Convention pledges in theory and practice

At this year’s World Fantasy Convention (which I attended) there were a number of accessibility problems. This is not the first time a convention has failed in this way. Several fans, including Mari Ness, have said publicly that they will not attend conventions without published accessibility policies and basic, professional practices to ensure they’re followed. Mary Robinette Kowal has a pledge on her website which many writers have co-signed.

My first instinct was to co-sign as well, immediately. The lack of accessibility at conventions is obviously unacceptable. But I took a few days (after the first declarations started showing up on Twitter) to think about the pledge first. I didn’t want it to be an empty promise. I wanted to be sure I’d be able to keep it. I needed to think through the implications, and the possible unintended consequences, and then make my choice.

Today, I did sign the pledge.

This blog post is an attempt to express my thought process over the last few days.

Let’s back up to 2013, when John Scalzi posted an anti-harassment policy on his website and many writers, including me, co-signed.

Again, this seems like a no-brainer: If conventions are not going to develop serious policies about harassment, and back them up, then I have no desire to participate.

In practice, though, the follow-up can be more complicated. Take this year’s World Fantasy as an example. World Fantasy caps membership, and the price goes up over time, so it makes sense to buy memberships early. When I bought mine, in June 2014, there was no harassment policy as yet. Given that the convention was a year and a half away, I didn’t give much thought to that. The whole convention was notional at that point.

But then the convention got closer. The actual, full harassment policy was eventually published — after the refund date had passed. And it was abysmal.

This left people like me in a bit of a quandary. I had signed the pledge, and I meant to honour that. But how? I couldn’t actually get a refund, so if I just didn’t go, the convention would get my money anyway, and I am not important enough that anyone would notice my absence. I wasn’t assigned to any programming, so I didn’t have any leverage that way. I wasn’t sure whether to barcon (not register but hang out at the bar), or just not go and swallow the costs, or what. Some people were talking about going but protesting in some way.

Kameron Hurley wrote a thoughtful blog post explaining why she doesn’t generally sign boycott pledges. Her points were that these pledges tend to hurt up-and-coming writers the most, the very people who can’t afford to miss professional appearances — and that bad policies are designed to keep people like her out.

Unless you are super famous, or you get a critical mass (perfectly possible! Go you!), the reality is that my voice not being at a venue is the point of such laws and non-policies.

Her points are valid.

But speaking only for myself: My reason to insist on anti-harassment policies has almost nothing to do with me, with the question of whether they’re going to keep my voice out. Ain’t no shutting me up. But while I might be fine with assuming disproportionate risk to show up and mouth off, I can’t just accept that such an assumption of disproportionate and unjust risk is the price of admission, that my friends and colleagues have to choose between their own safety and their careers — and this applies to both harassment and accessibility.

And the thing is, World Fantasy did change their policy. Not very satisfactorily, but it was frankly faster and better than I expected, given the organizational and communication problems I’d seen with the convention as a whole. (Conventions are run by hard-working volunteers, and I am grateful for their work, but this convention did have a number of issues.) The fact that many writers did make their displeasure known (and threaten to withdraw from programming) changed the organizers’ behaviour, quickly. If the Scalzi pledge hadn’t gone through the community a couple of years before, would that awareness have been so widespread? Would that resolve have been so strong?

Maybe we won’t all keep our pledges perfectly. Maybe we’ll disagree on the interpretation or the implementation. But they’re statements of intent, and mine is one that I intend to keep seriously according to my own judgment.

So, yes, I think it’s quite possible that I could find myself missing out on a professional opportunity because of the accessibility pledge. But you know what? So would my friends who use scooters or canes or wheelchairs. It’s all very well for me to shake my fist and say “you can’t keep us out!” — but in a very physical way, for many of us, they can. “Let’s all just show up! Then they’ll be sorry!” is a pledge of a kind too, and it requires women who fear for their safety to pledge to put themselves in harm’s way, or people who need a ramp or an elevator to take the stairs and put their bodies on the line.

Unless we instead, take a different pledge, and refuse to go unless we all can.

Edited to add: I meant to link to this excellent post by Andrea Phillips about how conventions’ policies, or lack thereof, are often signs of how well run they are. And hey, we are paying to go to these, after all: “I really can’t afford to go to a lousy convention.”

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