An Open Letter on Diversity to Event & Conference Organisers
Last week, I withdrew an invitation to speak at a conference that I was quite looking forward to speaking at. I withdrew because one of my fellow speakers is known to be sexist, transphobic, a rape apologist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist, and he harasses those who call him out on this behaviour. I told the conference organisers exactly why I was withdrawing: that this speaker has persistently made myself and members of my community feel uncomfortable, targeted and unsafe, and that his behaviour has led to his being banned from conferences more than once. I frequently speak at, and have a role in one of my jobs that involves developing speaker programmes, so addressing this is both of personal and professional importance.
The initial response from the conference was encouraging: the person who had invited me responded to say that they had not personally met the other speaker, had not been previously aware of an issue, and understood my need to withdraw. They assured me that they would discuss that speaker’s inclusion with their board, to see whether they could cancel his participation or not.
When organising a conference, having a good, solid, Code of Conduct at your event should be a priority, as well as a good reporting system to assigned members of your staff. Codes of Conduct on your website and said at the beginning of each day or your event, explicitly states that you will not tolerate harassment or abuse of participants, whether you are a speaker or not. Here’s some good guidance, and definitions of what harassment means. This should come into effect even when considering speakers in the first place because who speaks matters. They are the ones that get space, they are presented, by you, to be leading examples in their field. They also dictate who is welcome, and what is valued. You can have speakers of opposing opinion, of course, but those with opinions that put your attendees at risk should be removed.
A few days later, after responding that I was glad they’d taken these steps, they had taken me off the website, with the aforementioned speaker still remaining, emailing to say ‘We’re sorry. Maybe you can speak next year?’. Sadly, as I said in my reply, the best I could say is perhaps, and that their board had not taken this seriously made me reconsider my opinion of their conference.
In their last response, they assured me the decision was not taken lightly, and that they had done their research, but that it wasn’t easy to cancel a confirmed and invited speaker. They would ensure he read their policies, and would monitor his conduct. Understandably, there is a lot of conflict in uninviting a speaker, though there is a lot wrong with ignoring the advice of another speaker whose only option was to remove themselves from an opportunity, to not only bring attention to a point, but in order to feel safe in speaking at an event. You can’t possibly know everything about everybody, it’s impossible, however if someone raises it, it should be discussed, including the consequences should you not remove them from your event.
Sadly, this has happened countless times before. Women, LGB, those of trans and nonbinary experience, people of colour, have had to step aside countless times for their own safety because event organisers choose not to prioritize their concerns and uninvite another speaker. It’s a difficult, high-conflict step to take as an organisation, and one that is hard. There are the known negative aspects — conflict, having to explain why, anger and potentially legal concerns — that often outweigh the unknown positives that result in being willing to do the tough things in order to make it better for everyone. You may never know how many people looked at your conference page, saw that speaker and said ‘Nope’, but in taking that action and choosing to exclude those that are harmful, your conference, and community, will be better. The richness and diversity that will arise because people feel confident at your event will be seen, and noticed, and valued by your audience beyond the life of the event.
I choose not to publish this speaker’s name for my own safety, or to publish the name of the conference as I hope our engagement might make them think next time (and because I know it’s a hard decision to make), but also because this is a story that is universally felt, and has happened countless times before.
This was not about me wanting more exposure, or wanting to speak (and I am sad I even have to anticipate that criticism), this is about highlighting a fundamental problem with conferences and events that claim to show diversity, but do not act when claims of abuse are made prior to (and sadly, during) an event. I write this fully knowing that I put myself at risk by writing this, but I’ve had enough.
Diversity in events is not just about having good gender/trans/queer/POC representation, but about upholding and cementing values that make your participants and speakers feel safe at your event, and able to participate on a level that does not put them at risk. Inviting a speaker, who you are informed is an aggressor, to your conference, or allowing them to speak even after this new knowledge, destroys your attempts to ensure you get a diverse audience, a diverse dialogue, and a great event. Also, speakers, and their communities, talk. If a speaker has had to withdraw because of an issue such as this, you’re damn sure that community will know about it.
Codes of conducts are a good start, but not enough. You need good practises within your curatorial and creative team that ensure circumstances like this are anticipated, listened to, and responded to in a way that benefits those that raise the concern, not the person that concerns have been raised about. You will likely g et difficult responses on Twitter or other platforms, that’s always going to happen, but a day or two of crap tweets will be worth it to those who know that you made a stand and said that this behaviour will not do. That you are behind them and their voices matter. Actions like these lead to lasting, positive change that benefits and empowers everyone.
As one organiser to many, do the right thing, even if it’s awkward, even if it’s hard.
A heartfelt thanks to Georgina Voss and Deb Chachra for feedback and discussion.