This is my guest of honor speech from Continuum 10 in Melbourne, minus the parts where I stumbled over my words or misread anything…
First of all, I want to thank Continuum for inviting me, and to thank all of the volunteers who have been working so hard to put this event together.
I grew up in the dark ages, before the internet. I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t discover fandom when I was young. The closest I came was when my father took my brother and me to a Star Trek convention for an afternoon. There were some awesome (and too expensive) toys, and I got to listen to George Takei and get his autograph, but that was it. I didn’t get a sense of community or belonging. It was more like being in the world’s geekiest toy store. So, you know, still an awesome way to spend the day.
And then, years later, I started writing. This was in the late nineties, which meant I could now dial out on my 56K modem to connect to the World Wide Web and check out the bulletin boards where other newbie writers hung out. I learned how to avoid writing scams, where to find markets for my work, and so on. I also learned about this phenomenon called conventions, where writers and fans got together and did stuff. As a wannabe writer, it sounded like something I should do.
My very first convention was just ten minutes from my house, in Michigan. How had I never heard of this? I signed up for a one-day membership and even got scheduled a reading and a couple of panels.
It went … badly. I showed up at the Holiday Inn, got registered, looked around at the strangers swarming through the halls, and asked myself what the hell I was doing here. I’ve always been an introvert, and this was too much. I remember going to my very first panel, introducing myself, and then not saying a single word for the rest of the hour. My reading had two attendees: my wife, and the author who had been reading before me and stuck around, I’m assuming because he felt bad for me.
What I don’t remember is what made me try again, but I did. Maybe it was stubbornness. Maybe I’m just a masochist — actually, those are some of the same reasons I ended up becoming a writer, now that I think about it. Anyway, I ended up going to World Fantasy Con next … because apparently a little local con wasn’t overwhelming enough for me. Once again I showed up, got registered, and wandered aimless and lost. I sat in on a few panels, because panels were both informative and safe. And then a little later, I found my way to the con suite, where I spotted author Jay Lake and artist Frank Wu, two people I had heard of from those online bulletin boards.
It took an absurdly long time for me to work up the courage to go introduce myself, but eventually I did. They were kind enough to invite me to sit down and join them. We chatted for a bit, and they asked if I was new to the con scene. And then they did something I’ll never forget. They took me around and introduced me to some of the other fans and writers at the convention.
I remember that day because it was the first time I started to feel welcome in fandom. I don’t know that either one of them would remember that day, but I will always be grateful to them for that kindness.
Fast forward to 2014, and I’m attending at least a half-dozen conventions a year, and loving it! I’m the freaking Guest of Honor at Continuum 10 in Australia. How the heck did that happen?
It happened in part because people made me feel welcome. They invited me into this big, geeky, snarky, Monty Python-quoting, book-loving, cranky, wonderful family, and I discovered I wasn’t alone. I found people who loved the things I loved. Who introduced me to new stories and new authors and new shows. Over time, I began to feel at home.
There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about inclusion in fandom and genre. For me, it goes back to that World Fantasy con twelve years ago. Because it wasn’t enough for me to know conventions existed. I needed someone to welcome me in.
How much harder must it be for people who feel actively unwanted? Nobody ever asked me to prove my geek cred, but women are challenged because everyone knows those “fake geek girls” girls don’t belong in science fiction and fantasy and gaming and so on. The day I wrote this speech, award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal did a Q&A online and had to deal with another guy explaining how he didn’t read books with female protagonists.
I’ve talked about the lack of racial diversity at conventions and in the makeup of con volunteers, only to be told that the real problem is that black people don’t read science fiction and fantasy. Or in one case, to be told that “those people” just don’t read, period. I’ve been accused of pushing a political agenda for including characters whose sexuality isn’t “normal.” (Though, oddly enough, nobody ever tells me I’m pushing an agenda when I write about straight, monogamous characters.)
People ask to see characters like themselves in our stories, and to judge from the backlash from certain folks, you might as well have asked them to pass a porcupine. Apparently, talking about diversity and representation is a secret plot, masterminded by people who want to DESTROY THE GENRE!!!
I wish I was exaggerating.
I’ve rarely seen anyone deliberately posting “no girls allowed” or “whites only” signs on the clubhouse, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not enough. We send messages about who is and isn’t welcome in a thousand other, subtler ways.
It’s not enough to passively sit back and hope more people will somehow, magically find their way into fandom. I know how hard it was for me at that first convention. How much harder is it for people who never see themselves in our stories? For fans who pour so much time and money and work into cosplay, only to be harassed and groped and told they’re just looking for attention? For authors who write amazing stories that are dismissed and ignored, because the author happened to have girl cooties?
It’s easy not to see these things when they’re not about you. I’ve never felt discriminated against for my race or my gender or my sexual orientation, so it’s simple for me to assume that sort of thing doesn’t happen to others. Or yeah, I guess it happens occasionally, but it’s not that big a deal, right? Those people are just blowing things out of proportion, or looking for things to be offended by. It’s so easy for me to dismiss other people’s pain.
Maybe that one joke on Big Bang Theory about how no one has ever seen a pretty girl in a comic book shop isn’t, by itself, a big deal. But it’s not just one joke. It’s a constant flood of messages whispering about who does and doesn’t belong. It’s cover art that reduces women to sexual objects, helpless to do anything but thrust their butt and boobs at you. It’s stories that treat rape as a mandatory plot twist for female character development. It’s the ongoing practice of using white actors to play characters of color vs. the hurricane-strength crapstorm that rolls in the moment someone casts a black actor to play Johnny Storm. It’s editors saying they’d be happy to buy that book, but only if the author makes the gay character straight.
When I get a paper cut, it stings, but it’s not the end of the world. I might swear a bit, but I grab a band-aid and I get on with my life. And then someone else goes online to write this big, long blog post about their own paper cut, and maybe I’m thinking, “Why are you making a mountain out of a molehill?” Because I ignore the fact that for them, it isn’t just one paper cut, but one of a thousand they’ve suffered this week. A single paper cut is annoying. A thousand, and you’re being flayed alive.
I love fandom. I love this community. And I want other people to find that sense of coming home. I want them to feel a part of our stories and our celebrations. I want them to feel welcome.
If this is your first convention, or if you’re feeling as overwhelmed or out of place as I did all those years ago in Michigan, I want to invite you to please come and say hello. We’ll talk about why David Tennant is the best Doctor, or geek out about Avatar: The Last Airbender, or just grumble about the fact that DC still won’t give us a Wonder Woman movie because it’s “too complicated,” when Marvel’s busy promoting a raccoon with a rocket launcher.
And to those of us who have been a part of the community for a while now, I want to remind us all how large our family really is, and how important it is to listen to other voices. I’d encourage us to actively expand our fandom, to explore new stories, to seek out new films and new novelizations, to boldly go—
Wait, sorry. That’s Star Trek.
My point is, there are a lot of people standing near the margins and feeling unwanted or excluded or invisible. Fandom is amazing, but we also have a lot of work to do. You and I may not be able to change the world, or to single-handedly fix the various systemic and cultural inequities that play out in genre and publishing and fandom and everywhere else.
But we can listen. And we can choose to actively reach out and welcome people into our community.
Believe me, it can make all the difference in the world.