Why I Won’t Be Attending Context 28

This post is extremely difficult to write, but I feel these things need to be said, so please bear with me if I digress or rant. I’ll try to keep it simple. (There is a TL;DR at the end if you’re pressed for time or you prefer not to read my rambling.) I’ll also try to keep things as objective and factual as I can, but obviously this is how things happened from my point of view.

Context 27 was an amazing event. I’ve attended Context since I became really serious about writing and I’ve learned more than I can possibly encapsulate here, had the chance to do invaluable networking with other writers, and made friendships I hope will be lifelong. I’ve said many times to many people that it’s my favorite convention. And Context 27, in my opinion, was the best of all the conventions I’ve attended. The volunteers did an astounding job, especially considering the limited resources they were sometimes given. I had an incredible time.

This post is extremely difficult to write.

My friend Lucy Snyder has been volunteering with Context for a long time, something like eight years, and revived the convention from near-death by instituting a very successful workshop program. Last year she was looking for new people to volunteer with the convention committee, and my friend Steve Saus was going to volunteer to be the programming director, so I jumped on board. It was a chance to give back to the convention I loved.

As my expertise lies in marketing and teaching, I had a lot of ideas concerning how Context could reach out to young writers and flesh out its dwindling attendance. Most of these were naysayed at concomm meetings. I was told “We already tried that,” no matter what I proposed. Dealing with certain concomm members became so unpleasant I stopped attending meetings. I developed so much anxiety about volunteering I was stymied. I kept telling everyone I was out of spoons (this was the year I was diagnosed with stress-induced vertigo and high blood pressure; I completed my student teaching; I took my licensure exams; I sought my first teaching job) but this wasn’t really true; I was out of spoons when it came to dealing with the Context concomm. In the end, I took marching orders directly from Steve. I helped organize the Saturday night parties; I bought supplies for the parties; I was on a number of panels; I posted on twitter and facebook and took flyers to libraries and invited a number of my aspiring writer friends to the convention (a couple of whom actually attended). I encouraged next year’s Writer GOH to come to Context. Most of the work I did was minor and behind the scenes. It wasn’t as much as I wanted to do, but it was what I could do this year given my circumstances.

This will all be relevant in a minute; bear with me.

After Context 27, a blogger posted a blog post mentioning that she was harassed at the convention. A volunteer made inappropriate comments to her and a friend in the convention suite. I’m not going to link to that blog post because I think that blogger has received enough negative attention since her post. Though the harassment was mentioned, she went on to detail how amazing every other aspect of the convention was. She stated that she would return despite the incident.

Steve had already received one report of harassment at Context 27. He saw the blog post and contacted the blogger to let her know he was concerned. He also emailed all the attendees, panelists, and guests, asking if they had any experiences with harassment at Context 27 the convention committee should know about. He received several reports of harassment committed by the same individual. At least one report claimed the harassment spanned years. At least one woman was uncomfortable going into the consuite at Context 27 because that was the harasser’s hangout; at least one other said she would not be returning because the harassment was so troubling to her. The reporters asked to remain anonymous.

Steve reported this information to the entire concomm. He probably should have gone directly to the convention chairs instead. He has publicly acknowledged and apologized for this mistake on at least two occasions. Again; this will be relevant in a moment.

The harassment reports made it clear that we had to ban the harasser, especially since one of the complaints was public. Several of us stood up for the targets of harassment and their safety and insisted that the harasser be banned. We had a meeting of the FANACO Board and the Context convention committee (these are separate organizations, with some overlapping membership) where we voted to compromise and ban him for five years, with the option to reapply to attend the convention later. This meeting, at which those of us who supported banning the harasser were interrogated and yelled at and accused of wanting to destroy the convention, was a deeply upsetting meeting for me that had me on the edge of panic for days afterward.

No one was happy with this five-year ban, because the older members of the FANACO Board and certain members of the convention committee did not want the harasser banned at all, and obviously those of us standing up for the harassed felt that he should be banned forever. We couldn’t guarantee anyone’s safety otherwise. Members of the Board and concomm said the following (either in person or via email):

  • The reports should be ignored because the reporters didn’t go through the proper channels (i.e. the reports were made to Steve instead of to the con chairs).
  • The reports should be ignored because Steve accidentally emailed the whole concomm about the reports instead of just the chairs.
  • The reports should be ignored because the reports came in after the convention, rather than immediately.
  • The reports should be ignored because one of them (the most minor) was a public blog post.
  • The reports should be ignored because the targets of harassment wished to remain anonymous and wouldn’t make public their accusations.
  • Banning the harasser was “petty” and “vindictive” and not a precaution to keep convention attendees safe from a known harasser, much less prevent possible future litigation for the convention.
  • The harasser should not be “punished” with banning, because he is elderly and had a stroke and/or too much to drink.
  • All reports about harassment should be ignored without an independent third-party witness.
  • Those of us defending the targets of harassment were trying to destroy the convention with our negativity, refusing to appreciate all the hard work done by the volunteers, focusing only on one bad thing that happened, even though we all stated in person and via email how wonderful we felt Context 27 had been.

