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WisCon 37

So, my first science fiction convention was a feminist one, and it was unsurprisingly awesome.


My flights to and from Madison were uneventful, and I arrived late Friday morning to my room in the middle of the con floor of a very pleasant hotel. (WisCon essentially sold out the hotel, and the programming took place mainly on the bottom two floors, but the con floor was the scene of the con suite, several parties each evening, the bake sale, childcare, and more things that escaped my notice.)

After grabbing a delectable lunch at Fromagination, I'd originally planned to head to the Gathering for activities like hair braiding and a clothing swap and a fiber circle and tea. But I was operating on a sleep deficit, and the bed was sooooo comfy... yeah, I took a nap. An afternoon-long nap. I even missed the dinner outing for first-time attendees. Oh well, I'll catch it next year. :)

When I finally roused, I headed to...

I'm Not Your Metaphor: Explaining Oppression with Analogies

[Indented paragraphs like the one below are program descriptions, in most cases copy-pasted but in the case below lightly edited for correction.]
In 2011, some Occupy Wall Street protesters Slutwalk participants embarrassed themselves by citing John Lennon's problematic comparison of gender oppression with racial injustice. That comparison is part of a long tradition in which people try to point out that one kind of oppression is being overlooked by citing a more familiar outrage. But is disability really "like race"? Is Islamophobia a "New McCarthyism"? Are gays the new Jews? Are such analogies ever useful, or are they always unacceptable appropriations, erasing one kind of suffering by reducing it to a metaphor for another? What about attempts to make a statement about oppression or colonialism using fictional peoples — can they escape all the problems inherent in the real-world comparisons? How can we avoid creating hierarchies of oppression?
Panelist [personal profile] kate_nepveu wrote up her good set of notes on this panel. I would go on to see [personal profile] kate_nepveu on further panels throughout the con and be continually impressed by her analysis. I didn't meet her one-on-one, but knowing that she's a lawyer I can't help but think she would be a kick-ass judge someday.

Towards the end, during a discussion of using potentially-problematic metaphors to recruit supporters to one's cause (pandering to the mainstream), one audience member described how she compared one rights movement—I forget which—to religious-expression rights when recruiting people over the phone using the logic that both are choices rather than intrinsic characteristics, and our acceptance of religious-expression rights should lead us—or at least the caller—to accept rights for other choice-based contingents. I mentally chewed on that for the rest of the session; as I added in the twitter conversation, I question the idea that religion is entirely a matter of choice. I think religion, like gender, is a combination of performance, "given" identity, and internal personal identity. I can't choose to believe in a particular god any more than I can choose to feel myself to be a particular gender, although I can perform either if I choose. Thoughts?


On Saturday morning, the con panels had to compete with the Dane County Farmers' Market around the corner. Asparagus and rhubarb were abundant, as were cheddar cheese, morrels and other mushrooms, and baked goods. I bought pickled green tomatoes and cucumbers, spicy toffee, cheese curds, blue cheese, chipotle and extra-sharp cheddar cheeses, a quarter pound of morrels, blueberry rhubarb jam, a gourd out of which to carve a sumitori (charcoal basket) like one of these, Ranunculus flowers, goldenrod vinegar, rye bread, a strawberry-rhubarb turnover, a cheese empanada, a chocolate chip scone, and a chocolate-and-cream-cheese muffin. I know. I don't regret any of it.

But back to the con...

Whose Dystopia? Freedom-to Versus Freedom-from

Genre dystopian novels frequently feature either totalitarian government (1984, A Handmaid's Tale) or a lack of effective government (Neuromancer, Parable of the Sower). This echoes a broader conflict in activist communities, between those who see rules as necessary protection and those who see rules most frequently employed by oppressive institutions. What books have explored that tension, rather than the two extremes? What lessons can we draw from dystopian fiction to improve our communities?
I arrived late for this panel, in time for some conversation about how amazingly little utopian fiction has been written in the past few decades. One of the panelists mentioned having a page of recommended dystopian reading, but I forgot to find out how to get a copy of it.

Unrelated to the panel itself, this is when I started noticing that the number of people doing fibercraft in any given room reliably and significantly outnumbered the number of people with open laptops. I got quite a bit of sashiko stitching done and found, as I later heard someone comment of themselves, that if anything it helped focus my attention on what was being said. At work I've heard about a fairly high-level male manager who does some kind of fibercraft during long meetings, and even though I haven't seen it in person I'm gratified to hear that someone who is clearly considered competent and influential is modeling this activity.

