A few days ago, mainstream media widely covered the passage of a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the state of Indiana.
One of the largest organizations protesting this law that masks bigotry and hate behind claims of “restoring” religious freedom was Gencon – the country’s largest gaming convention (reportedly attracting the attendance of over 56,000 fans annually).
Today, Dragoncon, another gigantic fannish institution, announced its opposition to a similar law seeking passage in Georgia.
Two questions emerge: first – how widespread is this legislative quest that would allow bakers to refuse to make gay cakes? (In point of fact, these kinds of laws are enacted for the sole purpose of allowing narrow religious belief systems to intrude into the public sphere; we’re seeing an unprecedented erosion of the separation of church and state, with the “churches” pushing back against the very concept of the public sphere. The bigotry that was once confined to tax exempt, faith only businesses and private dwellings is now making claims on the secular. In other words, people ought to be allowed to express their bigotry in public AND be protected from the consequences of doing so under the color of religious expression.
It’s disgusting, but beyond that, it’s widespread. 31 states and counting have or are in the process of passing such legislation.
The second question is: how far is the fan community willing to go in order to protect itself and its broad engagement with diversity and acceptance?
Both Gencon and Dragoncon have long-term, contractual relationships with the states and businesses where they are held. Gencon’s extends to 2020 – and so far, Gencon is seemingly NOT willing to put its dollars where its mouth is and break the contract. Now for all I know, breaking that contract might kill the con, so perhaps I’m being unfair in suggesting that they do so – but they still should do so. This is not a a business issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s an issue where principal and idealism are at the forefront and if the forces of good are perceived as caving in to economic pressures on this one, we may as well give up the fight and then go and read Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale to see what our future will look like.
Dragoncon has taken a slightly more proactive position – they’ve announced that they will insist that all of the businesses they do business with will pledge not to discriminate on the basis of any ism, or they won’t be working with Dragoncon. And yet, they will still be pumping dollars into an economy that has just demonstrated its unworthiness by contemplating the passage of that bill.
(In re contracts: I wonder if the convention’s attorneys can make anything out of force majeure issues here as a defense against their contract terms; it’s the legislature that is making those states an unacceptable business environment; surely the conventions are entitled to some relief?)
Back in 1978, fandom was right in the middle of this kind of struggle. Back then it was over passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution. The amendment didn’t pass because not enough states ratified it, and one of those states just so happened to be Arizona, 1978’s home state for Worldcon.
The convention’s guest of honor, one Harlan Ellison, was a staunch and vocal supporter of ERA and he vowed that he would not support a state – in any way – that failed to ratify the amendment. Faced with a Worldcon sans GoH, Iguanacon and Harlan put their heads together and compromised; Harlan would not spend one single cent in the state; he’d stay in a Winnebago outside the hotel.
But here again, compromise was compromise. Harlan did spend money in Arizona while attending Iguanacon – I should know because I was one of the staff members who was bringing him his morning coffee – in the suite that he used to take showers and meetings in. That water cost something, and its use accrued to the benefit of the state. The suite cost something, even if it wasn’t in Harlan’s name. The coffee, and the styrofoam cup it came in, cost something too. Every single morning. As did the beer and the ice that Harlan himself helped me dump into the bathtub for the Dead Dog Party.
I don’t fault Mr. Ellison for that compromise – I merely wish to illustrate that it WAS a compromise – just as the more recent case of one John Scalzi who was scheduled for events at SDCC, which ran afoul of his stand against conventions that don’t have good anti-harassment policies. Mr. Scalzi compromised by conducting his signings outside of the venue. Yet people still knew he would be there and no doubt there is at least one attendee who paid money to SDCC in order to be able to meet with John.
Again, I don’t fault Mr. Scalzi’s position. He was handed a pitcher, some water and some limes and told to make lemonade, just as Harlan was. Principal and idealism on the one hand, adoring, economically empowered fans on the other.
This is NOT a choice that our leading lights should be forced to make. But it is one that we can effect.
Given that more than half the country now has unacceptable RFRA legislation, its time to think about what we’re going to do with our events. How can we insure that we’re not doing business with anyone who supports crap like this? How can we bring in guests – who may have expressed strong positions on these issues – without asking them to compromise? How can we use what we have to make those states realize that they’ve made a huge mistake? Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Fandom is a large part of this, whether it realizes it or not. We’ve really just started embracing these issues in effective ways, despite the fact that they’ve been part of our core beliefs from the beginning. We need to address this.
And looking at that map, it may very well be that the solution is to abandon the middle of the country and move our events to the Northeast and the West coast. (Not even Sasquan is safe!)