The Trouble with Token Panels #wfc2009

So this year we have had an LGBT panel at Worldcon and an LG panel at World Fantasy. In both cases the write-up of the panel was all about whether the subgroup in question is now fully accepted by society, with the underlying premise that the answer to that question was “yes”. In both cases the people on the panel answered the question with a resounding “NO”.

Yeah, sure, President Obama has just signed the Hate Crimes Act, and lifted the ban on HIV positive people entering the USA. But you know, if queer people were fully accepted by mainstream society they wouldn’t need hate crimes legislation, would they?

So do you think that maybe next year we could not have any more of those panels, and maybe talk about something else with LGBT themes instead?

It all comes down to tokenism in the end. Having a token gay character in a book might be progress from not having at characters at all, but having just one gay character who appears to stand for all gay people, and whose portrayal is heavy on the stereotypes, and whose function in the story is to highlight the problems of gay people in society, is still all about gay people being a problem. And so are panels like this.

Sadly they are still necessary, because one of the first comments from the audience was someone going on about how as a reader if he discovers that a character is gay he immediately wonders why the author has chosen to make that character gay. And that means that in his mind being gay is somehow exceptional, not “normal”. Being white and male heterosexual is “normal”. Anything else the author is expected to justify in some way. -sigh-

But we did have a good panel today. One comment of Malindo Lo’s that I tweeted got a lot of notice. She said she has got a lot of questions about how realistic it was to have a fantasy world in which there is no homophobia, because didn’t she know that in medieval times people were really homophobic. And she tends to answer those questions by pointing out that her book has fairies in it too. Is it really easier to believe in fairies than in a society that is free from homophobia? Apparently it is.

I also discovered the Doselle Young is a really awesome panelist, so if he’s coming to a convention you are running make sure that you use him.

And finally, to get back to the question of tokenism, I got in a comment about how a single L, G, B or T person tends to get seen as standing for the entire group, which makes writing that character quite difficult. I think it was Grá Linnaea who said, “You know, it is really odd for a gay character not to have any gay friends.”

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11 Responses to The Trouble with Token Panels #wfc2009

  1. farah says:

    In both cases the write-up of the panel was all about whether the subgroup in question is now fully accepted by society, with the underlying premise that the answer to that question was “yes”.

    You keep saying this but I do not know how you came to this conclusion given that both the head of the literature track, and the head of programme at worldcon were queer and neither assumed that the answer was “yes”. I don’t mind you saying that the language wasn’t clear but you know, and I know that there was no such underlying premise.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Farah:

    The write-up of the panel at Worldcon was as follows:

    For a long time, science fiction and fantasy was a safe space for coded discussion of homosexuality. Now the closet doors are open, how can SF respond?

    I appreciate that it may not have been your intention, or the intention of the track head, but to me that pretty clearly says, “things are different now”. The members of the panel also took it that way, and they made a point of saying that they don’t think the closet doors are open.

  3. It was Keffy that said the thing about gay characters having gay friends. But he and Grá were interrupting each other in that way that friends have, so easy mistake!

    I’m the loud jackass with the red hair who was sitting three seats to your right. You make an excellent point. I don’t know if there’s an underlying assumption of “Yes,” because I didn’t take it that way, but it always annoys me that anyone feels like we still need such an entry-level dialogue. I thought the panelists here did a superb job, but by virtue of the lackluster topic, they were rehashing material that much of the audience already understood and agreed upon. I think SF creators are ready to have more advanced discussions. (If they’re not, they’ve fooled me by their intelligent discourse when they have a drink in their hand instead of a mic.)

  4. Cheryl says:

    C. Sän:

    Thanks for putting me right. And profuse apologies to Keffy.

    As to the panel, my main point is that I attended the LG(bt) panels at both conventions and in both cases the panelists expressed their irritation with the way the panel description was phrased. Nancy was very polite. Wendy Gay Pearson at Worldcon was less so.

    So yeah, next year let’s try to something more interesting.

  5. Marc Jacobs says:

    I have a dumb question. Who makes up the panel descriptions?
    You make a good point about the LGBT premise, and the “non-conciliatory fantasy” panelists complained about their premise as well.

    I had naively assumed that the panel leader phrased the question, but this appears to be totally wrong.

  6. Rose Fox says:

    You’ll be happier with next year’s Readercon panels, then. (Come to Readercon!)

  7. Cheryl says:

    Marc:

    Panel descriptions are generally written by the convention’s programming team. At World Fantasy that’s complicated by the fact that the World Fantasy Board gets heavily involved in vetting the program. It is rare for the panel moderator have any say in the panel description. That only happens with conventions like WisCon where the program creation is a collaborative effort of the membership and people can end up being asked to moderate the panels they suggested.

  8. Cheryl says:

    Rose:

    Unlikely, I am afraid. It is the weekend before Finncon.

  9. farah says:

    There is nothing about “the closet doors are open” that implies queer people aren’t discriminated against, beaten up etc. It meant what it said on the tin. The closet doors are open. The problems of writing queerness are different. If they were’t, we wouldn’t have been able to have the panel, you wouldn’t be able to write about it and I woudn’t be able to say here that I am queer, in a forum in which anyone can see me and know that I am queer.

    And like I said: you keep presenting it as if those who came up with the item were straight. That is untrue, and you know it to be untrue.

  10. Cheryl says:

    Farah:

    Can you explain to me where in the post above I say that the people responsible for the programming were straight? Because I can’t see it.

  11. Farah:

    The message you got across is, by many readers comments (including mine, and apparently several of the panelists), different than the one you intended.

    At the outset, I would argue that while SF and Fantasy have been home to safe spaces for the coded discussion of homosexuality, neither then nor now are the SF and Fantasy genres as a whole a safe space (see John C. Wright). That’s a discussion I would love to participate in, though, and it would make an excellent panel.

    I can see how “now the closet doors are open” could be read in the most limited fashion of “homosexuality is no longer the sort of taboo that you can’t even talk about” but I’m going to, at least in part, side with Cheryl in saying, to many readers, the phrase implies a great deal more. It’s a trite catch-phrase, though, and I think your original panel description could have been more attractive had you avoided it.

    Sorry, but both this panel and the “Are Homosexual Characters Past Notice?” from WFC are badly written. They’re overly-broad, a classic characteristic of a generic lgbtq-alphabet-soup panel. They answer questions rather than asking them of the panel. If I was moderating one of these, and I got the description before the press deadline, I would totally be discussing it with the rest of the participants and sending back a rewrite that’s more attractive.

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