"Speak To Me in Your Native Language!" And Other Things You Should Never Say To Anyone

Over the past decade the WisCon community has made progress toward creating a more intersectional and inclusive convention, but problems remain. Con-goers are still exposed to othering language and attitudes that make the convention and community feel like an unwelcome place. Let's discuss these problematic situations and what steps the community needs to take to further address these concerns.
Some of this panel was a description of racefail for those, like me, who weren't very familiar with it. As an aside, one of my favorite things about my WisCon experience was how willing panelists and other speakers were to explain possibly-unfamiliar terms, and how that led audience members to feel welcome to raise their hands to ask. In other environments, I tend to cringe when a speaker throws out to an audience a quick and almost disingenuous, "Is everybody familiar with $foo?" before rushing on to their point. I can't remember the last time I was in an environment where any non-$foo-conversant audience member did not suppress the impulse to speak up. As a speaker, unless you have a really good reason to believe your audience would not suppress this impulse, just explain $foo.

If I remember correctly, there was some when-to-just-let-it-go discussion that, for me, draws out a tension between let-the-issue-drop as an imperative issued by people who don't want you to complain so much, and pick-your-battles as a suggestion issued by supporters who don't want you to burn out.

Here's sophy's write-up.

And an important point summarized in the twitstream:

Tiptree Bake Sale

matcha cupcakeThe con hosts a bake sale each year as part of fund-raising for the Tiptree Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. To contribute, I baked a dozen matcha cupcakes (using Koyama-en's 松柏, of which I have a sizable canister around for demonstrations and such) and ferried them through three airports and two flights without damage. The bake sale organizers sold items in pre-plated pairs, $1/pair, so it was difficult for buyers to know what the options were (bakers had labeled their containers but not each individual item within them) and for me as a curious baker to know how popular my cupcakes were.

Global SF/F

One of the many fabulous features of WisCon is that we share reading suggestions and discuss authors that some people may have not heard of before. It's much easier to discover new or overlooked writers in the US and Great Britain. It's much more difficult to find, read, and discuss authors who write SF/F in its many forms in other parts of the globe. Let's get together and discuss who we know and would recommend and what these authors offer (critically and for entertainment), and especially what some of these authors are doing in the realm of feminist writing.
My lunch outing cut into the first part of this talk. When I arrived, one of the panelists was imploring the audience to learn foreign languages in order to understand non-English-language works in their native glory. Since her experience was with European countries and languages, her examples were full of French and German literature. I presume the part of the session that I missed included more non-Western and non-first-world examples, which I would guess would have more to offer me in terms of perspective expansion. Neither my Japanese nor my Spanish is good enough for reading novels, but I do have that copy of 日本語を読むための七つの物語: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text waiting for me to pick it up again.

I didn't see any recommended global sf/f reading lists, but I did add Squaring the Circle: A Pseudotreatise of Urbogony to my to-buy-in-ebook-form list after seeing a beautiful paper copy in the dealers' room; originally written in Romanian in 1969 (so arguably not first-world), it was translated into English by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin.

Crafting, Making, and the Intersection of Gender and Creation

The Maker movement has done a lot to bring crafting out of the fusty perception of the past. Younger women and men are taking up skills that seemed like they might be lost in the digital age. But what if you aren't making Arduino clothes at your makerspace? Or what if you are, but it feels like it doesn't count as "real" making? Join in and talk about the difficulties of owning and claiming your craft, especially if it is coded as female. Is it hard to make time for doing what you love? What are the barriers to entry at makerspaces? Handcrafting encouraged in this panel.
This session started with a discussion of the distinction between art and craft; panelist Bessy Gockey posited that a piece is art if the viewer can get more out of it than the artist intended, which I'm not sure I agree with but which seems like an interesting distinction to explore anyway. My recollection is that the conversation moved on to examples of female-coded and male-coded crafts and of well-known "cross-crafters," so to speak. I felt like the discussion never got very deep; asking people if it's hard to make time for doing what they love seems like—and was—a one-way street to the dull and expected variations on "yes." Some people talked about how they view their craft differently depending on whether they make money at it. I found this panel frustrating, initially pinning the blame on the moderator for shutting out audience participation, but on reflection I don't think that was necessarily what was going on. I think I just didn't like the questions posed.

