Conference anti-harassment work in SF&F, 2014 edition: N. K. Jemisin's speech, Hugo battles, Frenkel saga & more

[Trigger warning for sexual harassment and assault]

Smiling woman

N. K. Jemisin, award-winning author and leader in the SF&F anti-harassment movement

It has been an eventful year for the SF&F community, to say the least! In the Ada Initiative’s 2013 history of anti-harassment campaigns we wrote: “Sometimes fighting harassment and assault at conferences feels like a losing battle. For every step forward, it seems like there’s another step back.

2014 was no exception to that rule: a powerful editor and long-time serial harasser returned to the conference most people thought he was banned from, award-winning author N. K. Jemisin gave another game-changing Guest of Honor speech, and the Hugo awards became a battleground for the future of SF&F, to name just a few events.

Keep reading for our updated history of conference anti-harassment work in the SF&F community, adding the events from August 2013 to August 2014. Part of anti-harassment work is giving credit where credit is due, so we hope you take a minute to read through and honor the many different voices that have worked hard to make SF&F more welcoming, sometimes without recognition or fanfare for years. This entire post is licensed CC BY-SA the Ada Initiative – please feel free to reuse and remix according to the terms of the license!

Remember: Conference anti-harassment campaigns do work – they “just” take several years of dedicated effort to succeed.

Table of contents

  1. About the authors
  2. Summary of the SF&F anti-harassment campaign
  3. Detailed timeline (skip to the updates)
  4. What’s changed in 2014
  5. How you can help
  6. Sources and resources

About the authors

Mary and Valerie laughing

Mary and Valerie
(CC BY-SA Adam Novak)

As a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture, the Ada Initiative cares deeply about ending harassment in geek communities. Our co-founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, co-authored the most widely used example anti-harassment policy, hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki. The Ada Initiative’s first project was advocating full-time for the adoption of policies in the open source community, often working directly with conference organizers and community leaders as advisors and coaches.

If you find our work inspiring, we hope you will join SF&F authors and fans in supporting the Ada Initiative’s anti-harassment work. We can only do this work with the support of people like you!

Donate now

History of the science fiction and fantasy campaign

The big picture: In 2010, Sexual harassment, stalking, and groping were common. Serial sexual harassers operated with impunity. The feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, was one of the only SF&F cons with an anti-harassment policy.

In 2014, over 1000 people have pledged to attend only SF&F cons with anti-harassment policies, many cons have policies, and several serial harassers have been publicly identified, banned from conferences, and/or fired from their SF&F jobs. However, some people charged with the protection of attendees have not educated themselves about existing anti-harassment work, and voices for diversity and justice in SF&F are subject to terrible attacks. In terms of our terminology for stages of anti-harassment campaigns, SF&F is somewhere around Stage 5–6: Most conferences have strong, enforced anti-harassment policies and powerful harassers are being publicly named, with attendant backlash.

Detailed timeline:

Smiling woman wearing glasses

Connie Willis CC BY-SA Ellen Levy Finch

August 2006: At the WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention, Harlan Ellison gropes Connie Willis’ breast on stage during the Hugo awards ceremony (both are Hugo-award winning authors), kicking off extensive online discussion about sexual harassment in the SF&F community.

April 2008: At Penguicon, a hybrid science fiction and Linux convention, attendees create The Open Source Boob Project, in which some attendees wore buttons to signal whether they are open to requests to touch them sexually. The creator later had a change of heart and publicly stated that he thought the project did more harm than good by causing women to feel unsafe.

Vito Excalibur suggests the idea that becomes the Open Source Back Each Other Up Project, focusing on anime and comic conventions. This is a pledge by individuals to intervene if they see harassment occurring.

Geek Feminism LogoMay 2008: The Geek Feminism Wiki is founded by Alex “Skud” Bayley (formerly Kirrily Robert), becoming a go-to resource for feminists in a variety of geeky areas, including science fiction, computing, fandom, anime, computer gaming, cosplay, and more. Mary Gardiner becomes a major contributor to the Geek Feminism Wiki.

July 2008: Genevieve Valentine reports on harassment of several women at ReaderCon. The offender was quickly ejected from the conference.

August 2008: launches the Con Anti-harassment Project, focusing on comic, anime, and fandom conventions. members include Karen Healey and Hannah Dame, who were listed on the press release for the CAHP launch. Several conventions adopt a policy shortly thereafter.

