My Cane is Not A Costume – Convention Exclusions and Ways to Think About Oppression at Cons

An editorial by Derek Newman-Stille

A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille
A Geek Diversity assemblage by Derek Newman-Stille

On a regular basis at speculative and other fan conventions, I get knocked around, shoved, pushed out of the way. People assume that because I am using a cane, I am taking up more than my fair space, after all, I have THREE whole legs on the ground (two legs and a cane). I hope this is because they assume that my cane is the equivalent to their lightsaber, a performative piece, a part of a costume… That is my hope.

However, I have seen issues of systemic ableism at cons. There have been recent discussions of the sexism that happens at cons, and I hope to add to that discussion by brining attention to other (perhaps associated) forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and ableism. Sexism still continues at cons. I just recently attended a con where a panelist referred to the only female person on a panel he was on as “little lady”, and I certainly see it in the ogling of women that happens constantly.

Some cons have started to create harassment policies, which, while a start, are still not addressing the underlying cultural issues where harassment is considered okay. Most of the people who engage in harassing behaviour don’t look at the harassment policy because they don’t think that they harass people. Harassment policies are an important first step toward creating a safe space for diversity, but we need to find further ways of creating and maintaining those safe spaces.

A lot of people who attend cons are people that, in their past, have been bullied, and I wonder if this has created a notion that “I am the person who is bullied, and therefore I can’t be bullying others”, which may lead to a lack of critical self questioning about “are my words or actions bullying or making others uncomfortable?”.  We can think about this collective act of being bullied as a way of teaching ourselves to be aware of the experience of oppression and how it plays out against individuals and groups of people and work toward creating an oppression-free space. After all, since we have been bullied, we should be able to empathize with others who have and are experiencing it now. A good step that we could take at cons would be to offer a panel that allows us to talk about bullying and the creative ways that we can work toward ending oppression. Rather than specifying types of bullying (since this often means that people who haven’t experienced that specific type of bullying won’t attend), a general discussion of bullying of fans can be discussed.

I have noticed a great deal of homophobia in the general mocking of queerness, homophobic language, and in the reaction, particularly of fans to males cosplaying as female characters – the reactions are those of disgust and censor. This year at a fan convention (I will leave off specifics here since I want this to be a general discussion, not an attack on a specific con), I attended the cosplay masquerade because I enjoy theatrical play…. But what I witnessed was a systemic “ewww” from a large number of audience members when the sexy woman in costume on stage revealed his very male face under his mask (I use “he” here because I don’t think the cosplayers were trans, I think they were just having some fun celebrating female characters). But there is an issue when the reaction to gender play is met with cries of “what the hell” by audience members… and this is tied to the sexist looking at women as objects of desire and the revelation that their object of desire is male under the mask or make up.

I have noticed ableism (discrimination against the disabled) in con staff at various cons telling people in wheelchairs that they can’t use the elevators closest to events because “it will let you cut in line”, in the number of people who move people in wheelchairs (literally pushing the chair of another person out of their way) or stand in front of them, and, personally, in the number of people who run into, push, or otherwise knock me or my cane to the ground. I noticed it at a recent con when I was told that I couldn’t sit on the ground off to the side because other people might want to stand there (despite the fact that I am sitting due to pain and the inability to stand much longer). I experienced it again when I set my coat on the edge of a table that was empty apart from a few pamphlets at the far side and empty water glasses around the cooler, so that I could adjust my cane to stop being in pain, and juggle the items I was carrying, only to have someone shove my coat to the floor. Even though I explained that I am disabled and in pain and just needed to set my coat down for a moment in the empty space at the corner of the table, I was told “I don’t care what your EXCUSE is. This is my table.”

Our society seems to have become one that believes that disability means “disability perks”, that somehow because the larger bathroom stall is marked with a disabled sign and the closest parking space has a disabled sign, that this means that disabled people are getting “perks”, “extras”, things that the able bodied don’t get. I think a lot of people forget that this is because we need more space to maneuver our slightly different bodies, we need closer spaces to keep our pain levels down or give us room to exit our vehicles by chair. Rather than paying attention to the needs of bodily difference, there is an assumption that “fair” means “the same”, without understanding that my “day’s activity” may cause me debilitating pain where an able-bodied person’s “day’s activity” won’t. I may need to sit. I may need to rest. I may need to not be pushed or shoved because these cause extra pain on a body that is already stretched to its tolerance limits so that I can enjoy the same con, share my experiences with other conventioners, and maybe even give some panels that will entertain.