I was singled out with Lucy and Steve for a bullying email from a member of concomm who disagreed with us on one occasion; on another, I was singled out alone by one of the convention chairs for verbal abuse when I admitted that I no longer felt safe attending Context if the harassment policy was not going to be enforced. I was the low-hanging fruit because I did not provide any crucial services to the convention this year. I was told that my opinion didn’t matter because I didn’t do enough work for Context 27. The words “how dare you” were actually used.

On the day I received that email, several of my coworkers were laid off, and the stress of being singled out for verbal abuse by someone I thought was a friend on top of the layoffs was simply too much to bear. My blood pressure was sky-high and I could barely walk. I asked to be removed from future email threads and the concomm email list. I quit the concomm, in other words, but I did so quietly, because I don’t believe in flouncing. I made my opinions clear, and it was also clear many members of the concomm and Board had no respect for my opinion and would continue to ignore me or verbally abuse me if I continued to disagree with them. I couldn’t continue to work for an organization that causes me so much stress, even if I had been receiving a paycheck, which of course, I wasn’t.

Let me be clear: I was bullied for standing up for the targets of harassment. I was personally attacked for saying I didn’t feel safe attending the convention if the harassment policy wasn’t enforced. I quit because dealing with the concomm started to negatively impact my health. Since then, Lucy and Steve have both publicly resigned.

I don’t often discuss controversial topics on this blog (okay, I never do that), but this is a blog post I feel must be made. People need to know what went on behind the scenes. They need to know how Steve and Lucy and a few other people stood up for the harassment victims, and were ignored or called names. I’m sure this blog post will open me up for further abuse and harassment. But if I knew there was going to be a serial harasser at a party and the hosts were aware but did nothing, I would warn all my friends not to attend that party. I can’t fail to say something and take the chance that a friend I encouraged to attend Context will be next harassment target. I couldn’t live with myself.

Other writers I like and respect are saying they won’t attend Context 28 because they are signatories to Scalzi’s anti-harassment pledge, and because they’re uncomfortable attending a convention that doesn’t enforce a harassment policy. My reasons are more personal.

I’m not attending Context 28 because, as a survivor of sexual assault, as a woman, as a human being, I don’t feel safe at my favorite convention anymore. I keep wondering what would have happened had I been one of the women who was harassed, or even assaulted. Would my reports be ignored because I waited to report, and had no independent third-party witnesses? In my opinion, instead of vilifying the blogger who brought this to all our attention, the Board and concomm should be thanking her. Who knows how much worse the harassment would have been next time. Who knows what kind of damage that would have done to Context in lost attendance, negative PR, and even possible lawsuits.

As Steve says, this should have been simple.

This post has been very difficult to write. Thank you for enduring my rambling, if you got this far.

I would love to see the people in charge at Context “fix” this problem. But at this point I see only a few options for them if they want their attendees, panelists, and guests to return: ban the serial harasser; publicly apologize for the way they treated (and continue to treat) those of us who stood up for the harassed; and resign from the Board and concomm. I have absolutely zero hope that’s ever going to happen, and I’m devastated by it, especially because Ellen Datlow and Chuck Wendig (next year’s GOHs) were my picks. I was so excited to meet them in person.

Context was my favorite convention. But I guess now that I’ve seen how the sausage is made, I don’t want to eat it anymore.

TL;DR: I am not attending Context 28 because it’s clear the people in charge have no intention of enforcing the harassment policy. I feel unsafe attending, especially after being verbally abused by members of the concomm. I have zero confidence that, were I harassed or even assaulted, my report would be believed or appropriately handled, and that is an unreasonable risk for any convention to ask me to take.

9 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Be Attending Context 28

  1. This sounds familiar to what WisCon went through (luckily we were able to go in a different direction than Context seems to be going). Thank you for standing up for victims and survivors. I’m sorry you were treated so badly.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I actually used the Wiscon fiasco as an example of how this was handled badly and was told off for it by the con chair who attacked me. I’m glad Wiscon is recovering from its difficulties! It would be an especial pity for that particular con to be taken down by a situation like this.

  2. Thank you for bravely stating your opinion in the open, so no one can go behind your back and claim you did X or Y. It’s important to be able to have open discourse about such serious matters. 🙂

  3. Thanks for posting this. I only knew that there was an issue because I’d added the Context twitter feed, and had believed it had been dealt with according to their policies.

    This is why it’s so important to raise your voice when you see something you believe to be wrong. One person upset or resigning over the way this was handled can be ignored or missed. A chorus of voices speaking out is exponentially stronger.

  4. I am the blogger who started it all. I want to thank you for standing up for me. As someone who also suffers anxiety and depression, and who has endured much worse than “mere” sexual harassment {“mere” in quotes because we both know there’s nothing “mere” about it}, I understand who difficult it must have been for you. So, thank you. Seriously. I wrote up a post about my current feelings on the sitch, and I started to post it here, but I realized this isn’t the place for it. This is the place for me to express my gratitude that there are people willing to stand up for me. I honestly cannot thank you enough.

    • Thank YOU. I read your most recent blog post and it was amazing. I’m in awe. I hope we can meet up at a convention sometime (maybe at whatever rises from the ashes of Context?) and have a drink, or lunch, or just some laughs. You’re so brave and eloquent and fierce and fandom needs more women like you!

      • Gurl, with a response like THAT, drinks are definitely on ME! I, too, hope we get a chance to meet up. I have a hug with your name all over it.

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