January 2009: Racefail, an SF&F-wide discussion of race in SF&F works and criticism, and of fans of color and their experiences in fandom, begins. Several hundred posts (as listed by Seeking Avalon and rydra-wong) are contributed by many writers.

May 2009: WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention, adopts a clear and specific anti-harassment policy after having a more generic one for many years earlier, in response to an incident of harassing photography.

The Geek Feminism Wiki page “Timeline of Incidents” is started. This page records the sexist incidents in geek communities and currently goes back as far as 1973. The Timeline of Incidents, along with the rest of the Geek Feminism Wiki, eventually become vital resources in the fight for anti-harassment policies.

A woman with raised eyebrows wearing glasses

K. Tempest Bradford
(CC BY K. Tempest Bradford)

August 2009: The Geek Feminism Blog is founded by Alex “Skud” Bayley and many others, with frequent contributions from Mary Gardiner, Liz Henry, Terri Oda, K. Tempest Bradford, and many others. With a firm moderation policy, this blog becomes a safe space to discuss geeky and/or feminist topics, including fandom, technology, and activism.

The Backup Ribbon Project is created by thatwordgrrl. The idea is to wear a ribbon indicating that you are willing to help victims of harassment, either by intervening or by assisting them after the fact.

[ENORMOUS GAP HERE PLEASE HELP US FILL IT: Email or leave a comment.]

A black and white photo of Jim C. Hines, smiling with his arms crossed

Jim C. Hines

November 2010: Jim C. Hines creates a set of resources for reporting sexual harassment in SF&F, updated yearly. The 2013 version is here.

July 2012: Genevieve Valentine reports harassment at ReaderCon from René Walling, a well-known fan. ReaderCon bans him from the con for 2 years, in contravention to their stated policy of a lifetime ban. Hundreds of blog posts and petitions protesting this decision followed, as well as more reports of harassment by René Walling as well as other Readercon attendees, from Kate Kligman, Veronica Schanoes, and others.

August 2012: The ReaderCon board issues an apology, bans René Walling for life, and resigns en masse. Led by Rose Fox and Crystal Huff, the Readercon convention committee commits to many improvements on its anti-harassment policy and its enforcement.

Dragon*Con bans Backup Ribbons from the Backup Ribbon Project, citing concerns that harassers might wear them.

September 2012: Scott Henry writes an article for Atlanta Magazine documenting that Dragon*Con co-founder Ed Kramer has evaded trial for child molestation for years. Kramer continues to receive part of the Dragon*Con profits each year.

Smiling woman

Award-winning author N. K. Jemisin

November 2012: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) issue a a statement defining their sexual harassment policy and specifying that it applies to all SFWA events.

June 2013: N. K. Jemisin gives her Guest of Honour speech at Continuum 9.

So I propose a solution — which I would like to appropriate, if you will allow, from Australia’s history and present. It is time for a Reconciliation within SFF.

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps — some symbolic, some substantive — to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

Within days, SF&F writer and community member Theodore Beale denounces Jemisin in deeply racist and sexist terms on his blog, which he then syndicated to the Science Fiction Writers of America Twitter account (@SFWAuthors). SFWA apologises and bans Beale from syndicating blog posts to their account. <a href=”Jim C. Hines and Amal El-Mohtar, among others, call for his expulsion from the SFWA.

Smiling woman

Mary Robinette Kowal © 2012 Rod Searcey

June 2013: In what appeared to be a watershed moment, Science fiction editor James Frenkel leaves Tor shortly after being reported for sexual harassment at WisCon 2013 by Elise Matthesen. Elise announced what she had done, without naming the editor in question, in simultaneous posts on the blogs of Mary Robinette Kowal, Seanan McGuire, Chuck Wendig, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, and Jim Hines. Shortly thereafter, Sigrid Ellis names Frenkel in a comment on John Scalzi’s blog post. Mary Robinette Kowal names Frenkel and details all the reasons why someone might be afraid to name him in “Why I am I afraid to name the editor?K. Tempest Bradford reminds everyone that “high level people at Tor have been aware of Frenkel’s behavior for years.More revelations about sexual harassment in SF&F, both by Frenkel and others, follow.

July 2013: Science fiction author John Scalzi pledges not to attend conferences without strong, specific anti-harassment policies and asks others to co-sign. N. K. Jemisin makes an important clarification that harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. Over 1000 people co-sign the pledge.

Mary Robinette Kowal posts an open letter to the “Twelve rabid weasels of SFWA” in which she reveals that she “spent four years in office [at the SFWA] and the first year I almost quit because I got so tired of getting hate mail.” The post included gems such as “I know, I know. Asking you not to be racist/sexist/elitist, or just for impulse control is tantamount to fascism and catering to the liberal mob. All the other members manage to do it. Why can’t you?” and “Please quit. And by ‘quit’ I mean, please quit SFWA in a huff. Please quit noisily and complaining about how SFWA is censoring you for asking you to stop using hate speech. Please quit and complain about the ‘thoughtcrime’ of asking people not to sexually harass someone.”

PC Monster card for N. K. Jemisin

The PC Monsters of SFWA Twitter list is created, to mock members of the SFWA, described as “screeching feminists.” Instead, people use it as a “Who to follow” list (DL Thurston made a copy here), and at least some members of the list suddenly gain dozens of new followers. Jim C. Hines creates collectable playing cards to commemorate the honor. The list includes Laura Resnick (@LaResnick), William Alexander (@williealex), Jess Haines (@Jess_Haines), Myke Cole (@MykeCole), Michael Swirsky (@mbswirsky), Josh Vogt (@JRVogt), Jim C. Hines (@jimchines), Amal El-Mohtar (@tithenai), Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed), Sean Wallace (@oldcharliebrown), Alex D MacFarlane (@foxvertebrae), N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin), Steven Gould (@StevenGould), Jason Sanford (@jasonsanford), and John Scalzi (@scalzi).

Dragon*Con finally gets rid of child molester and cofounder Ed Kramer by buying out his share of Dragon*Con.

August 2013: Theodore Beale is expelled from the SFWA for using it to promote hate speech, including racism.

January 2014: Amal El-Mohtar argues strongly against on-going “hand-wringing” over self-promotion of an author’s eligible works for awards because it harms marginalized people the most, especially women and people of color.

February 2014: Dave Truesdale circulates a petition calling for the end of “political correctness” in the SF&F community (by which he means a return to cover art of sexualized women and women conforming to 1950’s era gender roles). Science fiction luminaries Gregory Benford, Robert Silverberg, Barry N. Malzberg, and Mike Resnick sign the original petition. A significantly rewritten petition calling mainly for a set of rules around editorial decisions at the SFWA is signed by many more award-winning authors, including David Brin, Jerry Pournelle, Nancy Kress, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, C. J. Cherryh, and Larry Niven. Natalie Luhrs posts a detailed critique of the original petition.

Sean Fodera criticizes author Mary Robinette Kowal for fighting sexism while simultaneously publishing photos of herself wearing a romantic dress. He later apologizes.

The “Women Destroy Science Fiction” Kickstarter to fund an all-women issue of LIGHTSPEED Magazine raises over $50,000 – more than 10 times the original goal. It is expanded to create all-women issues of fantasy and horror as well.

April 2014: Larry Correia and Theodore Beale recommend a “Sad Puppy” slate of works to voters in the 2014 Hugo awards, comprising largely politically conservative or “golden age”-style science fiction works. John Scalzi recommends assessing all the works on their own merits; his position is criticised by Shweta Narayan and Arachne Jericho among others for exposing marginalised Hugo voters to hurtful and dangerous sentiments.

May 2014: N. K. Jemisin gives her Guest of Honor speech at WisCon 38, directly addressing Beale’s attacks on her, saying that:

… I was premature in calling for a reconciliation. Reconciliations are for after the violence has ended. In South Africa the Truth & Reconciliation Commission came after apartheid’s end; in Rwanda it started after the genocide stopped; in Australia reconciliation began after its indigenous people stopped being classified as “fauna” by its government. Reconciliation is a part of the healing process, but how can there be healing when the wounds are still being inflicted? How can we begin to talk about healing when all the perpetrators have to do is toss out dogwhistles and disclaimers of evil intent to pretend they’ve done no harm?

Despite last year’s harassment complaints, WisCon allows Jim Frenkel both to attend and to volunteer in the consuite. After the end of the conference, WisCon pledges a response to complaints about Frenkel’s presence.

