WisCon 40 – a belated report

WisCon deviled eggs that are pink and arranged on a white plate

At WisCon, we eat pink. Ahem. These deviled eggs are pink through the magic of beet juice. And check the tiny bacon.

WisCon is, as far as I know, science fiction’s longest-running effort to smash the kyriarchy in convention form. Every Memorial Day weekend, about a thousand people gather in Madison, Wisconsin to talk about the intersections of science fiction and social justice – and to eat cheese, let’s be real.

I’ve attended WisCon for 6 or 7 years now, and it’s been amazing to watch folks continue to try to make this specific space into something better. The con is absolutely far from perfect; there are issues every year. (Way to sell it, right?) But I appreciate that there’s an engaged group who are working to improve the WisCon experience for folks who all too often get ignored and abused in con spaces.

And but so, my con report.

WisCon Writers’ Workshop

This year, I went a little mad with power. Instead of just attending a WisCon Writers’ Workshop session – historically a critique session on Friday morning before the con properly starts – I volunteered to run the Workshop. That means I spent all of the year previous organizing group leaders, doing promotional work, and revamping the philosophy behind the Workshop.

I talked a bunch of people into doing a bunch of stuff; in addition to the critique sessions, which are great, we were also able to offer some how-to sessions about stuff like video games and comic books. There was even a session centered around fan fic!

If you were there and you had a good time, thank you so much for being part of the Workshop this year. If you had a crap time, whew, I am so sorry. Let me know how I can fix it for next year because plans are already in the works.

Panels

Listen, if you’ve got the chance to see Mikki Kendall and Justine Larbalestier cackle together about serial killers and psychopaths, I’m going to suggest you take it. They’re hella fun – and  they know their stuff. Particularly interesting is the reminder that women are often not labeled as psychopaths, nor are they clocked as serial killers because the pathology is all built around men who have been caught.

I also attended a Class Basics panel on the strength of the panelists and there was some great discussion – though, I have to admit, I burst into tears while trying to ask a question about how we ought to be forcing complexity into discussions of class. Particularly when it comes to our own backgrounds. Tears aside, it was very good, and Julia Starkey raised some super important concerns about the way even con attendees at a convention that bills itself as being social justice focused treat people of color in positions of service. More about that later.

There was also yet another Fat Characters In Sci Fi Panel and, honestly, I attended this because I had friends on the panel. It’s a tough topic because there aren’t a whole lot of fat characters in sci fi, and while I appreciate that there’s enough interest in the discussion for people to keep proposing it as a panel topic – and I also appreciate that there was good attendance by people of all sizes! – I also wonder if we need to reframe the question because, whew, it’s tough to keep that discussion going given the limitations.

Controversy

I kind of hate to use that as a heading – but it also seems appropriate and as I have gotten older, I’ve gotten less prone to mince words. There is a ideological shift taking place at WisCon and transitions are almost always hard.

Other write-ups have described events so I’m not going to rehash what’s been covered – you should go read the words by the people most impacted. Instead, I’ll sum up: racism and classism continue to be an issue, particularly when you’re dealing with both in the same room, like a con suite that was primarily staffed by women of color who were volunteering their time. It’s not charitable to wish people had choked on their entitled expectations – but I’m not always charitable, I guess.

Y’all, if you’re being served free food by volunteers, say your pleases and your thank yous. Adulting may be hard but there’s no excuse for treating someone who is a service worker like shit.

This was mirrored in the way people treated hotel employees – who, COINCIDENTALLY I AM SURE, also happen to be mostly people of color. Especially given the amazing speech by Katherine Cross at Opening Ceremonies that addressed so passionately the importance of trade unions and why we are privileged to hold our con at the Madison Concourse, the only unionized hotel in Madison, there’s some damn irony in WisCon attendees treating hotel staff poorly.

None of this is a generational schism, though I think it is easy to perceive it as such. Instead, I think it’s about methodology, about moving away from the way things have been done for years because the way things have been done for years doesn’t adequately address the needs of newer attendees – the power structure has to be responsive.

Verdict

What it comes down to is where we as a convention want to place our energy. I’m with the camp who want to make WisCon explicitly safer and more welcoming for folks who aren’t usually centered at cons. I want people of color and trans folks and disabled people and people who live at the intersection of all kinds of identities to feel like WisCon sees and values their presence in science fiction and science fiction fandom and science fiction community.

What this means specifically as a white person is sitting down and putting my perceived needs a whole lot lower on the priority list. WisCon has always been safe for me, as long as I’ve been going – supporting a framework that helps create that safety for others in a way that is meaningful and desired by them is what WisCon has to do better.

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