I had a really good time at ConFusion, and I am planning to go back next year. My friends are great. The programming was lovely. Yay concom. Yay ConFusion. I put that at the beginning so that you will have the context: general positive feeling, sense that the con has handled things well and is a good place to be, overall.
So let’s talk about my second panel, Disaster Response in SFF. I was moderating. A gentleman in the audience had enough of the free-flowing discussion provided by the panelists, apparently. He did not wait for Q&A or even raise his hand. He just jumped right in, interrupting the panel to lecture us with a long, hostile, rambling comment on his own theories of where this panel should go and how wrong we all were for not going there.
When we tried to address this gently but firmly, the individual was having none. He leapt into the lack-of-breach again to angrily and belligerently espouse his viewpoint. It was fairly clear that he felt that he got to direct the content of the panel, that not only did he get a voice but that he got it whenever he wanted and to the exclusion of the people who were actually on the panel, and that we were offending his sensibilities by having our panel discussion instead of the one he controlled.
At that point I had had enough and instructed him that it was time for him to let the panelists return to our discussion. With visible incredulity, he asked, “Are you cutting me off?” I told him that, as I had never called on him in the first place, I was indeed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden was one of the panelists, and he backed me up and pointed out that it was not Q&A period and not his turn to talk. This man got up and stormed out in a huff.
He went down to complain to ops about me, volubly and at length.
Meanwhile, the panel went on with some spirit, and at the end of the actual Q&A an audience member (note: not a plant!) used their turn to talk to call for a round of applause for my moderating. People kept thanking me for how I handled it. Nice of them. I note this because I was not the one who was honestly shocked at how extreme and persistent his behavior was. This was not Standard Fannish Interruption.
The same guy came into the Visions of Positive Masculinity panel to make a very similar political point. For some reason, he was able to 1) wait until the Q&A portion of the panel; 2) phrase his idea in the form of a brief and civil question; 3) not pitch a fit and storm out even though the panelists on that panel openly mocked him. The moderator of that panel has in my estimate at least six inches of height on me. He is male. All the other panelists on that panel were also male, of varying sizes and shapes. He did not complain about any of them despite the fact that they basically dismissed his idea with derisive laughter.
Okay. So. I talked to some friends, some of whom were involved with the concom/staff, and given what I was saying and what they were hearing about his behavior, they encouraged me to file an incident report. ConFusion’s ops team did everything right here. Everything. They made sure that I was seated comfortably, offered water, offered my choice of report formats (written or out loud), that I had a person with whom I was comfortable with me for the whole time, that I could discuss my statement rather than just turning it in and not knowing whether it was getting any attention. They asked after my safety and comfort and what would make me feel safe and comfortable going forward at the con.
Here’s what felt like a sea change to me. Here’s what makes me write about this: they did not minimize OR maximize response. They were proactively interested in an incident of someone being rude and disruptive. At that point I was hoping that just having the incident report on file would be enough, that not having further confrontation would allow this person to go on with his con and simmer down, focus on time with friends, other panels, etc.
That person came to the next panel I was on, Saturday morning, and the moderator (not me) was very firm about what type of questions and commentary would and would not be allowed. The disruptive man followed me out of the room after the panel. I was leaving with two male friends. He sort of lurked in the elevator lobby glaring at me and then left. He was associated with a particular fan group that must gather somewhere, but I don’t know where: I didn’t see them around con space much, and they’re visible as a group. So that allowed me to relax somewhat, knowing that this guy was off with his buddies, (I hoped) settling himself down and focusing on something else. (Turns out nope. But I hoped.)
I’m going to be careful about how I put this next part, because it’s not my story to tell: he approached someone involved with the con to complain about me again on Sunday morning. Please note that the original incident was Friday afternoon and that I did not say or do another thing related to him. But Sunday morning he felt the need to approach someone to lodge another complaint that I would not let him disrupt the Friday afternoon panel. This is the part where I feel the need to be vague: his behavior then escalated with that person. It is being handled. His continued fixation and escalation are disturbing to me, and I’m very glad that the concom/persons formally associated with the con are handling it well thus far, as well as, of course, very grateful for my friends and their support. (Oh friends. Oh, thank you, thank you, friends.)
