decision. As of right now it may have been, or maybe not. I’m a wee bit unclear and may remain that way in the days ahead. I am not mentioned in the statement so I don’t know what to think. I am being told that it was not ignored. After being told that it wasn’t known. So…make of that what you will.
Mind you, I never actually expected Frenkel to respect a ban from WisCon if one was ever handed down. He’s got that kind of personality from what I have seen and heard that lets one rewrite reality to suit, and WisCon is generally not designed for a mass shunning. But here’s the thing, this all looks bad. Really really incredibly bad. And I don’t think it is supposed to be such a hot ass mess. But it has come out that way, and I’m…whatever the feeling is past anger and sadness. Resigned maybe? Yeah that sounds right. Resigned to the idea that WisCon isn’t going to be a better space any time soon.
Or maybe at all. WisCon bills itself as a feminist sci-fi con. And compared to some others that I have attended, it is definitely better at paying lip service to being feminist than any of them. At times it is even feminist in its approach. But…that doesn’t make it good at it. That doesn’t make it more welcoming, safer, or significantly more adept at making policies than others. Being less awful isn’t the same as being good. So yes, treat WisCon as a fun place to go with your friends, expect to have some great convos, delicious food, and a whole lot of booze. But, don’t expect WisCon to be a safe space. Right now, don’t even expect it to be a better space. Expect it to be less awful. That’s it.
Some really good people who I like a lot as a general rule are on the concom. Some folks I don’t think very highly of are also on the concom. They are all trying to do their best to whatever degree that may factor into your impression of things. Is their best good enough? Well no. Probably not. This wasn’t good enough for me. I don’t object so much to the possible presence of Frenkel at the hotel, as I do to WisCon not stating definitively that his behavior (which let us all be honest isn’t all that unusual at cons) is unacceptable. If a feminist sci-fi con has a problem stating that a pattern of persistent inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated, then aside from panel topics what makes it more feminist than any other? For that matter, I’ve done some of the same panels elsewhere. Because fandom talks about these things in places that are not WisCon. And realistically, what WisCon has just said sounds a lot like “We’re feminist so we can’t be wrong.” Heh, funny how hollow that always sounds. Turns out solidarity might just be for white men.
ETA: So Wiscon has made an apology. It’s not one that I find particularly compelling, especially since I am also on the concom Google group (as I have been since 2009) and I just saw the Member Advocate state that despite having approved the apology wording, they can’t really get “exercised about not including it in the document the subcommittee worked with (though doing so would have been more complete)” though they did share “incidents, letters from people who talked about their discomfort that did not rise to an incident, and letters from members who were distressed” which…oh. OH. Apparently everything else that happened was more relevant than Frenkel’s behavior towards me.
Now, I know that what he did to me was barely actionable from a legal perspective. After all I immediately removed from his reach and have never gone near him again. But come on now, at least pretend to give a damn about what happened to me. Try to feign some concern. Or at least don’t hand out hollow worthless apologies with one hand, while making it clear that some members are definitely worth less to you than others. Yes. I’m angry. No, I’m not so sure I’ll still be going to Wiscon. May is months away, and there are a lot of things that can happen between now and then. Including exploring the potential of a new home con. Because clearly Wiscon isn’t even interested in being a better space. It’s just a hot damned mess.