ad-hoc: feminism & hackerspaces

This time slot's sessions were very hard to choose from; I wanted to go to Poly 501, Help, Gender Essentialism is Everywhere!, Cultural Appropriation: The View From Outside the West, Realistic and Unrealistic Sex in Fiction, and Food in Spaaaaaaace!. In the end [personal profile] hypatia's ad-hoc gathering to discuss feminist hackerspaces won out. Much of this was us asking her various details about the nascent Seattle Attic hackerspace. There seemed to be a consensus that making a heretofore non-feminist hackerspace into a feminist hackerspace is basically impossible and that you have to start fresh. My experience with HacDC leads me to think this is true. I'm vaguely thinking of beginning an effort to establish a feminist hackerspace in my area. Stay tuned.

Un-Tragic Trans*

Transitioning or transgressing gender can be hard, sure, but it's not an endless travail of heartache, tears, and rejection. Some parts of it are pretty funny — and illuminate interesting facets of how our society views gender in general. (Note: trans* is an umbrella term that refers to multiple gender identities.)
This was a standing-room-only session late enough into the evening that my ability to concentrate was flagging. It was fun enough that I stuck around, though, and you can find some pithy quotes in the twitter conversation, like
After a while I was so mesmerized by panelist Autumn's gorgeous neon green hair that I may have zoned out a bit.

Haiku Earring Party

The usual: party-goers line up, choose a pair of earrings from the table, and bring them to Elise for a name. Then they go to the writing table and write a haiku (or senryu, or occasional sonnet -- we're flexible) inspired by those earrings. Bring the earrings and poem to Elise for acceptance; the poem goes on the table where the earrings were, and the earrings become yours. A WisCon tradition for I-forget-how-many-years now. Once through the line is how we do it, but if we've got earrings left over at midnight you are welcome to go through the line a second time and get yourself (or a friend) a second pair. It is also permissible to practice "catch and release," by writing about a pair of earrings and then returning them to the table.
my first Japanese-language haikuThe one and only party I attended was this one. This photo shows the earrings I picked, the title I was given, and the haiku I wrote in response—my first in Japanese. Since I don't have or plan to have pierced ears, would anyone reading this like to have the earrings?

Taking Our Slurs Back

The panel for fatties, crips, sluts, bitches, whores, crazies, old farts, queers, and more. Who is reclaiming language and how? How can we address intergenerational conflicts about reclamatory language? What about tensions when it comes to who is 'allowed' to use it?
Looking back at the schedule, I'm surprised I kept going this late into the night—we're talking about a panel that ended at almost midnight. Next year I swear I'll take notes, but right now the specific discussion that took place her eludes my memory. Panelist sophy says she'll be writing it up, fortunately.


Childrearing Beyond the Gender Binary

All kinds of people become parents nowadays, from same-sex couples to trans* parents to poly groupings and far beyond. There are societal push-backs against these families, many of them oriented to the gender binary: "Yes, but who's the DAD?" Plus, when announcing a pregnancy, usually the first thing people say to you (after "congratulations") is, "What are you having?" Why do random strangers want so badly to be certain about the sex of your infant? Why can't you buy kid clothes in major chains without a "diagnostic" tiny stripe of pale blue or pink "to show you who it's for"? Why are only butterflies and kittens on girl clothes, with all dinos and dogs being coded "male"? While society is becoming less binary, why is childrearing becoming MORE?
This was mostly examples of strangers' and relatives' absurd emphasis on knowing and essentializing infants' genders, recommended books and videos and stores that don't make everything pink or blue, and some un-recommended ones that do. I would have liked more analysis in this discussion, and I don't think the "why" questions posed in the program description, especially the last one, were addressed. It was basically just parents exchanging advice.

Exclusion and Inclusion, or Kicking People Out: A How-To Guide

Often efforts to make spaces welcoming are confounded by an unwillingness to expel people who are already there. We'll discuss the issues involved in creating communities that are less alienating. How do we in fandom balance a desire not to explicitly exclude with the need to prevent implicit exclusion? How do we handle the backlash from active exclusion? What role do allies play in establishing and enforcing policies? How are opportunities for education balanced against the exhaustive requirement of providing that education? How do issues of age and ageism complicate these questions? And how do we actually say "you aren't welcome back"?
I attended this session with an eye to potentially using the advice in the potential future feminist hackerspace in my mind. (At HacDC, we've made it too difficult to kick people out—as well as too easy for people to join—and since that's encoded in our bylaws, it would be an onerous campaign to change it. See feminist hackerspaces session above.) The moderator led off with the five geek social fallacies, and later in the session The Pervocracy's Missing Stair post was referenced at least once. Importance of bystander action, pay attention to microaggressions, harassers know what they're doing, etc etc. Familiar territory to me intellectually if not yet in practice. My takeaway was that it's far better to address potential problems early and in explicit policy instead of taking 'em as they come.

