Gatekeeping, diversity, and Worldcon 76

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Sep 1, 2018, 6:03 PM EDT (Updated)

The World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) is only days away, and after recent tumult, programming seems to be back on track.

Each year, Worldcon serves both as a celebration of Hugo Award winners and as a social gathering for science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts—days are filled with cosplay, gaming, panels, workshops, and more. Worldcon highlights its participatory nature on its website and in marketing, stating that their unique culture brings together “fans and professionals engaging socially in convention program as peers, a welcome contrast to the culture of consumption at many commercial popular-media conventions.”

Despite Worldcon’s intentions, however, a series of harmful choices led several panelists, including Hugo Award nominees and past winners, to withdraw from programming entirely. (Many have since rejoined programming in light of changes made, or clarified that they will be still attending the convention and awards ceremony.)

“I have never felt as disrespected by a convention as I have by @worldcon2018. And not just me, but also my POC and queer community,” author J.Y. Yang tweeted in light of several disturbing incidents.

On July 22, Bogi Takács took to Twitter to call out the Worldcon programming committee for rewriting eir biography to misgender em on the official Worldcon website. (Takács uses Spivak pronouns, e/em/eir/emself.) Program division head Christine Doyle replied claiming she had pulled the biography directly from eir website. Takács has never used he/him pronouns and refuted Doyle’s claim. Worldcon then went on to reach out to Takács’ partner and fellow author, Rose Lemberg, to suggest that Takács should not have gone public with eir concerns.

Willful misgendering certainly harmed and upset not only Takács but also the wider LGBTQ community—to add insult to injury, though, the way in which the whole matter was handled was utterly bizarre.

At almost the exact same time on the same day, Hugo award finalists who had their panels rejected received an email from Worldcon. The email stated, “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” The finalists who were not included just so happened to be predominantly queer and trans folks and people of color. The email went on to say, “We have no panel explaining what #ownvoices is, and I’ve had to field multiple questions essentially asking me, ‘What is that?’ I suspect that *everyone* at WisCon [a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention] is familiar with the hashtag and its significance. I would guess maybe 20% of Worldcon 76 members know what it means.”

Again, bizarre.

On July 23, writer Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, who is deafblind, noted on Twitter that she had not been informed of how to request accessibility accommodations for Worldcon events. Her deeper concern was that others who might need assistance were not aware of how they could request accommodations either. (Worldcon has since assisted Sjunneson-Henry with her accessibility needs.)

Worldcon Chair Kevin Roche issued official apologies to Takács and the entire Worldcon community on behalf of the programming committee. The entire schedule was pulled from the website and recreated to be more inclusive. Several authors who had publicly withdrawn from the programming have since decided to rejoin the convention in the hopes that significant changes have been made.

What is deeply concerning about these events, though, isn’t just what transpired, but the ongoing hostility toward diverse, inclusive, and multicultural programming, authors, and participants. In 2015, a group of Worldcon members, calling themselves the Sad Puppies, bloc-voted for a slate of authors and editors who bucked against multicultural and progressive ideas. The Sad Puppies were able to game the selection process, but all but one of their preferred choices ended up not receiving an award that year. (The Sad Puppies and their offshoot the Rabid Puppies died down in 2017, in part because the nomination process was changed to limit the power of bloc voting.)

Many authors and emerging artists have noted that gatekeepers and “old guard” science fiction and fantasy authors have made the field unwelcoming and outright discriminatory toward LGBTQ, people of color, disabled, and other diverse voices. Look no further than the turmoil of Worldcon 76 to find evidence of gatekeeping—it’s time to let the old guard go and accept that science fiction and fantasy is headed into a bold new world.

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