This weekend I attended COSine 2017, a very small convention held by and for writers in the Colorado Springs and surrounding areas. It is a volunteer-staffed enterprise where even the panelists pay to participate. I mention this because I go to conventions across the country—twenty cons in 2016 and seventeen cons in 2015.
I can assure you that writers paying to participate in panels is relatively unusual on the convention scene. Normally we are considered part of the entertainment for that type of business endeavor… and it is a business endeavor, even when it’s non-profit and volunteer-based. We therefore get a by on the entrance fees so we can increase attendance and help make the convention guests enjoy their stay.
So, why did each and every one of the panelists at COSine pay $25 (a rather meager sum, to be sure) in order participate in the convention? We did it because the convention owner, Mem Morman, is a wonderful lady with a passion for fiction. Indeed, everyone in attendance has a passion for science fiction and fantasy and paranormal and mystery and every other sort of genre fiction you can think of.
We do it because we love it.
On Friday night, the first night of the convention, my first panel was entitled Multi-Culturalism in Steampunk. I’ve built my career, in part, around steampunk fiction. I’ve written short stories and novels in the sub-genre, and I truly have a passion for what I refer to as a fertile writing environment. As an editor and publisher, I’ve also produced five steampunk anthologies over the past six years with one more on the horizon.
The series, called Penny Dread Tales (PDT), includes stories written by authors from literally around the world. I’m sure PDT is the primary reason I’m frequently included on this panel as well as just about any steampunk panel at conventions I attend, because it has a very diverse list of contributors and subject matter. It’s all steampunk, but it covers a lot of ground culturally.
So, a friend of mine who attended that panel took a picture when we first started. The image below prompted a rather interesting—dare I say impassioned—dialogue on Facebook among several of my peers, all of whom I know personally. This discussion, henceforth known as The Dialogue, raised.
The question immediately raised by one of them was “Why is it all straight white guys?”
This single question engendered a rather lengthy discussion, henceforth referred to as The Dialogue, between a lesbian (who prompted the initial question), a woman whom I believe is bi-sexual (I hope I’m using an accurate term, and please forgive me if I have it wrong), and a white, Christian male.
It saddened me somewhat to see that some very familiar lines were quickly drawn in The Dialogue. And in the aftermath it seemed clear that three people had very strong opinions about this particular panel and what it represented to each of them.
I think it’s important to note that none of the three participants in involved in The Dialogue were in attendance at Multi-Culturalism in Steampunk. I know, because I was (technically) the only big, heterosexual, white male (BHWM) on the panel. Interestingly enough, a second picture was posted in The Dialogue shortly after the first, showing that a fourth attendee showed up a few minutes after we started.
The immediate reply was “That’s not helping.”
It seemed clear that there were some who felt the panelists selected for this topic were unqualified to discuss the subject matter, because we were “all” heterosexual, white, males… and adding a white female to the mix was an inadequate addition to the list of panelists.
Let me offer a few details to perhaps add a bit more context and perspective to who the panelists actually were. In order from left to right, Peter J. Wacks (Jewish), Christopher Salas (Hispanic), Melanie Unruh (female), and Quincy J. Allen (BHWM). The three males were the writers, and Melanie is a costumer who has a passion for both steampunk and Eastern cultural designs.
Over the course of The Dialogue and as a result solely upon the basis of the original photograph, two implications seemed to be offered. The first and more brief of the two was the suggestion that none of the panelists had anything to say on the subject, because they were all heterosexual white males, and even the addition of a white female had no bearing. Clearly, such participants couldn’t possibly have anything of value to say on the subject. The second implication was that the convention itself should have done more to seek out “more suitable” panelists for the discussion.
I know for a fact that all three of the people involved in The Dialogue are writers. I know they all have written steampunk. And, I know that the two ladies in the discussion have written LGBT steampunk fiction.
I know this because I am an editor and publisher who selected and included short stories from both of them—me… the only BHWM on a panel about Multi-Culturalism in Steampunk, and apparently, the most unqualified individual to be on that particular panel simply because of my skin color and gender.
In one case, I had gladly included a story about a lesbian gunslinger fighting vampires. In the other, I included a female version of Jules Verne depicted in a marvelous universe where Miss Verne undertakes fantastic adventures. I included such stories in my anthologies because I am a strong participant in and advocate of multi-culturalism in steampunk.
Ironically, as compared to the people involved in The Dialogue, I am also the only one who sought out attendance at this rather puny convention and paid to participate in a topic that is very dear to me. You see, I also know with certainty that all three of the writers in The Dialogue know about COSine, and all three could have been participants had they sent a single email to the convention. That’s all it would have taken.
