WisCon and Harassment

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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June 1, 2014

Some background.

WisCon 38 happened the last weekend in May and one of the things that came out of the post-con reports was that Jim Frenkel was allowed to attend and not only that, he was allowed to volunteer in the consuite.

This is not okay.

Also not okay? The fact that WisCon’s con comm buried a report of harassment about one of the convention’s regular attendees for ten months. (ETA 6/12/14: screencap)

Rose Lemberg’s harasser, F.J. Bergmann, was allowed to volunteer as well. At the registration desk.

And then, Lauren M. Jankowski, who filed a report about Jim Frenkel last year found out that her report had been lost and she was told that the other person who reported had requested he not be banned, which turned out to be not true. And she blames herself for believing what the convention volunteer told her: “…a con safety volunteer told me that the harasser was back because the individual had requested he not be banned.”

Again. This is not okay.

WisCon, get it together. You’re allowing known harassers not only to attend your convention after reports have been filed, you’re allowing them to volunteer and interact with vulnerable members of the convention.  You’re losing reports of harassment for months on end and allowing serial harassers who just happen to be local to continue to attend. You’re lying to people who have been harassed and putting the blame for that misinformation on other people who have been harassed. You’re also not engaging directly with people who have raised concerns about their safety at your convention.

Not. Okay.

Here’s WisCon’s harassment policy (scroll down).

How nice to see that people accused of harassment have the right to appeal. What about the rights of those who have been harassed? Do they have the right to have their reports responded to in a reasonable length of time? Do they have the right to not be lied to about actions taken or not taken? Do they have the right to attend a convention and know that their harasser will not be there? Or if they are there, that they will not be allowed to volunteer in public-facing positions?

Whose side are you on, WisCon? From where I’m sitting, it looks like you’re privileging local attendees with a history of harassment and that is not okay.

This feels entirely too much like what happened with Readercon in 2012they went against their own policy in part because René Walling was (and still is) a SMOF; it took considerable public pressure to force them to reconsider their decision and rework their policy.

Where’s the public pressure on WisCon?

(Thanks go to AS, AJ, and SA for reading this for me before it went live. Much appreciated, gentlepersons.)

(Also note that I will be moderating the ever-loving fuck out of the comments.)

ETA: WisCon published an official statement last night after this post went up. I find it curiously unsatisfying as responses go.  The co-chairs for WisCon 38 were Joanna Lowenstein & Piglet Evans. Veronica Schanoes dug up this information; it was not anywhere on the WisCon website.  Great transparency there.

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  1. Veronica Schanoes

    I’m genuinely surprised. I would have thought that in the wake of the incredible publicity around Readercon 2012–and the massive public steps Readercon has taken to make amends and make sure it doesn’t happen again–other cons, particularly politically aware cons, would have taken notice. This just seems like such an eminently avoidable, incredibly stupid move on their part. Appalling.

  2. aegtx

    I’m very glad to see that Debbie Notkin is going to be the member advocate. I think she’s exactly the right person for the job.

  3. akycha

    I don’t know about public pressure, but attendees were encouraging each other to use the feedback survey to make their feelings known. The con got a 2-page screed from me pasted into the final comment box and would have gotten more if I had read some of your links beforehand.

    I’m also really glad to see that Debbie Notkin is going to be involved.

  4. Madame Hardy

    Thank you for this clear and well-linked summary, and for your outrage. Enough.

  5. K. Tempest Bradford

    I want to address one point in your post: WisCon did not go against it’s own policies in order to protect anyone. The issue was that the policy was not clear in terms of procedure. The problem in the background is a different problem, but still very much a problem.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Thank you for the clarification, Tempest! It’s not completely clear what the policies really are, so. Yeah. We are agreed that it’s a problem and more clarity would be super-helpful.

  6. kate


    I was so hoping they’d get it together. And they still can. And I hope they do.

    WisCon, this is not OK.

    I’m also posting, though, to mildly protest the use of “lying” in this context. It seems clear that it’s a long series of fuck-ups, misunderstood communications, improper apportioning of responsibilities, and dropped threads. Which is egregious enough on its own. Attributing malice aforethought seems slightly unfair, given that they’re clearly able to fuck up considerably without being malicious about it.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      I wish I hadn’t used that word. I was angry when I posted. There’s clearly some serious process issues in the organization. (I just now found your comment in my spam filter, sorry!)

  7. Sami

    I think part of the problem here is that WisCon appears to be trying to set up a pro-women, feminist space while being totally equal in accessibility to men.

    Which doesn’t work, yet. Because power structures and privilege, so if you want to be truly safe for women you have to have a bias against men sufficient to offset the power imbalance they enter with.

    If someone is accused of sexual harassment, they should have a right to appeal, but pending due appeal and investigation, their access to con spaces should be suspended, because that’s the only way to guarantee the safety of the people they may well have harassed.

    If you’re concerned about the harm it does to a man’s reputation to be accused, then the deal you offer is: “We won’t tell people about this until we’ve investigated, but stay away from the con. Make whatever excuses you need to in order for this to seem like it was your idea, but skip it.” And then investigate promptly.

    I mean, harassment needs to be dealt with seriously regardless, but WisCon makes a claim of being *overtly* aimed at people other than (white) men, so it’s the con that specifically needs to stop privileging their wants so damn much.

    Treat their con attendance less as a right that can only be removed with Sufficient Reason. They’re not citizens, they’re on a tourist visa, and they can be deported if they’re making too much of a nuisance of themselves.

    That way, you can still have decent men made welcome, but poorly house-trained curs can be evicted without ceremony or drama that has to be indulged.

  8. kate

    @Natalie Luhrs: “…I was angry when I posted.”

    Imagine that, being angry about something rage-inducing. Can’t imagine why *that’d* be happening.

    Anyway. It occurred to me that quibbling over wording while basically only scratching the surface of the actual problem is pretty classic derailment, so, um, sorry about that.

  9. Veronica Schanoes

    @Sami: I’m not sure that’s even the problem in this case. Whatever happened was well-documented enough and egregious enough that it led to Tor cutting ties. We’re not being told that any investigation is ongoing. Nobody’s claiming that Frenkel didn’t do whatever it was that Matthesen and Jankowski reported. He just came back anyway.

  10. F.J. Bergmann

    I am not a “known harasser.” I am an _accused_ harasser—and the accusations are false. I did not intend to harass or bully Rose Lemberg in any way. She chose to interpret a poem written years before as a personal attack (the poem is now published at http://the-toast.net/2014/06/11/poem-f-j-bergmann/). Sonya Taaffe had suggested I submit the poem to Stone Telling, which Rose edits—and where Sonya has been published, two weeks before that WisCon—a clear indication to me that there was no reason to expect it to be offensive. I have no recourse. WisCon was not interested in allowing me to clarify matters in the absence of a formal complaint from Rose, and those who accused me have been very careful not to address the countering evidence I have offered.

    We are now, as a community, at the mercy of anyone who cares to make a claim of harassment, because it is a given that anyone claiming to be a victim must be supported at all costs, that anyone who is accused should be immediately deprived of their rights, and screw due process. I think this is both shameful and frightening. It must stop.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      @F.J. Bergmann: A few things. First of all, a formal complaint was filed–as detailed in the open letter linked in this very entry (screencap), WisCon chose to take no action on that complaint for ten months. Whether this choice was intentional or the result of a procedural/communication problem within the convention committee is unknown. So your claim that there is no formal complaint is false.

      Furthermore, one day before your poem was published by The Toast, this announcement was made by Debbie Notkin in the WisCon community on LiveJournal. So an investigation will happen, but not until the one regarding the complaints about Jim Frenkel are resolved. So your claim to no recourse is also false.

      It’s also interesting that you invoke Sonya Taaffe as a defense now when previously you accused her of unprofessional behavior that was subsequently refuted by Niall Harrison, the editor of Strange Horizons.

      This is where things get more subjective on my part: if I had read a piece that someone believed was directed at them and they made their feelings extraordinarily clear, I would hope that I wouldn’t behave as you have. I would hope that I would reflect upon what I had been told I had done and that I would do my dead level best to make it right with that person.

      I find the timing of the publication of this poem extraordinarily suspicious; I know that The Toast has a queue, but they don’t publish a tremendous amount of poetry and I know they like to mix things up in terms of content and in light of the recent discussions about Patricia Lockwood’s work and its reception by male critics…

      You have a history of being dismissive of other people’s experiences when it comes to harassment, you were in Jim Hines’s blog defending Jim Frenkel and being dismissive of Elise Matthesen’s complaint. So you will excuse me if I don’t believe your protestations here that you’re being unfairly persecuted.

      Finally, intent is not a +20 defense against an accusation harassment or bullying–I have hurt people without intending to do so and it has always been more important to me that I make amends and acknowledge what I have done than it is for me to be right. I’m sorry that you seem to feel otherwise.

  11. Veronica Schanoes

    @F.J. Bergmann: “We are now, as a community, at the mercy of anyone who cares to make a claim of harassment”

    This is so much nonsense. Yes, look at Jim Frenkel, welcomed back at the community’s premiere feminist conference–as are you; what savage justice has been meted out. What you interpret as “at the mercy of anyone who cares to make a claim of harassment” is, in actuality, merely what happens when a significant portion of the community no longer automatically dismisses such complaints as “no big deal” or “just the way it is” or “what you have to expect.” It no doubt seems unjust to harassers, used as they are to receiving unquestioning social license to operate, but providing targets of harassment with an assumption of good faith and taking their complaints seriously is due process.

    And in the absence of a formal complaint, why would Wiscon give two shits about allowing you to “clarify matters”? How would it be their problem?

  12. Steve

    Regarding your clarifications, you did see the comments on your own blog linking to proof that you inaccurately accused a publisher of violation your copyright, yes?

    Inaccurate clarifications that would be libel if you knew or didn’t care about the truth are somewhat less than helpful to your case.

    • F.J. Bergmann

      Sonya Taaffe publicly offered to send my poem, which she had rejected, to “the necessary authorities”—her words. Her attempt to do so was a clear violation of both my copyright and editorial ethics.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      @F.J. Bergmann: Here’s some context for that. I know you’re not a fan of context but you know, considering that you read the poem out loud and that copies of it weren’t available for the WisCon committee to review in light of the complaint, well. I can see why the offer was made. And it is, generally, in alignment with the publication’s confidentiality statement.

    • F.J. Bergmann

      Strange Horizon’s confidentiality statement was hastily revamped following my demand for editorial accountability, to retroactively permit Sonya Taaffe to act as she did.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      @F.J. Bergmann: I’m going to suggest that you take a break from commenting here for a while.

  13. Ann Somerville

    I’m as wary as anyone could be of accepting charges of harassment without substantiation, having been the target of this myself and knowing for a fact how this shit can be beat up when one side is considered more ‘worthy’ than the other.


    Ms Bergman, you are telling lies about people. You cast doubt on people who made the incredibly difficult decision to expose a powerful and long-term abuser and harasser, based on nothing but the harasser’s own account of his behaviour. And you are pushing to publish a poem which you have known for two years has, at the very least, upset people, at the very time when your problematic behaviour has been made public, instead of waiting for the ‘due process’ you’re so hot on, to occur.

    Innocent or not, you are behaving really, really badly. I read the poem and at first glance, it seemed clever and well written. I still think that, although, I also agree that this interpretation by the SH editor, Sonya Taffe, is quite valid:

    The details Rose cites are all present, and the poem moreover depends on a characterization of its Baba Yaga as an unattractive deceiver who strings the American along for as much as she can get out of him financially, which is not a component of the original folktales, but does play up to stereotypes of untrustworthy, chiseling (foreign) women. The American is a walking case of male privilege, but the poem ultimately presents him as victimized.

    It’s not a feminist poem, and reading it at WisCon was amazingly tin-eared of you, in the kindest interpretation. No, you may have not done it with the intention of harassment. But you’re behaving like a threatened harasser now, and if you want people to take your defence seriously, I suggest you stop doing that.


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