wombat_socho (wombat_socho) wrote,

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Fandom, safe spaces, and other failures

This is (to some extent) an expansion on yesterday's post about leaving fandom (or not).
It focuses on one of the aspects of SF fandom that was pretty much inherent in its founding and later expanded into areas that I doubt anyone in First Fandom ever considered back in the long-lost Golden Age of 1937-41.

Fandom started out as someplace readers of SF could go to talk about their favorite literary genre without dealing with the social ostracism that usually followed when the people you worked with/went to school with/were related to found out you were reading "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff". That part hadn't changed in the 35 years between the first Worldcon and my entry into fandom at Discon II. It was, in today's argot, a "safe space". Not that you wouldn't get criticized, mocked or satirized, but at least people were reacting to something dumb you said or did instead of just rejecting you out of hand as "one of those people." There was very much an "us and them" mentality, with "them" being all the Mundanes in the Danelaw who just didn't get how cool and awesome and wonderful SF was. This also made fandom into a coping mechanism for a lot of people who weren't very good at dealing with other folks. It allowed them to get to know people at a distance usually through the mail and/or letter columns in SF magazines such as Amazing. It gave them something to talk about. It gave them an outlet for silliness that they didn't feel comfortable expressing around the mundanes.

Things had started changing even before the Trek fans showed up, really. The New Wave came along, taking SF in directions that had more in common with contemporary literature with regard to plotting, characterization, and topics. Even old masters like Heinlein were writing about SEX. Eight years after Stranger in a Strange Land won the Hugo, people were still ranting about the sex and swearing in Joe Haldeman's "Hero"* when it was published in Analog, and threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Others, however, were beginning to get together in the tolerant space provided by fandom, and pretty soon conventions were playing host to a whole range of subcultures that were taking a lot of the New Wave's literary adventurism and applying it to real life. I remember being very surprised to see flyers at Discon II promoting the "Church of the New Egg", a bunch of folks who were trying to live the lifestyle of Valentine Michael Smith and his droogs; thirty years later, as I was picking through the rubble of Minicon looking for ways for ATC to avoid their meltdown, finding out that there was a BDSM "party floor" there didn't surprise me in the least.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not laying all the social ills of fandom (as I have known it) at the door of that crew; if anything, they deserve their props for making an honest effort to secure their space and keep out the underage wannabees as well as other people who really didn't belong there. However, when things get to the point where you have to remind people "If it's illegal outside the hotel, it's illegal inside the hotel", something has gone seriously wrong. Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much from my experience with Minnesota fandom, but there seems to be a real reluctance to admit that in order to have genuinely safe space, you have to either have the people in that space keeping it safe, or have enough staff on hand to do so. Otherwise you're not creating a safe space at all, you're creating a space marked with a big sign saying PREDATORS WELCOME. Safe spaces attract the socially awkward and helpless, and in a perfect fandom the older fans would act in loco parentis and teach them to be less awkward and more capable. Unfortunately, fandom is far from perfect. Here there be monsters, and it's not always easy for would-be sheepdogs on staff to distinguish the truly dangerous from the merely creepy. Easy or not, it has to be done. Otherwise your innocent little lambs get pretty fucked up, and the rest of the sheep (also in my experience) will just turn away - or worse yet, turn on the damaged one.

It's a lot harder now than it used to be. The little slanshack that was SF fandom has grown to something no single building in America can contain any more, and there are some weird, unsavory parts of the city it has become. A lot of the newcomers are coming from a school environment that's every bit as intolerant of real difference as the society that spawned First Fandom, and more vicious in some ways than those fans could even imagine. At the same time, the ghetto that was fandom has evolved...the walls are lower now in a lot of places thanks to Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, and the back room where the otaku used to swap fifth-generation VHS tape copies has become (quite possibly) the largest part of town. Like any city, though, people don't know each other as well as they did when the city was just a small town, and that makes the job of spotting the wolves a lot harder.

There's different approaches to handling these problems. I've always been partial to "on the case and in your face" enforcement at Detour, because I know it works, but other conventions do security differently and it seems to work for them. All that really matters is that somebody's looking out for the kids, because they don't always realize that what they thought was a safe space really isn't, except in a very limited sense.

*This later became the first chapter in his Hugo-winning novel The Forever War, which featured more sex, more swearing, and *GASP* HOMOSEXUALS, OMG!!!! Pretty radical stuff for the magazine once edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Tags: the bush of fandom

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