So here’s why I’m posting this:
1. This would have been a totally different experience at many cons. I didn’t go to ConFusion ten years ago, but I expect it would have been a totally different experience at ConFusion ten years ago. There used to be a reluctance in fandom to handle anything formally. Don’t come into my mentions saying, “Not at MY con,” because you know very well it’s true, there was ALWAYS a reluctance to handle anything formally that was not a direct assault charge (and sometimes even then). “Are you sure you want to make a thing of this” was practically a mantra, and we all knew it. The difference between a convention that went into “are you really going to make us deal with this?” mode and a convention that did not want to escalate but also understood that this was in fact theirs to deal with was astonishing.
And it did not require assuming that any of the bad behaviors were definitely going to get worse at any point. I am frustrated with how often discussions of bad behavior at cons–sexual harassment or other behaviors–behave as though it’s a binary system, wherein people are cast into the outer darkness at the first peep, the first nasty glare. The only bad thing that happened to this man before his last escalation was that nobody allowed him to disrupt a panel and recenter it on his own views. That’s it. That was his negative consequence. But my positive consequence was that I knew that the convention had my back if things got worse.
Yes, I had my friends. I am so very, very grateful for my friends. But my friends and I could go on with our con without them making up a guard roster wherein I never went up to my room to drop my coat off alone, never dashed for a panel leaving one group of friends in the lobby to meet up with another in programming space. When you’ve had a bad interaction and the person from it turns up in the places he can easily find you, follows you out of them…that’s the sort of precaution your friend-group starts to assemble in a double-quick hurry.
I’ve had to be escorted everywhere for disability reasons, before I was cleared to use my cane on bad vertigo days. It comes with pitfalls. Among them: are you going to lean on your absolute closest friends for every single escort duty? If not, are the outer circle group members you’ve just met actually as trustworthy as you hope? (Answer from past experience: no. No they are not. Some of them will use this opportunity to do things to you on the theory that, hey, it’ll be better than what you’re afraid of from other people.) But even aside from that, it’s annoying. And it’s the sort of thing that adults should not have to do in a public place.
There have always been real consequences to people in my position for experiencing something like this. When you’re running an event like this, you get to choose whether there are real consequences to people in his position.
2. This was not sexual harassment. But it was gendered.
The person he approached to complain about me on Sunday was, like me, wearing some of the trappings of traditional femininity. The people who laughed in his face Friday afternoon with no complaints, no consequences to themselves? All male. All male and all masculine. And yes, I was the moderator on my panel–but he didn’t say a word about Patrick cheerfully saying, “Bye!” to him as he departed, or about Patrick backing up my moderating. There was no complaint about Patrick. It was all me.
I’ll cope with it. That’s fine. But see it for what it is.
Dealing with sexual harassment in convention spaces is hugely important. It has been hugely important for me personally. But don’t for a moment make the mistake of thinking that it is the only gendered interaction that matters. And don’t think for a moment that the dynamic would be the same if he’d decided to turn up glaring with Patrick or treat a male concom member the way he did the person on Sunday. It’s no accident he didn’t try–and so conventions need to be equally deliberate in their handling of this sort of thing. ConFusion was, and I thank them for it.
3. If our situations had been reversed, I would have had the same options as the early part of his behavior. Let me repeat that: in his position. I could have tried exactly the same things and seen what would have resulted.
Let me explain.
Let’s say that I was in the audience of a panel where the panelists were, instead of talking about how people tend to pull together in times of disaster (our actual topic of discussion, that offended him so), talking about something that offended my sensibilities to the point where I had to speak out. Let’s say I was in the audience of a panel about moderating, for example! And they were saying that women are just not capable of moderating well because we’re too weak!