I have talked a lot about my own experiences here, but I think we need to pay attention to the ways that we exclude, the ways that we accidentally make certain bodies uncomfortable, pained, or endangered… because most of these behaviours ARE ACCIDENTAL, most of them are not intended to be malicious but are rather the products of a society overall that has behaviours and attitudes that are sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic. We can start to change this by being vigilant, by paying attention to the ways that our words or actions may exclude or oppress. We need to check ourselves AND OTHERS when they objectify women, try to claim that they know a culture better than the people who belong to it, make generalizations about race or ethnicity, make a space inaccessible, or make remarks that make GBLTQ people feel uncomfortable or threatened (all of which I have seen at cons).

There are genuine acts of kindness and support from our convention community – people have often held doors for me, pulled chairs from the stacks so I can sit, helped to respond to homophobic remarks by others, and these are things to be celebrated, acts of a community of bright, interesting, creative people who are working together to access that shared creative, brilliant, excited, fantastically geeky community of different individuals.

With all of our geeky enthusiasm, brilliance, and creativity, we can figure out ways to shift a culture that excludes or oppresses certain people. We can work together to shift some of these embedded ideas that privilege certain bodies at cons.

My cane is not a costume … and there is room for all of the assistive tech, attitudes, and thoughts needed to include diverse bodies AND all of our costume paraphernalia. Let’s think about some new ways that we can make our cons places of comfort for all of our expressions, needs, and interests.

Derek Newman-Stille

10 Responses

  1. Dear friends. I have already received messages from people asking which cons and which individuals were responsible for these acts of ableism, homophobia, etc. I would ask that, rather than finding specific individuals to be held responsible, we invite everyone to the discussion of how we experience discrimination and how we prevent discrimination in the future. There is more pedagogical value is raising awareness and inviting more people to question and change their views than in finding specific individuals or individual cons to be held responsible and avoiding them. This is a systemic issue, and one that is likely experienced by individuals in diverse ways at most cons. We can make change happen by getting involved and inviting people to change and consider new viewpoints.

    • I agree that we should focus on all cons being more friendly to all genders, sexual orientation, and disabilities. I have to say I am SO glad I have NOT experienced those things as a disabled woman. I have the pleasure of saying people help me out, offer to wheel me, ask me if I need a chair, etc. I wish you (and ALL of us and humanity) a happy, healthier con future. One we ALL deserve! 🙂

      • That is fantastic Rebecca, and, yes, you are right, we definitely need to make cons inclusive and safe for everyone. Hopefully we can keep working as a group toward making sure that all cons are safe spaces for all bodies and identities.

  2. “racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism”
    Let’s not leave out fat-shaming or weightism, however you’d like to phrase it. Honestly, I don’t really like either of the terms, but the problem is real and often goes ignored in the face of other discrimination.

    That being said, I’ve had plenty of disabled friends and my mother’s currently in a wheelchair (though temporarily). I’d probably react poorly (angrily) to seeing them discriminated against, shoved, or unwillingly moved. I’ll make a point to keep an eye out for this sort of behavior the next time I’m at a con or workshop and try to stamp it out.

    Thanks for the post,

    • Thank you Dusty. That is a really important inclusion. There are so many different types of discrimination that happen at cons and it is important to be aware of all of them. Thank you for adding this since weightism/fatphobia is another type of discrimination that I have seen occur regularly, particularly against people who are cosplaying. I am glad that you have added this note to this post.

  3. Sadly I won’t be attending any ComicCons this year due to ableism. I am unable to stand for an hour in a lineup. I asked if there were any alternatives, and I was told if I didn’t want to stand outside I could have someone else stand in line for me. But I wasn’t at the Con that day with anyone. I asked if they would permit me to bring a companion along for free who would stand in line for me. No, was the answer. So I tried it one time. I sat on the tarmac in the parking lot where the lineup was but the lineup kept moving so I had to standup, walk 5 steps and sit on the ground again (no seating was provided). I couldn’t keep this up so gave up after 30 mins.

    I carry a cane and have a visible limp. Everything at ComicCons involve queueing up, sometimes for hours. I can’t carry a chair and can’t push myself in a wheelchair so what do they expect me to do?

    • Finarda, thank you for sharing your own experiences here too. I am glad that this post has opened a place for us to talk about the experiences we have had because hopefully it will allow us to change some of the ableisms at conventions and advocate for some inclusivity.

  4. This last weekend I was at Faeriecon and wanted to get a book signed. Last year I pointed out several things the con should do to make it more accessible, and none of the changes were put in affect. When it came apparent that I couldn’t stand in line the person behind me ask about getting a chair for me and then moved the chair along the line each time I got up.

    I do accessibility for 2 local cons and worked with staff to make sure they know that anyone who asks for a blue dot to put on the back of their badge, must be given a seat, or any other accommodations needed during the con. Most of the people who ask for the blue dot wear it proudly on the front of their badges.

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