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How WorldCon Failed Marginalized SF Creators With Programming and Communication

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Alex Acks

Contributing Editor

Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. They've written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bike. Twitter: @katsudonburi Website:

Editor’s note: A sentence regarding panel issues was removed to correct an error.

WorldCon, are you okay? Have you been drinking enough water? I ask, because WorldCon is probably my favorite convention ever, and I’m concerned. Because WorldCon 76, taking place in San Jose in three weeks, seems to be running into some serious internal problems with how they are interfacing with and treating panelists and Hugo nominees. (And WorldCon 76 already had some problems coming from outside, such as one of SF’s sadder trolls getting banned and now trying to sue them.)

This is a problem best taken in parts, trust me, and I will shortly. But if you want the really quick summary, Amal El-Mohtar (The Honey Month and short fiction) has you covered:

The Hugo Dress Code

The first I became aware that something weird was going on was when Renay (co-host of the Fangirl Happy Hour podcast and editor at Lady Business) tweeted about receiving an email about a dress code at the Hugos.

(Picture of the text of the email in this tweet here.)

For those unfamiliar with the Hugo Award ceremony, while many do choose to dress up, in the past there’s by no means been any kind of formalized dress code. Some people in attendance go in every day jeans and t-shirts. Some people have cosplayed. Some people wear tuxedos or fancy dresses. It’s more up to what people feel comfortable doing and what they think is fun.

Comments later in Renay’s thread reveal that this email didn’t go to all of the potential attendees, which seems very strange. But the bigger issue (beyond potential financial hardship when acquiring said clothing) relating to what will be discussed later in this post is that, as Renay points out in the thread, “semi-formal” dress and dress codes in general tend to come with very gendered expectations. This is something almost guaranteed to cause a lot of stress and second-guessing for nonbinary and gender non-conforming attendees.

WorldCon never really settled this in an official way; the WorldCon Twitter account did tweet to Rebecca Roanhorse (author of Trail of Lightning) that yes, historically the Hugos have had a fun, anything-goes kind of dress code. But this kind of clarification didn’t go out as a non-reply tweet; it’s not on the main page of their Twitter account to be seen, and there was also no mention of the original email or why it was sent in the first place.

As a lone incident, this would seem like not a big deal, if an example of apparent behind-the-scenes confusion…but this isn’t an isolated thing.

Accessibility concerns

In the blood-pressure-busting email about the dress code, there was also mention of accessibility needs for the Hugo Ceremony. Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, the first deafblind woman to be nominated for a Hugo (and managing editor of Fireside Magazine), was not among the people who received that email—but she does have accessibility needs. And:

John Picacio then helped her contact the Hugo Coordinators about this and Elsa has now gotten her accessibility needs taken care of. (And if you’re a Hugo Finalist with accessibility needs reading this and you need a hand getting things taken care of, please reach out to Elsa on Twitter DMs.)

While I’m very glad this particular wrinkle has been ironed out with minimal fuss, it’s another strand in this pattern that shows lack of care for marginalized creators (and attendees).

Program Bios

Note: this and the next sections relate to the programming as it was on 7/22/2018. That schedule has since been taken down by the WorldCon staff in order to make alterations. At this time, what changes will be made are not known.

WorldCon has apparently copied bios of panelists/guests from public sources and then altered them, along with taking pictures from places like Facebook rather than using photos requested from panelists. The most egregious of these incidents was the bio of Bogi Takács (editor of Transcendent 3 and the Lambda Award–winning Transcendent 2, and author of short fiction) being altered to change eir pronouns.

An apology has since been offeredafter WorldCon chastised Bogi for being public about this complaint and claimed that no alterations were made to the bio, which is a pretty offensive claim as no public bios of Bogi exist with those incorrect pronouns. And after WorldCon took the bizarre step of emailing Bogi’s spouse, Rose Lemberg (creator of the Birdverse, author of short fiction, and poet), with the apology instead of contacting em directly:

This problem with the bios and photos seems particularly bizarre on its face; normally when you’re on the program at a convention, part of what you are asked to do is submit a third-person bio for yourself and a photo you want used, precisely so no one needs to go hunting for the information and copying it from goodness knows where.

But the bigger issue is the actions of WorldCon prior to the apology—basically trying to shift the blame for this error onto Bogi, and giving em grief for having been public about this problem. These are not actions that build trust or show any understanding that an incredibly upsetting error was made.

Program Items

To note: Greg (author of Voyage of the Dogs) has now corrected that one of his suggested panelists was included.

It may be that it’s not entirely unusual for suggested program items to not be given to the people who suggested them, and for suggested panel make ups to be ignored. But where this becomes a massive issue is when people of color have their panel ideas taken and repurposed to instead feature majority white panelists.

For a panel about food and gender suggested by Nibedita Sen (assistant editor at GlitterShip and author of short fiction), Nibedita specifically asked that the majority of the panelists be people of color due to problems with a similar panel at WisCon, where the white panelists (in the majority there) dominated the discussion and kept it on Eurocentric topics. Even after having this explained to them, WorldCon programming chose to make their version of the panel majority white.

program Snubs

Newer writers, most notably Hugo Finalists, were seriously snubbed for panels on the schedule as it was on 7/22/2018, in favor of more established (and generally whiter) panelists. (Full disclosure from me: I was completely snubbed for WorldCon programming this year too. But I’m also not a Hugo Finalist.)