I would absolutely have the option of speaking out of turn. Of not waiting for the Q&A portion of the panel to open my mouth and say, wow, you are so wrong, that could not be wrong-er. The moderator could then shut me down. And then I could take my complaint to ops and explain to them what happened, give them my side of the story, and they could decide what they felt their convention’s stance was on a moderator behaving in that fashion.
And if the con decided that yes, that’s fine, that’s who we are as a con, I could take my woes to my friends, to the internet, etc. and explain what happened, what I said, what they said, what everyone’s position was. It’s the part where you then follow the person, attempt to intimidate the person, lodge repeated complaints about behavior that has not changed, and escalate with other people about their original behavior that really is…not an acceptable option.
This dude’s position, as near as I can describe it, was that fiction is boring if people treat each other decently. He brought that position to Disaster Relief in SFF and to Positive Visions of Masculinity. His other de facto position seemed to be that if some woman was running the panel he shouldn’t have to wait to talk, and that her making him wait his turn was intolerable enough to ruin his entire weekend and make a stab at ruining the weekends of others.
He didn’t succeed at the last part. And that was substantially because the ConFusion staff and concom did not let it. Also my friends did not let it and I did not let it. But: you have to decide for yourself what’s worth breaking the rules of discourse. You can’t be surprised if other people don’t agree with you if you don’t give them a good solid reason to agree with you. If you break the rules of discourse, you deal with the consequences of breaking those rules, even if you are in the right.
I understand that by posting about this, I risk having some people come in and argue with me, because I have used words like “angry” and “hostile” that require me to evaluate tone and behavior and allow people who were not present to decide that I must automatically be wrong. Perhaps he was not staring at me angrily when he followed me to the elevator lobby! Perhaps his face is always like that and he just had to be there! Perhaps the escalation I have not specified was utterly innocent also! (Hint: it was not.) Perhaps I am a sensitive snowflake who was utterly in the wrong and he is utterly in the right and everything would be fine if only I had not messed it up and then pointed out that it was messed up! Well. I am tired of that, and I’m not doing it any more.
I understand that some of you are very nervous that you won’t be able to read tone, either in yourself or in other people. That you will get deemed A Bad Person for reasons that you do not understand, and cast into the outer darkness thereby. Please note that that is not what happened here. If all that had happened is that this person had gotten angry and rude in my panel and stormed out–all of which, I grant, are tone readings–I would not be posting now. There were multiple escalations throughout the weekend. And still I have not declared him to be A Bad Person. Nor, you will note, have I named him to the internet. What I have done is named his behavior. More than that, I have described the excellent and supportive behavior of the convention–that latter is why I am posting in the first place.
I have a dear friend who spends a great deal of time turning backflips trying to come up with reasons why someone’s bad behavior might not be bad. Or why it might not be as bad as it seems. And I keep having to explain to him that what this means is that he is shifting the badness to other people, specifically to the people who were affected by it. That if it’s fine for someone much larger than me to complain about me doing my designated job, then follow me and glower at me, then it follows that I am being unreasonable to object to this.
We’d all like to think that conventions will handle the big dramatic cases well–the cases where police ought to be called, basically, the cases that make a harrowing story. (We’d like to think that. We’re often wrong, but let that pass.) This is not a harrowing story. It was mildly alarming, not terrifying. But I think that in some ways the edge cases are a different kind of difficult because they’re so easy to second guess. I really appreciate ConFusion’s willingness to sort this out as a case that wasn’t obvious and dramatic–as a case that could easily, if he had made different choices, have languished as a couple of incident reports from different perspectives and some eyerolling subtweets. They allowed room for everyone to make better choices from his initial bad ones, while still supporting me and making me feel safe and not making me feel like a constant burden on my friends. Having been at conventions where I had far less confidence about far worse incidents, I appreciate that more than I can say.