Volunteers, Professionals, and Who Gets to Have Fun at Cons

Header image: Palais des congrès de Montréal
Credit: Gavin Schaefer
If you weren’t aware about the latest WTFkery in SF/F ConLand, I apologize for ruining your day. A lot of excellent responses to Odyssey Con’s bungle and how it enables harassers in our communities have already been said (I highly recommend reading Best Fan Writer Hugo finalist & The Bias co-founder Natalie Luhrs’s comprehensive piece), but there are some other angles popping up that need to be addressed:

  1. The idea that “volunteer-run” and “professional” are somehow mutually exclusive
  2. Expecting professionalism at cons is antithetical to having fun.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of several volunteer run organizations that host events in Chicago, primarily the Chicago Nerd Social Club (where I serve as president of the CNSC board of organizers), and the Chicago Full Moon Jams (where I’m a member of the board of organizers). I’ve been on the board for CNSC for nearly five years, where we’ve organized meet-ups, panel discussions, tentpole membership events, donation drives, and more. I’ve spent over eight years as part of the FMJ, coordinating the largest monthly gathering of fire performers in the Great Lakes area, which is now a part of the Chicago Night Out in the Parks events series.

I’m part of these volunteer-run organizations and events because they’re wonderful expressions of community engagement, outlets for creativity, and above all, they’re fun. It’s fun getting to work with your friends to create events and communities that bring people together over shared interests and values. It’s fun knowing that your work also means social time with people whose company you enjoy. It’s hella fun seeing new people come to your events and join your communities because they enjoy the things you’ve built.

All that fun, however, is largely dependent on the fact that we treat our events, organizations, attendees, and each other with professionalism, because that’s part of our responsibility as fans of the things we’re doing and the communities we’re celebrating. These events aren’t just about us having fun, they’re about everyone attending having fun. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and our having fun shouldn’t depend on ignoring harmful behavior on the part of other attendees or members of the organizer staff.

On Twitter, The Bias co-founder Annalee Flower Horne highlighted this simple truth:

An event that is “by fans, for fans” does not mean that attendees and guests shouldn’t expect professional behavior from that event or community. Being a fan doesn’t absolve you of taking responsibility for the event you’re running. It does not mean that your attendees, particularly those you invited as guests, shouldn’t be treated with a minimum amount of professional courtesy, including listening and taking seriously their expressions of concern regarding a person on your concom who has been known to engage in harassment, with whom your guest has had previous uncomfortable encounters. It doesn’t mean that you get to ignore potential issues that can impact the viability of your event because dealing with those issues is going to require calling your friends to the carpet. It sure as hell doesn’t mean that you throw the people who’ve tried bringing up these issues to you in private under the bus by framing the problems as their fault for mentioning them in the first place. Expecting professionalism doesn’t mean expecting perfection from the organizers–because shit happens no matter how well you plan and mistakes can be made–but it does mean expecting you know how to make attendees and guests feel welcome, that they’ll be treated with respect, and that they’ll be taken care of by the event organizers.

Being volunteer-run is no excuse for not being capable of achieving the bare minimum of basic competency for event organizing, which includes prioritizing attendee safety.

In short, it is perfectly possible for a fan-run, volunteer-organized event to be both fun and professional, because that professionalism benefits everyone–fan and pro alike–in attendance.

There seems to be an idea that cons used to be a fun place before all these expectations of professionalism, and that somehow guests and many attendees treating cons as “work” is ruining what cons used to be. In some magical distant past, attendees came to cons, mingled happily with pros, and cons were parties where everyone had fun, until the dark cloud of professional expectations spread across the land and made it so writers no longer liked talking to fans and making friends with them, forever separated by things like “rules” and “codes of conduct” and “anti-harassment policies.”

Apparently wanting to attend a con for anything other than fun is akin to spreading the shadow of Mordor across Middle Earth.

Here’s a secret: I can have fun while I’m working at a con! I love getting to talk on panels and share my expertise and learn from other speakers. I get a kick out of networking with other writers and editors and creators of all kinds. I get to build relationships with many professional contacts who also become friends (and also just meet cool people who I’d like to be friends with!) because of cons. Sometimes my fun gets a bit too expensive for my wallet when I’m ogling the countless awesome nerdy things in a dealers’ room or artists’ alley. But I am also aware that I’m a working professional while having fun (I know, it’s stunning you can do both at once), and being at a con is often a considerable investment of my money, as well as my time (which could be spent writing and editing, which is part of my livelihood as a professional). I’m constantly weighing the cost (both in money and in mental/emotional energy) of whether or not a con is worth attending, and how that con may (or may not) handle issues of harassment certainly factors heavily into my decision. The basic reality is that many fans are also industry professionals, and that fans will attend cons both for fun and to grow their personal brands and industry cred through networking, socializing, and event participation.

Being on the job at a con doesn’t have to ruin my fun–or anyone else’s for that matter–but you know what does? The dude with the grabby hands and eyes trained on my chest. The person who kills a conversation with their racist jokes. The gatekeeper who quizzes me on the X-Men then tries to play Gotcha! with a question about Legend of Zelda because obviously the brown Asian woman’s just playing at being a nerd. The asshole selling misogynistic art. A concom that selectively enforces their code of conduct and dismisses concerns I’ve expressed about my safety because “Stories about X’s behavior are just exaggerated.” Not only does that ruin any fun to be had, it also makes my job that much harder to do, potentially costs me opportunities as a creator, and makes me wonder how much of my investment that con is actually worth (Elise Matthesen had some excellent things to say about the real costs of harassment and who pays them).

This is where the argument that having things like rules, codes, and policies that attendees and organizers are expected to abide by also ruins everyone’s fun usually comes up. But it begs the question: just whose fun are we referring to here? Because let’s be real, con’s haven’t always been fun for everyone.

I went on a bit of a rant in the thread following the above linked tweet. In summary, I talked about how cons weren’t always fun for everyone because of problems like harassment, racism, homophobia, ableism, misogyny, and so on. I’ve been attending cons since I was in high school, and while I have lots of fond memories, the unavoidable fact was that any fun I had was tempered by the awareness that I would be lucky if I made it out of a con without having to deal with racist sexist asshats (did I mention being 16 and having to navigate being creeped on by older men, often not even bothering trying to hide their fetish for Asian girls?). I’ve been to cons where I could count the number of POC attendees on one hand, cons where I’ve had my interest in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars dismissed, cons where it’s been assumed I was clearly there just for my male partner, cons where I’ve been told it’s “cute” that I’m a writer. SO MUCH FUN RIGHT?

These problems aren’t new to cons, they’ve always been there–marginalized fans have been dealing with them from day one. The difference is, more and more, we’re refusing to tolerate or excuse them, and demanding those problems be addressed, because why shouldn’t we also be having fun at cons? The institution and enforcement of anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct have done a lot to make cons fun for everyone, not just those who are less likely to be targets of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of bigotry and discrimination (nevermind those who’ve been allowed to get away with said awful behaviors). Knowing that a con–or any other event–not only expects attendees, vendors, volunteers, and staff to abide by a minimum standard of decent behavior, but will enforce the rules and deal with infractions, makes it more possible for us to actually have fun, whether we’re there for play, for work, or for both, because we know that if we run into trouble, the con will help us.

The widespread adoption and implementation of anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct has made it a bit easier for people like me to be more involved in fandom. They don’t mean that I never run into problems, but it’s less likely those problems will outweigh the time and effort I invest in those cons. It’s because of my participation and attendance at cons as both a fan and a pro that I was able to meet people and find opportunities that helped me get to where I am now. Expectations of professionalism on the part of con organizers are not unreasonable simply because those organizers are volunteers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong about professionals treating cons as a workplace (particularly if they’re guests who have been contracted by the con for their presence) and nothing preventing pros and fans from being friendly with each other. There’s nothing about running your con with a minimum of professional standards, practices, and behavior that excludes everyone also having fun.

If your fun is dependent using your status as a volunteer as an excuse to not act responsibly, if it requires victims to stay quiet about mistreatment: then it’s not really a fun time for “everyone” is it? It’s not the expectation of professionalism that’s killing the fun at cons, it’s the lack of it.

Michi Trota is the Managing Editor of the Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award finalist Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, a two-time Hugo Award finalist, and the first Filipina Hugo Award winner. She is an essayist, public speaker, fire performance artist, and serves as President for the Chicago Nerd Social Club Board of Organizers.

Photo by Bill Whitmire.

4 responses to Volunteers, Professionals, and Who Gets to Have Fun at Cons

  1. Trae Dorn says:

    Almost every con in Wisconsin is fan run (the only exception I can think of off the top of my head is Wizard World’s recent foray into the state), yet most seem to be able to deal with harassment issues much more successfully (some better than others I’ll admit).

    Frankly, “run by fans” is such a nonexcuse in these situations, my eyes can’t roll hard enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wendy says:

    I am on the board of a convention that has bounced staff members for violations of the COC while in mid-convention, and their willingness to do things like this is what makes me WANT to work for them.

    Liked by 1 person

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