S. Qiouyi Lu (author of short fiction and editor of Arsenika) noted:

Another data point on this: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (still the first deafblind woman to be nominated for a Hugo!) hasn’t been put on any disability-related programming.

Nibedita Sen wrote an email to programming with some panel suggestions (including one about #OwnVoices) and received in part this response as an explanation for why so many of the finalists weren’t on programming:

(Image reads: “Finally — and this has come up a few times — there’s a generation of amazing Hugo finalists who represent a set of voices that is exciting to nominators, but completely unfamiliar to many folks who will be attending. I can give you a concrete example of this: 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 is familiar with the hashtag and its significance. I would guess maybe 20% of WorldCon 76 members know what it means.”)

  1. If only 20% of attendees would know what #ownvoices is, maybe that’s a good reason to have a panel about it.
  2. The best way to get these Hugo finalists to be familiar to the people who don’t know them is by putting them on programming! And creating programming specifically to introduce them as awesome Hugo finalists!

And yes:

If programming is turning away newer writers because they have too many volunteers, while more established (and mostly white and cis) writers are being given four or six slots in packed and competitive programming, that is a problem. Foz Meadows (author of An Accident of Stars) notes in her own post about this that the head of programming, Christine Doyle, had ended up on six programming items.

JY Yang (author of The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fate) put it well:

It can be incredibly difficult to get on programming at conventions, particularly larger ones. There’s a definite bias toward more established (largely white, cis, straight) writers who are known quantities to convention staff and have established relationships and connections they can work. This effectively freezes out newer writers, particularly marginalized writers who might not have contacts in the con-running community. It’s refreshing, in a weird way, to see it stated so baldly. And it’s incredibly frustrating to over and over see the point completely missed, that this is the opportunity to connect convention attendees (readers!) to new artists and creators.

This is also a professional issue for these newer creators as well. While WorldCon is expensive, it’s still cheaper than attending many writing conferences and paying the fees to get to talk one-on-one with agents or editors. WorldCon is a chance for new creators to meet editors and agents with fewer barriers—and new creators who aren’t award finalists need that even more.

WorldCon has since asked Hugo Finalists who aren’t on programming to contact them directly if they want to be.

What now?

The situation is still ongoing; we’ll see what changes might happen when the WorldCon preliminary schedule comes back online—or when it becomes the full schedule. The WorldCon chair, Kevin Roche, has made a statement over on Facebook, which reads in part:

“I am sorry we slighted and angered so many of the people we are gathering to meet, honor, and celebrate. This was a mistake, our mistake. We were trying to build a program reflecting the diversity of fandom and respectful of intersectionality. I am heartbroken that we failed so completely.

We are tearing the program apart and starting over. It was intended to be a reflection of the cultures, passions, and experiences of Worldcon membership, with room for both new voices and old. What we released yesterday failed to do that; we must do better.”

But even if the schedule experiences significant alterations—and reminder, as of this post we’re only 24 days out from the convention—that doesn’t erase the incidents that caused the scheduling reset. The above events add up to a convention situation that feels unwelcoming (if not downright hostile) toward new and marginalized writers and fans. And to be frank, this is not about one or two individual staffers going rogue, and this is not about wanting individuals who sent emails or edited bios to be punished in the public square. This is also not new or shocking; it’s maybe just a confluence of circumstance and luck that’s caused everything to surface now. Rather, this is a pattern of behavior that has been seen to greater or lesser extent in previous U.S. WorldCons. It’s something you pick up on if you listen and pay attention.

K. Tempest Bradford (author of short fiction and board member of the Carl Brandon Society) explains this well in a Twitter thread starting here:

There’s been an incredible move for support and solidarity, from other WorldCon attendees in reaction to all of this, many of whom are members of marginalized groups themselves. Several authors, including Rose Lemberg, JY Yang, Sarah Gailey (author of River of Teeth), Annalee Newitz (author of Autonomous), Mary Robinette Kowal (author of The Calculating Stars), and N.K. Jemisin (author of The Fifth Season) have stepped out of programming—some to free up room for newer and OwnVoices writers, some because programming doesn’t seem to be a welcoming place. Foz Meadows has offered to trade any programming she’s on with Hugo Finalists that have no panelsJohn Picacio (the WorldCon Artist Guest of Honor and creator of the Mexicanx Initiative, which aims to bring more Mexicanx people to WorldCon this year) has been working overtime to help the situation as best he can and has offered more help to the WorldCon staff for resolving the programming problems. David Bowles (author of Chupacabra Vengeance and member of the Mexicanx Initiative) has spoken eloquently about the need to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ people on Twitter here. There’s many more, too many to fit into an already too-long post.

And there’s now the start of an organized counter-programming mutiny (or guerrilla programming) spearheaded by Alexandra Rowland (author of A Conspiracy of Truths) to try to ameliorate the mistakes made by WorldCon and salvage the situation for the marginalized creators and fans attending.

One can only hope that future WorldCons finally pay attention to what’s been quietly happening (and being complained about) for years, now that it’s concatenated into a social media explosion. Active efforts need to be made for these problems to get better, and for a more fair take on programming and how they treat writers, artists, and fans, whether they’re Hugo Finalists or not, to happen. A more welcoming WorldCon would be bigger, better, and more fun for everyone.

Late-Breaking Update

As of July 24, WorldCon has accepted Mary Robinette Kowal’s offer to help them with programming.

Mary most recently was in charge of programming for this year’s Nebula conference; she discussed her philosophy for putting together convention programming on Twitter in this thread: