Content warning(s): mentions of harassment and stalking.
Tarana Burke's ponytail is fabulous.
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing it in person, on April 30th, from the fourth row, fifth seat, house left. In front of us were VIPs; behind us were students and already-graduated students, some of whom were talking about their own experiences with cultural appropriation and where the lines of disrespect might lie. Beside me, skip an empty seat that he refused to let anyone sit in, was an older white man, presumably a professor, talking about how "harsh" his upcoming review might be. I could feel that he knew this wasn't for him, and he seemed dragged there. He didn't clap the entire time.
The white dean of the library mispronounced Tarana's name several times while introducing her; the white president of the university went with the safer "Ms. Burke," but repeated some parts of what the dean (who presents as a woman) had said. I wondered what the row of white, mostly blonde women in the front house right were thinking. I wondered what the black and brown audience members were thinking. Personally, I found it fitting: the self-unaware white world welcoming a black woman with a name that isn't hers to a stage they pat themselves on the back for setting up.
(Tarana adjusted the lectern for fear it would tip over.)
She began by asserting that we're about to lose the #MeToo movement because the media is calling it a "moment," stripping it of meaning and turning it into something that is for them, when it was created by us. 15 million, was it? The number of people who tweeted the hashtag within 24 hours of its creation in 2017. I wondered how each and every one of those survivors felt a year later in October of 2018.
Despite knowing "how it began," I learned a lot from Tarana's explanation of the beginnings of "#MeToo." It sounded like a familiar story: in doing pioneering social work with "opportunity-denied" girls (a.k.a., what most people call "at risk"), she found that no fewer than 75-100% of them had experienced sexual violence of some form in their lives. Kind of like how I have yet to attend a con where someone, in some way, discloses to me that something not-okay happened to them either at that con, another con, or online in our community. Tarana chose "me too" as the representative phrase for the movement because those two words were the exact ones she found she couldn't say when one of her mentees needed to hear it.
Tarana talked about safety in communities. "Why is our community not keeping people safe?" she asked. I already knew the answer, but she outlined it brilliantly. Although survivors do have the right to seek justice for their singular circumstances, addressing only individual "bad" actors will NOT change the culture. What does that mean? While we can and absolutely should call out Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly, calling out those individuals doesn't account for the guys—usually I mean cis men—who think they're "good guys" but who move goalposts in order to assure themselves that they are not like those major offenders. I can't summarize it as well as Hannah Gadsby (of "Nanette" on Netflix) here, so:
Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby is sick of 'good men' giving their 'hot take' on misogyny. pic.twitter.com/ecWotTs9hI— SBS News (@SBSNews) December 6, 2018
Tarana's example was the timely Joe Biden incident. The problem, she said, is that he isn't a sexual predator. Yet, every news outlet wants to call him this, and then wants to debate the notion that calling him a sexual predator for "rubbing (a woman's) shoulders from behind while smelling her hair" is too sensitive. Honestly, Tarana deserves an award for not saying "FUUUUUUCK THAT" because, in my humble opinion, FUCK the media for that. Joe Biden is a "good guy," which now either means he's innocent and we're ruining his career, or that all men are bad and never change. Because we never allow them to. We don't give cis men the space to be accountable for their actions, especially when it's as "minor" as making someone uncomfortable.
She moved on to briefly mention Kavanaugh. Regardless of what side you're on, there was a moral imperative that Kavanaugh missed during Dr. Ford's testimony against him. Remember when he was making extremely defensive statements and physical expressions? What he could, and should have said, is as simple as this: "I drank a lot in my youth. I might have even qualified as an alcoholic. When I went to that party, while I might not remember what I did, it doesn't sound like something I wouldn't have done when I was that age. But regardless of what I did, I was young and ignorant. When I realized that, I spent decades in my life trying to be a different person from the drunken partier so that nobody would have to suffer at my hands." An "I'm sorry" would have been nice, too. But essentially, what we want is this: admit you made a mistake/hurt someone by your actions, and then take steps to PROVE you are doing everything you can to make sure you personally won't do it again. Go to counseling. Join or start organizations to end sexual violence. Vocally and publicly support survivors. Speak about how wrong you were and how you changed to be different from the person you were.
Back to "why is our community not keeping people safe?" The answer is: unchecked accumulations of power and the misuse of privilege. For example: a con chair whose con developed from, say, 10 people to 10,000 people, and when an attendee the con chair doesn't know mentions that a potential known stalker wants to attend that convention, assumes that it's a "personal issue" and writes a public post about how "we can't assume someone is a predator when they're innocent" (even with proof that they are a predator). Or a con chair who decides that someone's complaint about the lack of diverse content is a personal attack against them, replies in an unprofessional and defensive manner, blames a staff member by publicly throwing them under the bus, and then refuses to acknowledge that they have caused a problem for the attendees of that convention. Y'know, for-profit con chairs. Just ONE example of unchecked power.
The truth is, those people at the top don't want to admit that people at their conventions feel unsafe. That's how they started asserting "Cosplay Is Not Consent" as they covered their asses from impending potential lawsuits. Rather than addressing the root of the problem—unchecked accumulations of power and the misuse of privilege—they waived responsibility of safety to the attendees themselves; to their staff members, who may or may not be predators themselves with victims too scared to come forward for repercussions; to their security volunteers, who may not be trained to handle sexual assault at all, much less the kind of very particular sexual assault that happens when one is cosplaying; to "common sense" in a community of neurodiverse and self-described "socially awkward" people who don't necessarily have peer-to-peer experience with what harassment, stalking, abuse, and sexual assault are like for other people.
What I'm saying is: Tarana, Hammer, Hits Nail Directly on the Head.
That's the exact reason I devised the report card to publicly identify conventions' harassment policies. You can use the policy in a time of crisis or not, but it needs to be there, and it needs to be functional in order for the con to be at all safe.
There's a sense of urgency that accompanied the end of segregation that's impossible to recreate with survivors of sexual violence. We don't have gunshot-dead bodies lying in the street. Instead, we have the media breathing down our neck, waiting to pounce on the next survivor who publicly comes forward so they can wring the story out of them until suddenly, the survivor has "ruined the life/career" of the offender, and the survivor is now the enemy. (She left out the part where, typically, the offender's life and career aren't ruined AT ALL, and almost all accused offenders end up back in their chosen field, some with more support than before. Meanwhile, a survivor's life changes forever, and many receive death threats.) To paraphrase, "the media still thinks this is about them. It's not for them. It's for us." I couldn't agree more.
When ABC reached out to interview CSSN in October 2018, it wasn't because they recognized cosplayer-survivors needed a platform. It was because New York Comic Con was back in town and they wanted to pretend to care about "Cosplay Is Not Consent." That's a perfect example of a "moment" over a "movement" right there—it's featured in bits and pieces, always removed from its context, most often told by cosplayers who don't mention that harassment, stalking, abuse, and assault happens when the cameras aren't on them (or cosplayers who haven't been stalked, abused, or assaulted, which assumes ONLY the lightest possible offenses occur, or only cis white cosplayers, etc.); that the culture of our "fans" is not our peer-to-peer culture; that the online communities can bully us to the point of quitting or hiding. It goes so much further that the singular scenario "Cosplay Is Not Consent" describes. I found myself bouncing in my seat wanting to scream about how bad that phrase is for us, and how the media ascribes it as the "#MeToo" of the convention world. It cheapens the intersectional origins of "#MeToo" and everything Tarana has done in her life to say that "Cosplay Is Not Consent" is "#MeToo."
I'd like to circle back to the public accusation cycle. What we're seeing right now on Twitter, and what we've been seeing for the last six months, is the evolution of that cycle into something even more despicable. I'm talking about Vic Mignogna.
It started with a tweet about cosplayers experiencing harassment/assault/etc going viral. Then those in the industry—with influence—brought up experiences with Vic and created a hashtag. More and more individuals, including celebrities, talked about their experiences, and as it went viral, those supporting Vic created their own hashtag—#IStandWithVic. People within that hashtag went on to bash, harass, and Spanish Inquisition any survivors and supporters. Vic made a fauxpology (see our glossary for a definition). While many cons removed Vic as a guest, some chose to add him (or add him back after cancelling him). He was fired by Funimation and Roosterteeth, prompting more backlash from his supporters—"you're ruining this man's career without evidence!"