A women wearing a face shield and holding jewelry wire and tools

Elise Matthesen making jewelry, by Sarah Ahiers

June 2014: Both Lauren Jankowski and Elise Matthesen announce publicly that WisCon has told them their 2013 harassment reports concerning Jim Frenkel had been lost by the con committee. Jankowski also reports that she had falsely been led to believe Matthesen had asked for Frenkel not to be banned.

Deirdre Saoirse Moen criticises a piece that Leah Schnelbach has written for valorising Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB) on the basis that MZB had been complicit in her husband Walter Breen’s sexual abuse of children within the SF&F fandom community. In June and July, MZB’s adult children Moira and Mark Greyland give survivor accounts of MZB’s own abuse of them.

The full text of the zine The Great Breen Boondoggle, with explicit contemporary accounts of Breen’s abuse of children in the early 1960s together with the Berkeley fandom community’s discussion over whether to expel him, is made available on Wikia, causing fans to reflect on how many of the fallacies the Berkeley community fell into, particularly the fallacy that ostracism is evil — “We’re all kooks. Walter is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?”, “…if we do such a horrible thing as expelling him, I’ll quit fandom.” — are still widespread and causing harm in fandom fifty years later.

July 2014: WisCon’s subcommittee reviewing Jim Frenkel’s continued attendance at WisCon announces a four year ban for Frenkel with apparent “parole” for good behaviour. Their decision is roundly criticised and a personal post by the subcommittee chair and resulting discussion reveals several key failings, including interviewing Frenkel but not the complainants, and an attempt to apply a judicial model to him. Widespread negative commentary on the decision has been linked by Natalie Luhrs. Stephanie Zvan publishes a detailed on guide on how to decide when or if an accused harasser can return to “scene of the crime.”

A woman in a long red dress standing on stage

Ann Leckie CC BY-SA Henry Harel

August 2014: In a joint decision, the convention committees of WisCon 37 and 38 revise the decision on Jim Frenkel’s future attendance, and announce that he is permanently banned.

The Correia/Beale “Sad Puppy” slate performs poorly at the Hugo awards in London. Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, widely praised for its handling of gender, wins Best Novel, and receives a standing ovation.

What’s changed in 2014

Unfortunately, 2014 revealed that some of the progress that appeared to have been made in 2013 was spotty at best, with WisCon, a self-identified feminist convention, unable to respond decisively to protect its community from well-documented harassment that had already cost the harasser his job. The subcommittee responsible for the Frenkel decision was unaware of existing best practices, including those arising Readercon debacle of 2012. Likewise, SF&F continued to grapple with its long history of privileging abusers’ place in the community over everyone else’s safety.

But anti-harassment bridges continue to be built, with activists and fans involved in safety committees and anti-harassment work reaching out to each other to share best practices. Authors like N. K. Jemisin, Sofia Samatar, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Update 2015-01-07: Sriduangaew has since been outed as a harasser under other pseudonyms) who work outside the traditional fascination of SF&F and other literature and media with the experiences and ambitions of white Western men continue to find venues for their their work, though not as many as are justified by the quality of their work. The work that precedes reconciliation with the SF&F community continues.

How you can help

Two women smiling

Sarah Sharp and Sumana Harihareswara, CC BY-SA Jenna Saint Martin Photo

Whether you are the leading novelist in your field, or a lurker on a mailing list, you can take action to stop conference harassment. You can use your words, your influence, your money, and your participation to change the culture in your community.

  • Only attend cons with (enforced) anti-harassment policies
  • If a con doesn’t have a policy, ask them if they plan to have one
  • Start a pledge to not attend cons without policies
  • Start new confs if existing ones won’t adopt policies
  • If you sponsor events, only sponsor events with policies
  • Publicly support victims of harassment, especially if you are exceptionally influential
  • Publicly support anti-harassment campaigns, especially if you are exceptionally influential
  • Educate yourself on responding to harassment, especially if you are a con organizer
  • Learn more about bystander intervention
  • Buy books from the PC Monsters of Genre
  • Don’t buy the works of people who harass or support harassment

You can also donate to support the Ada Initiative, which has been working full-time on ending harassment in open technology and culture communities since January 2011. Our 2014 fundraising campaign ends October 8th. Learn more about our progress so far and our plans for future work in 2014 and 2015.

Donate now

Sources and resources

List of geek conferences that have adopted anti-harassment policies
Resources for reporting sexual harassment in science fiction and fantasy
The Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities
Ada Initiative anti-harassment policy page

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