The idea of maintaining a list of offenders came up and was dismissed, in my opinion prematurely. No doubt there would be sticky legal ground to tread, but to me this idea seems at least worth checking out with actual lawyers. As [twitter.com profile] sigridellis's report on this session reveals, different people in the room were talking about different kinds of lists—she refers to a secret "list of creeps," while others of us were envisioning something more like a public database of people who had been kicked out of cons.

Reproductive Choices: Sharing Our Stories

This was a private discussion, so I'm not at liberty to disclose the discussion topics or participants' identities, but I can say that this was a powerful session that I and the other participants were glad to have engaged in.

In the afternoon I stuck solidly in the Power, Privilege, and Oppression track:

Family Values!! Nontraditional Relationship Structures in SF/F

Let's talk about polyamory in Jo Walton's Lifelode, families of choice in everything from Laurie J Marks' Elemental Logic series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sedoretus on Le Guin's world of O, and other SF relationship configurations that challenge our own cultural expectations.
Many references to works I haven't yet read. [personal profile] j00j's writeup has more details. It sounds like a lot of the nontraditional relationship structures in sf/f are justified by reproductive logistics. From the twitter conversation:
This discussion reminded me of how we often use the word "family" not only in a way that presumes families include children but even as a replacement for the word "children," as in phrases like "family friendly." That topic wasn't discussed, though.

How To Be a Fan of Problematic Things

Lord of the Rings. A Song of Ice & Fire. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Many of us like things that are deeply problematic! Liking these works doesn't (necessarily) make you a jerk. How can we like problematic things and not only be decent people, but good, social justice activists? How does one's background matter? How does one address the problems? This panel will discuss how to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about them. Inspired by http://www.socialjusticeleague.net/2011/09/how-to-be-a-fan-of-problematic-things/
Panelist [personal profile] kate_nepveu again wrote a thorough report of this session, to which I refer you. I spent much of this panel trying to think of examples of problematic things I like. Finally it hit me: in my university general-education speech class some ~15 years ago, I delivered a speech about the awesomeness of Charlie Chan that, while admitting the character was a stereotype, managed not to acknowledge it as problematic. Yeah. I guess I have my reading of intersectional blogs and online essays to thank for the development of my perspective over the years, because it doesn't appear to be something that most people develop through age alone, and my life has been full of privilege and isolation from oppressed groups throughout that time.

Someone did bring up Ender's Game, surprisingly-to-me in a way that seemed to contrast Orson Scott Card's homophobia with the non-problematic-ness of that novel. Combined with an earlier point about cases where one person thinks that something is trying to undercut or subvert a harmful portrayal and another thinks it's just uncritically displaying it (using [personal profile] kate_nepveu's words), my feelings about the moral message of Ender's Game are less clear than when I wrote this post. Most of my friends argue either that Ender is morally innocent because he had no idea he was hurting anyone at any point when he was doing so, or that Card was presenting Ender as an anti-hero and critiquing the idea of his innocence. I really don't know, and I'll need to do some reading and re-reading to un-muddle my thoughts.

Is Cultural Appropriation a Useful Concept?

What does it mean? Why is it bad? All humans borrow and imitate. One of the purposes of art is to expand sympathy; and one of the battle cries of artists is, "I'll do it if I damn well want to." When — and how — is it okay to use material from a culture that is not one's own? Or maybe that should be rephrased. When is it wrong, and why? Let's discuss.
Much of the talking was done by a white writer on the panel who is researching Mongolian culture so she can set her writing in Mongolia; naturally, she's trying and sometimes struggling not to do injustice with this project. There was also not a little discussion of the appropriation of cultures native to what's now North America, including a righteously angry explanation by an audience member belonging to one of those cultures of why they're so upset about cultural appropriation.