Then after fans raised $100,000 (at the writing of this article, the GoFundMe is now up to $177,000) for legal fees, Vic hired an attorney, claiming defamation and tortious interference against Funimation and three of his more outspoken critics. Backlash against the survivors & supporters intensified, especially as YouTubers realized an easy way to get clicks, views, and money was to create hit pieces on those who had come forward with their stories and those who chose to support them. Some of them produced daily videos and implored their followers to create memes of those in the KickVic movement to be featured in the videos. These memes were often deeply offensive, misogynistic, and transphobic.
One particularly vocal supporter was banned from Twitter three times as the IStandWithVic proponents abused the reporting system. These individuals had previously identified as cis men and retweeted many memes mocking the supporter with transphobic insults (even though the supporter herself is cis). When they failed to have her banned simply by reporting her tweets calling them out for their abuse, they changed their Twitter bios to state they used "they/them" pronouns, with some of them claiming they had "transitioned" to "armykin." They they encouraged their supporters to mass report any tweets the supporter had made referring to them with "he/him" pronouns, under the guise of misgendering.
As the Vic supporters went on to support another "missing stair" in the east coast cosplay community as he attempted to return to attending conventions, Vic's lawyer and the attorney managing the GoFundMe continued to make YouTube videos discussing the case and their supporters continued to harass the survivors and supporters.
Funimation and the voice actors named in the lawsuit have since filed their response, essentially arguing that Vic doesn't have a legal foot to stand on in terms of evidence, and furthermore didn't abide by certain laws in filing the suit. They state that the alleged defamatory statements were either true, hyperbole, or opinion, and therefore can't be classified as defamation. They point out that Vic made public apologies that allude to his understanding that his conduct was unacceptable, and that Vic's own agents (i.e. his attorney & the lawyer running the GoFundMe) consented to publishing the supposed defamatory statements by discussing them publicly and on social media. Funimation went even further, putting forth the assertion that Vic is "libel-proof"—a legal term basically meaning that his reputation is already irredeemable, so nothing they could do or say would damage it further.
In spite of this, it's clear his supporters are taking it upon themselves to threaten, harass, and stalk anyone who opposes them. He's got the incel community backing him up, and just like TERFS, they're extremely dangerous to marginalized groups, including and especially survivors who are in some other way marginalized. Survivors are now the enemy, and Vic certainly isn't going to lose a source of income as long as he still has fans. The cycle grows more and more violent toward survivors as the year grows, and I'm still unsure how to make others comprehend its seriousness. Mark my words: I am deeply concerned that there WILL be a mass shooting at a convention sometime in the near future; it WILL be a result of misogyny/incel culture; it WILL change the culture for the worse in that it will replace solid policy with police presence and metal detectors. (And have you ever had a head full of bobby pins going through one of those?!) I want to reach out to conventions before that happens, but it already feels too late.
Sexual violence doesn't discriminate and every survivor's voice and lived experience is important, however, it seems a lot of the movement has shone the spotlight on MOSTLY Tarana, and she spoke about how when she suddenly doesn't have enough answers for the press, they're going to halt all momentum we could have had. Her hope is that young people will take up the task of shaping and growing #MeToo into something more, something actually culture-shifting. She reminded us all of how important cis-male—to—cis-male communication about this isue is; if someone says [something like], "This whole #MeToo thing means that I can't even talk to women now," his buddy who's listening hould say, "That's not what the movement is about." We can keep changing and growing and standing up and holding lesser-known people accountable, but it's imperative we get the "good guys" to recognize that part of being "good" is recognizing when you've harmed someone and changing your behavior—not just apologizing—so you are never the offender again. Easier said than done; it feels like so much is out of my personal hands for not being a cis man.
But every baby step is still a step, and we need to nurture those dang babies wherever we can.
Oh how incredibly grateful I was to be there when Tarana addressed Bowling Green State University's administration ('s baby steps) directly. She'd done her "homework" and read the mission statement points that stuck out to her—and then, she pointed out where, in those exact phrases, language should be added to make students feel safer. I've only reached out to a dozen cons or so personally using this method; she does this everywhere she goes. I remember thinking, "I have to do that." Not "I want to"; "I have to." Until every single person at every single convention feels safe when they're there, I have to do something about it.
Thank you, Tarana Burke, for sharing your story. I'm so sorry it happened to you, too, and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure nobody suffers like you or I have.
If you appreciated this article, consider supporting the CSSN by buying Trickssi a coffee on ko-fi.com.