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WisCon is back, and taking a hard look at itself

The logo for WisCon 45 is shown against a pastel orange background. The logo consists of the name "WisCon" in large, italicized sans-serif letters, filled in with violet coloring and images of stars. The lower-case "o" has the number "45" inside it, and extends downward to create a "female" symbol.

After a successful fundraiser, the sci-fi con forges ahead with an in-person convention centering safety and institutional growth.

Back for its 45th year, WisCon will return to hosting an in-person convention at the Madison Concourse Hotel this Memorial Day Weekend (May 27 to May 30). A staple of the feminist science fiction and fantasy community since 1977, the entirely volunteer-run convention has served as a crucial space for critical and invigorating thought around issues of gender, sexuality, race, disability, and more for decades. Over the years, guests of honor have included sci-fi and fantasy powerhouses including Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nisi Shawl, China Miéville, N. K. Jemisin, and Charlie Jane Anders. While it’s always taken place in Madison, WisCon’s real community is a far-flung one: the con attracts attendees and volunteers from all over the globe. 

The past two years have presented the con with a number of challenges, both financially and logistically. Leading up to this year’s con, fluctuating COVID-19 restrictions and safety protocols have added a new level of uncertainty about how exactly to pull the event off. The loss of a significant number of volunteers and a struggle to book all of the rooms the con pre-reserves annually at the Concourse put WisCon in deep financial strain, threatening its longevity.

In November 2021, WisCon organizers put out a dire plea to #SavetheCon, setting a fundraising goal of $76,000 and calling for at least 60 volunteers. Luckily, fans and community members rose to the occasion. The fundraiser brought in about $62,000 in donations and a few generous grants. According to WisCon co-chair Kit Stubbs, this amount guarantees that there will be a Con in 2023. “If we had not run this fundraiser WisCon would be broke and in debt,” Stubbs says. “So I am so thankful to everyone in our community who stepped up, who gave money, who has given time to help spread the word. It absolutely saved the Con.”

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While the global pandemic alone brought enough change to the convention-planning landscape, the con’s governing nonprofit, the Society for the Furtherance & Study of Fantasy & Science Fiction, or SF3 for short, also experienced a complete leadership turnover in the fall of 2021. (In addition to co-chairing this year’s convention, Stubbs serves as SF3’s treasurer.) While some might have taken this as a point of instability, the new board members have chosen instead to use this as an opportunity to center intentionality in their planning. “It’s been really interesting to have a clean slate,” SF3 secretary Essay Manaktola says. Manaktola has been a long-time attendee of the con and has sat on panels discussing polyamory in science fiction and fandoms in social media, among other topics. 

“From that perspective, we’ve been working to do a lot of diversity work, especially around racism in WisCon. And in some ways, it’s easier to have a totally brand new start. You’re sort of reinventing the wheel on the one hand. But on the other hand, there isn’t anybody going like, ‘oh, well, this is the way we’ve always done it,'” Manaktola continues.

Planning the in-person 2022 WisCon has been a delicate balancing act: Organizers were determined to center care and honor prior commitments. This year, the con will run on two separate tracks: to ensure that all attendees have quality experiences, sessions will either be held fully in-person or fully online, while bigger events will be livestreamed. In-person attendees will also notice that the convention is leaner this year, with the usual 1,000 person cap being reduced to 600 people, all of whom are required to be fully vaccinated and boosted. Meeting rooms will also contain air purifiers and food will be served in carry-out boxes. 

“The balance we’ve been trying to work with is, ‘To what extent can we be good members? What does being good members of our community mean?’ You know, for our attendees, but also for everyone we work with, for making sure the hotel isn’t losing tens of thousands of dollars, but also not putting people at risk,” Manaktola says. 

Mindfulness around money matters runs both ways for WisCon’s organizers, who have made sure to put a bigger emphasis on financial support this year. Because the majority of the con’s attendees are queer and femme people, many of whom have caretaking responsibilities, the planning committee has been careful to set equitable pricing. This year in particular, the team made sure to push the WisCon Membership Assistance Fund, which aids in covering the costs of travel and car rentals for BIPOC and careworker attendees. The con is also piloting a program that grants its volunteers of color free membership, with no minimum volunteer hours required. 

Historically, one of the main challenges that WisCon has faced is how to be more of an inclusive and comfortable space for non-white attendees. While the Con has done great diversity work on the axes of gender and sexuality, progress on race has lagged. “We’re still trying to make sure we have programming that has frank conversations around racism [and] that we’ve got people of color in panels speaking about those things,” Stubbs says. 

Despite written statements expressing efforts towards racial equity, conferences are often susceptible to including conversations about race as a way to fulfill a diversity quota. Local feminist artist Sam Press, who has been attending WisCon for over a decade, has seen this structural issue play out at other cons she has helped plan, including Capricon and Worldcon in Chicago. 

“Going to [and] working on those conventions and going to others, it’s very easy for conventions to do a panel about race and fandom or race and media, and then put a whole panel of fans of color,” Press says. “And then it’s basically those panels that the fans of color get relegated to and don’t often get the opportunity to add their perspective to topics other than that.” 

To combat this, one of WisCon’s most anticipated panels every year is the “Not Just Another Fucking Race Panel,” which provides authors, creators, and fans of color with the space to talk about anything and everything but race. To ensure that anti-racist work like this continues on an institutional level, the con has also allocated a budget for creating a BIPOC outreach committee to create whatever programming the committee’s members see fit. 

“One of the things that we the board have really championed is putting our money where our mouth is,” Manaktola says. “We [as in] the people who are running a con that has been racist. You know, not necessarily under our guidance, and not any more racist than the ambient culture around us, and hopefully less.” Organizers are hopeful that within its first year, the outreach committee will be able to develop a skeleton for a formal BIPOC Mentorship Program to draw in more young readers and fans of color to the con.

The con’s anti-racist efforts aren’t the only change to how the convention uplifts and celebrates the work of marginalized people. Since 1991, WisCon has been home to the recently-renamed Otherwise Award. Originally known as the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, the honor is “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender,” as its website explains. The Tiptree Award drew its name from the pseudonym under which influential female sci-fi author Alice Sheldon wrote. But in fall 2019, the awards program had to confront that name after taking into account unsettling details about Sheldon’s death. Fans had previously believed that Sheldon died in a suicide pact with her husband, Huntington (Ting) Sheldon, but other accounts and evidence suggest that Ting’s death was an act of caregiver murder

After deep consideration and listening intently to concerned community members’ feedback, many of whom were disturbed by the ableism ingrained in this discovery, the seven members of the award’s administering body, the Otherwise Motherboard, decided to change its name while maintaining its original sentiment. “Otherwise means finding different directions to move in—toward newly possible places, by means of emergent and multiple pathways and methods. It is a moving target, since to imagine otherwise is to divert from the ways of a norm that is itself always changing,” the Otherwise website reads.

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Stubbs, whose involvement with the con started out with volunteering for the Otherwise Award bake sale in 2017, is supportive of the award’s evolution. “When an award is named after a specific person, you just have to be super careful and super mindful about what that is saying, right? That’s like your calling card,” they say. “The Otherwise Motherboard thought very long and hard about that very carefully, and decided that the best thing was to rename the award in a way that felt very true to the spirit of the award.”

As per WisCon tradition, the 2022 festivities will kick off with a pre-Con reception and reading sponsored by A Room of One’s Own Bookstore at the Madison Public Library’s central branch on May 26 at 6 p.m.. One of the con’s four guests of honor, Sheree Renée Thomas, will read from Trouble The Waters: Tales From The Deep Blue, an anthology of speculative fiction stories about ancient waters that features writers from all over the world. Thomas edited the book alongside Pan Morigan and Troy L. Wiggins. It’s an electric body of work and a testament to Thomas’ dedication to amplifying other marginalized voices in the literary world. Thomas published her debut short-story collection, Nine Bar Blues: Stories From An Ancient Future, in 2020. 

“She’s done largely unsung work as an editor for anthologies like the revolutionary Dark Matter: A Century Of Speculative Fiction From The African Diaspora, and using her immense talents and connections to boost fellow marginalized authors of speculative fiction,” Room co-owner Gretchen Treu says. “She’s both a beloved author and a key member of the writing community.”

The con’s much anticipated in-person return comes during what Manaktola calls a sort of “golden age of sci fi.” N.K. Jemisin’s three-peat win for her Broken Earth trilogy in particular (each installment in the series won the Hugo Awards for Best Novel, back-to-back, from 2016 to 2018) is just one powerful illustration of the importance of Black sci-fi authors. “You see so much being published and vocally supported that isn’t just by authors of color, but deeply rooted in their identities as people of color, right,” Manaktola says. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh, this was incidentally written by a Black woman,’ right? This is about the experience of existing as a racialized person, even though there are dragons.”

With our country’s political landscape as hostile as it is towards marginalized people, bodies, and histories—from the passing of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” to the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade and the increasingly restrictive abortion bans cropping up around the country, to Wisconsin’s own war on critical race theory in school curricula—the con remains a critical space to challenge these harmful rhetorics and the real, material hurt that they cause.

“WisCon is a space where we can workshop and test various approaches to surviving and fighting against oppressions and aggressions in the rest of the world. It’s the first space I tried asking strangers to recognize and use my pronouns, for instance, years before it became more widely adopted in larger institutions,” Treu says.

“Coming together in a specifically intersectional space to work through dreaming a better future and learning to care for and understand people with different needs and histories than us is a crucial way to envision a more just future,” they continue. “The practical work of engaging with a truly diverse community and asking people to maintain a higher level of care and consideration for others than we usually find in the wider culture is such an important experience.”

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