One. Single. Email.
Let me add that I would have gladly given up my seat to at least one of the ladies involved in The Dialogue had she been there. Would you like to know how I know this would have happened? Because I’ve done it in the past with others.
Over the course of The Dialogue, something became very clear to me: my efforts in this arena are believed by some to be undesirable, unwanted, and the term used by one of the ladies in The Dialogue was “insufficient.”
Frankly, I’m okay with this.
I understand how easy it is to look at a photograph, make judgments about the people in that photograph, and condemn them for being inadequate or insufficient solely upon the basis of race, gender, preference, or even the color of one’s tie. We see it all the time, particularly in American society.
I also understand that it would have been useful to have a more diverse membership on that panel, although it was—technically—more diverse that it was given credit for at the outset, again, based solely upon a single photograph.
What I find most interesting is that my efforts in this arena, including the publication of LGBT fiction in anthologies designed to foment diverse perspectives, is being discounted out of hand simply because I am a BHWM… and by the very people whom I have worked to include in my meager efforts of multi-culturalism in steampunk. They made no secret of the fact that they feel I have no place in this endeavor.
Again, I’m okay with this.
This sort of contention has been at the heart of considerable angst, particularly in recent years, across the entire country. Because I am a BHWM, there are those who truly and deeply feel that I should remain silent and cease any and all participation in trying to change things. In fact, I know of one individual who posted some time ago that all heterosexual white males should simply “shut the f*** up.” Imagine my disappointment.
It’s an age-old condition of punishing sons for the sins of fathers. This is borne of genuine and even well-deserved frustration over how human society, especially American society, has existed since our inception… of how BHWMs have absolutely trodden upon and abused anyone who didn’t fit that description.
I submit, however, that if one were to take the time to examine the body of stories included in Penny Dread Tales over the years, one would find fiction from and about a wide variety of genders, races, preferences, and beliefs. Would you like to know why? Because I absolutely have a passion for multi-culturalism in steampunk, and I have spent half a decade doing my best to get representative stories out in the world on that very subject. And keep in mind that I turn no one away. I take the best and most compelling stories submitted in an open-submission process, with a deliberate attempt at diversification.
Furthermore, I’ve written a number of short stories that address at least some of these issues. One need only read Family Heirloom or Salting Dogwood or Demon Train to know that I have a passion for redressing the social injustices involving, at a minimum, race and gender. Is my fiction the best to be had anywhere? Not by a long shot. Am I a competent writer… I like to think so. Do I endeavor to explore and address these issues? Absolutely.
Nobody on Earth has any right to try and take that away from me. And nobody, I mean nobody, has a right to tell me I don’t have something to offer when it comes to multi-culturalism in steampunk.
I take it upon myself to invest time and effort and even money to contribute to a worthwhile cause, because I recognize that there are deep-seeded problems in my society… hell, with my species.
I will continue to do so, even when those efforts are ignored or condemned because of the color of my skin, or because of what dangles between my legs, or because of where I choose to put it.
My suggestion to all parties—inside and outside of The Dialogue—is to work in your own ways towards fomenting acceptance and multi-culturalism wherever you go. Speak it. Teach it. Invest your time—even your life—in that endeavor. And when it comes to conventions, do what the rest of us are required to do. Unless you have a name like Jim Butcher or Sherrilyn Kenyon or Terry Brooks or Mercedes Lackey, it is up to the individual to be involved. I don’t get invited to cons. The vast majority of my peers don’t get invited. We have to chase our dreams just like everyone else. Chase yours.
That’s how this game works. I can guarantee that if any of the three in The Dialogue had sent a request to participate in COSine 2017, they would have been included. And I would have been the first to suggest that the ladies involved in The Dialogue be involved in the panel, because I know they both have something valuable to contribute on the subject.
To all writers of every gender, race, color, creed, and preference, I submit that if you intend to wait for conventions to invite you to speak because you believe they have an obligation to do so, you may be waiting a long time.
That is certainly your prerogative.
I, on the other hand, will continue to be proactive. I pursue venues whereby I can discuss my passions and share those things I have learned from my experiences. I will do so with or without the approval of my peers, and I will do so unabashedly.
I strongly encourage everyone to do the same.
If you are an author or other type of creative and you would like to participate in COSine 2018, here is the contact information. You need only reach out to them, show that you’re a competent creative, and you, too, can be involved in panels next year.
By the way, in the event you’re not an IT wizard, that last little bit is what we IT Wizards call an EMAIL ADDRESS. You can use it to send a message from your computer or device and elicit responses from a person on the other end. It’s like a phone call but with less sweat on your ear.
Try it. You’ll be amazed at how fast and easy it can be.