Meanwhile, in local news:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As a chado practitioner who spent a year in Kyoto, I and my classmates don't see our practice as cultural appropriation. I think we see it rather as authentic participation in a cultural activity, sometimes in contrast to less sophisticated Westerners' appropriation of Japanese traditions like Zen Buddhism and kimono-wearing. To bring that back to WisCon, I didn't make it to the presentation by the Feminist SF Group in Tokyo of their group's history, but I was in the room as they were wrapping up, and I noticed how scrutinizingly I looked at the apparently-white audience member who had worn a kimono to the session. I was looking to see if she was dressed "correctly"—as if I've achieved that!—and ready to mentally dismiss her as appropriating Japanese culture if she wasn't. The thing is, I don't think any of the (Japanese) panelists looked at the woman's kimono with anything like my wariness. It's almost like I look for opportunities to be "right" about Japanese culture as a way of validating my experience. So, note to self: cultural appropriation is not a weapon for narcissists.


Taking Care of Ourselves

There is nothing more transgressive against patriarchal society than women who are not afraid of men. Fortunately, a woman does not need to be a superhero like Buffy or Xena to achieve this. Protecting oneself from potentially dangerous people is more about paying attention and knowing what to fear than it is about kicking and punching. This presentation will introduce the seven skills of self defense and include a discussion on people's ideas of what a strong woman should be.
This was not the self-care session that I and at least some fellow audience members expected. It was more about self-defense from a martial artist's perspective. Relative risk, Gift of Fear, importance of avoiding fights rather than fighting, etc. I'm not the only one who didn't find these to be new material. Reflecting on it now, the session may have been useful to me if I had used it as a practice space for questioning the racism, classism, and ableism in advice like Avoid Bad Neighborhoods, Listen To Everything Around You, and You're Actually Quite Safe From Attacks By Non-White Strangers Assuming You're a White Middle-to-Upper-Class Cisgender Person. As it was, this was a low point for WisCon.

Passing: Self-Care and Embracing Who You Are

In some situations a person can choose to pass (hide their oppressed status); in others a person passes unless they choose to purposely identify their status. And sometimes a person has no ability to pass. When we have a choice, it's often a difficult one. We're often encouraged to embrace and disclose who we know ourselves to be, and trying to pass as something we're not (white, cisgender, etc.) can be a source of great pain. But passing as something we know we're not is sometimes the only safe way to live. Passing can be a matter of self-preservation. How can we decide whether we're being self-indulgent or taking good care of ourselves? How can we make these choices with more social consciousness and self-acceptance?
Waaaaaay better than the previous session. Moderated deftly by [twitter.com profile] mamohanraj, this was an insightful discussion of how and why people choose to or have to pass. The axes of identity most discussed were race and disability; at the end, the audience member who had suggested the panel pointed out that despite her explicit instructions, there were no trans* people on the panel. Oops. The problem of whether and how to pass in an employment situation when you're (especially "invisibly") disabled was discussed. The phenomenon of hearing more offensive remarks when people think you're "one of them" was brought up, although that may have been a thread from a different panel. Situations where having to take care of children is perceived as a liability (e.g., academia) versus ones where it is freely used as an "excuse" were discussed. Having a racial identity perceived as different from one's children, and having one different from what one's name would suggest, were topics as well. I would like to see a continuation of this discussion that includes other axes of identity, including gender orientation, sexual orientation, and class.

Having attended the last session I could, I had a good hour before I needed to head to the airport. So I stood around the hotel lobby awkwardly, not seeing anyone whom I recognized or who looked especially eager for a stranger to join their group, before I managed to connect with [personal profile] jesse_the_k, whom I'd seen on a few of the panels I'd attended and who was eager to hear my feedback as a first-time WisCon-goer. Yes, she got me to talk, and she even convinced me, by the end of our conversation, that between my job and my chado practice, I probably have some material to seed a panel for next year's WisCon. I'm pretty sure I'll be back.

This entry was originally posted at http://bokunenjin.dreamwidth.org/38831.html.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2013 02:41 am (UTC)
Oh hey, last year we had our annual training workshop in Madison and we were wrapping up just as people were starting to check in for this conference.
Jun. 1st, 2013 09:44 pm (UTC)
Here via Wiscon community and also hello again from hacker space talk.

I was sorry to miss the bake sale! Your cupcake looks awesome.
Jun. 5th, 2013 08:29 am (UTC)
Thanks for writing all this up! I've said I was going to go every year for the last three or four, and I haven't, so... commitment! Next year I am going! It's on my calendar and everything.

I am totally jealous of the Mary Anne Mohanraj panel... I have really liked everything of her work I've seen, and would have enjoyed getting to see her in person.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )