by Candice Huber, The Dissenting Cupcake
Each year, I attend Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America, and the experience of being surrounded by so many like-minded people is, simply put, amazing. Everything from the Writers’ Symposium to the panels to the gaming leads me to inclusive, progressive, accepting people and genuinely interesting conversations and experiences. One of the best moments of Gen Con for me personally is standing on the dance floor at Union Station during the “nerd party” and realizing that all of the people surrounding me are the people who, at any other party, you normally see standing against the wall or playing with the cat. But here, in this safe, all-inclusive, open minded environment, everyone feels comfortable being themselves. And that is a beautiful sight.
At the 2015 convention, one of the panels I was most looking forward to was called “Writing Women Friendly Comics.” As a nerdy woman interested in seeing more inclusion in the comics that I read and sell, I was curious as to what the term “women friendly” would mean to the panelists, and I was looking forward to having a safe space to discuss these issues with like-minded individuals. One of my friends, Dr. Shereen Naser, a woman of minority status, came with similar expectations. When the panel began, however, our hopes of having a safe space to discuss inclusion quickly dissipated.
To begin with some background, in July 2015, this particular panel received a lot of backlash from the Internet due to its condescending description and all male lineup. Although the panel’s title was “Writing Women Friendly Comics,” the description stated: “Note that this isn’t a Women in Comics panel. Dissenting opinions may occur.” The Mary Sue, a website that gears itself toward geeky women, wrote a story about the forthcoming panel, reaching out to the powers that be at Gen Con and asking why there were no women panelists on the slate. Gen Con quickly responded with a thorough statement, and in addition to getting women added to the panel, they were vocal about their relief that the panel would now include women’s voices. Those of us following the story, including myself and Shereen, were ecstatic to hear that a panel discussing “women friendly comics” would actually have women on it.
Bill Willingham, who is best known for his work on the comic series Fables, moderated the panel and began the discussion with a defensive disclaimer about how the panel was not actually supposed to be about women in comics, but “a certain rabble-rousing website with no journalistic integrity whatsoever tried to redefine this as a women in comics panel” (referring to The Mary Sue). And that was only the first of a slew of misogynistic, ignorant, hateful, devil’s advocacy comments defending white male privilege from Willingham. Any time a woman or non-white male panelist tried to present a personal anecdote, Willingham interrupted with defensive comments. He refused to call on anyone in the audience who was not a white male for questions, and when anyone tried to assert an opinion different from his, he interrupted and talked over them.
Shereen raised her hand almost immediately when the panel began, and she was ignored not only then, but throughout the panel. Willingham did allow several questions from the audience, first from white males, then eventually, from a couple of outspoken women who called him out on his idiocy. Shereen left about 45 minutes into the panel, disgusted and unable to handle the outright suppression.
After this panel, Shereen and I discussed actions we could take to raise awareness and actually call for change. One of the things I could personally do as a woman bookstore owner was pull Fables from my shelves, and when people asked for it, explain exactly why I do not carry the series. Another thing we could do was share our experience. Shereen had her own, different, experience with this panel, and here is what she had to say:
“As a woman of minority status in the U.S., I am used to being an ‘other’ at gaming events. My personal experience with this in gaming circles had been mostly positive, and Gen Con this year  was no different. In fact, it was even better than I expected. One particular event that stands out in my mind was an excellent panel on diversity that I attended. My overall positive experience at Gen Con is why the ‘Writing Women Friendly Comics’ panel left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Bill Willingham’s blatant racism and sexism and his utter unwillingness to consider or hear perspectives other than his own was a strong symbol that no matter how far we have come as a country, and as a community, we still have plenty of room for growth. As I sat in the panel, my raised hand ignored by Mr. Willingham as he glossed over me in favor of other, maybe less visibly agitated, attendees, I was reminded of the struggle of so many against voices of ignorance. Mr. Willingham interrupted every woman speaker, including the women on the panel. Women, whom I would note, were included on the panel only after a strong push from outside criticism about an all male panel on women in comics. While this experience was highly obnoxious, it serves as a reminder for gamers to be diligent in always advocating and promoting diversity amongst each other and also in the games that we play.”
Sitting in that room, I couldn’t help but think this was a microcosm for the world and indicative of a much larger societal problem. This was ONE person, ONE man, and he had all the power. At any moment, every person in that room could have stood up for what we believed, staged a mass walk-out, or done one of a million other things to express our exasperation. But not one person did. Although we cannot speak for every attendee, from our perspective, the entire room felt so suppressed by this one man that we were afraid to speak up. And although you know this type of person and situation exists, to have it right there, right in your face, was deflating. Shereen and I were hoping to have an intelligent discussion and leave feeling uplifted. Instead, we encountered ignorance and misogyny and left feeling devalued. We hope that sharing our experience will inspire people to speak up when finding themselves in a similar situation, because every voice deserves to be heard.
This was originally posted on Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop blog in 2015. It has been edited with updated language.