June 25, 2010 - Lee Thomas
A crowd in nerd shirts, showing love for Trek, Wars, Firefly, and Who files into a convention space in Houston, TX. My torso is similarly wrapped in black, emblazoned with pop culture iconography, but over the decaying zombie face inked on my shirt I wear a sport coat. I am, after all, a respected authority.
Actually, I’m an “Also Appearing” guest at a convention celebrating speculative fiction, and it happens to be Pride Weekend in Houston. My worlds have collided pleasantly. I am in my element, surrounded by one of my two tribes, on a stage at the head of the room, prepared to moderate a panel on diversity and representation.
The crowd is ample, many dozen attendees by casual observation. Even so, the gathering on the stage makes me uneasy. My fellow panelists have arrived, and something is off.
Since this is a panel on diversity, I assume I’m on hand to speak about LGBTQ+ representation in the speculative categories. Maybe one or two of the other panelists are similarly born of fabulosity, but I can’t say for certain. What I can say is we are pale. Very pale. A half carton of Longhorn eggs pale. Considering the panel’s title, “SF Civil Rights Scorecard,” and the program note describing it as a forum to discuss the levels and quality of representation for minority groups in the speculative fields, we are, frankly, too fucking white.
This is not to say that an intelligent conversation on the topic is impossible among such panelists, but...
We begin to speak. The other writer guests talk about characters of color in their own work. They assure the audience these characters have been created with sensitivity. Though I wish otherwise, the panel is not functioning as an analysis of race, culture, or progress in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror literature, and as the panel proceeds my unease morphs into something less pleasant. I’m angry or perhaps frustrated is the better word. I have nothing against the convention organizers (they are very nice, and the convention is, in many ways, excellent). Nor do I feel ill will toward my fellow panelists. They are smart people with books to sell. Even so, our collective qualification appears to be inadequate to fulfill the promise of the program book blurb.
And it’s not just the panel, there’s also…
I interrupt one of the speakers and ask the panelists how many of them identify as members of a minority group. The question triggers scrunched brows and an amusing wriggling of asses in an attempt to alleviate emotional discomfort with some physical repositioning. The answer is none. Then I turn the question on the audience; how many of them identify as “other,” “diverse,” or “minority?” One hand timidly raises and is quickly retracted. Dozens of people occupy the room, but clearly, Diversity has declined the invitation.
I am reminded of Le Guin’s observation from her speech at Book Expo America, “If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don't buy fantasy—which they mostly don't—could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”
It’s easy enough to extrapolate that thought. Could their absence today be because they don’t see themselves in the program books, on the panels, on the stages? Could it be they have better things to do than to listen to the ill-formed judgements of (presumably) well-meaning individuals who have been gathered to score a game they’ve never played?
So, artists of color stay home, and others are tasked with speaking for them, offering deficient perspectives, while occupying the space on panels and stages.
So, artists of color stay home, and…
Lee Thomas is the Bram Stoker Award- and two-time Lambda Literary Award-winning author of The Dust of Wonderland, The German, Parish Damned, and, Like Light for Flies. His short fiction has been reprinted in Best Horror of the Year and Wilde Stories: The Year’s Best Gay and Lesbian Speculative Fiction. His work has been translated into multiple languages and optioned for film.