I didn't feel safe going into GeekGirlCon. Hours earlier, Game developer Brianna Wu had tweeted about the threats she'd received, about calling the police, about sleeping somewhere else.
Just thinking about it made it hard to sleep. The next day, I was almost late to game critic Anita Sarkeesian's opening panel, and was one of the last to be let in. There had been a bomb threat, of course, though we wouldn't know about it until afterwards. They searched our bags.
Some might say I'm too close to be impartial. Last year, I was a panelist, played a ninja gig in the lobby, and ended up, singing and playing a ukulele, on the cover of the program guide. But this is what I have to tell you: for one weekend this October, GeekGirlCon created an oasis.
The night before it began, Wu left her home. Two days after it ended, staff members at Utah State University received a threat stating that if Sarkeesian were allowed to speak on campus, "she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is."
In between, though, we had these two days at the Washington State Conference Center.
"No matter what you love, what you geek out about, who you are or what you look like, you are welcome," says Amanda Powter, GeekGirlCon's executive director. "Because so many spaces haven't felt or been safe and inclusive for everyone—safe from harassment, open to thoughtful criticism, and encouraging diverse representations—our goal is to create one where people can come, have fun, have meaningful conversations, be themselves, and share their love of whatever it is they geek out about."
But how does GeekGirlCon put this mission into practice? How is language used to create a safe space?
Take an everyday slip of the tweet such as Joss Whedon's statement that strong female leads must "not have peeny/balls." Although transgender women are welcome in the Whedonverse—Whedon supports LGBTQ rights—it's a subtle reminder they aren't actively considered. GeekGirlCon's first measure is to speak truth to copy.
"Language is one of the ways to convey your values," said Powter. "… we use language to signal inclusiveness and to reinforce our core values, as well as have fun with geeky references and interesting topics. This is also an ongoing challenge and an area of constant learning."
For example, the con considers carefully its use of gendered pronouns, whether it acknowledges and uses a proper pronoun or opts for the epicene "they" when speaking generically.
One of the tricky parts of creating an inclusive space is respecting preferences. There are communities that prefer African-American and communities that prefer Black. Some prefer "person with autism" and others that prefer to be identified as Autistic. Some transgender individuals want to be identified as trans, others prefer to be identified simply as women or men. Others choose their identifier depending on the situation. Details are important.
"I don't want to assume how people want to be addressed," said Kristine Hassell, GeekGirlCon's social media manager. "I wait for the person to direct me."
Hassell, responsible for sharing information and interesting stories with GeekGirlCon's numerous followers and fans—as of this writing, 22,400 Twitter followers and 11,729 Facebook likes—sets out to include voices that don't always get heard.
"It would be really easy for me to just quote from Jezebel and The Mary Sue," Kristine said. "So I quote Black Girl Nerds, Reappropriate, Indian Country, and other sites that aren't the usual voices."
Kristine also listens to the voices that come back in her direction. "I do a lunchtime poll every day. When people answer, I do research on what they say. … It's about building a bridge. Each piece of information I get from someone else is another piece across that channel."
Adds Powter: "you have to be able to live in the discomfort of never feeling like the work is done, or that you are successful."
During the Feminist Community Building 101 panel, other participants acknowledged the mistakes they had made while working towards a feminist and intersectional community. Angela Webber, a friend of mine, spoke about her band, The Doubleclicks. Their music video, Nothing to Prove, has received over 1 million YouTube views. But they noted that the majority of the women who contributed crowdsourced footage to the music video (Disclosure: I was among them) were white.
"That means I didn't try hard enough," Webber said.
Panelists cited a Media Evolution blog post that ran the numbers on its convention panelists and attendees and discovered that there was a near 1:1 correlation between the diversity of a panel and the diversity of its audience: "When we went through the participants list we found that 42% of the participants were women. Which is almost the same proportion as the speakers. Last year 39% of the attendees were female, and 38% of the speakers."
"There are voices out there—black women in particular—who need places where they can be supported," said panelist Jamie Broadnax, who founded Black Girl Nerds in February 2012 and knows a lot about creating inclusive spaces.
"I didn't know it would become an online community. But once the first contributor added content, it started to build. Now, diverse viewpoints come to my site."
Powter describes this diversity as more than just racial or gender diversity; she's also looking for diversity in "bodies and fandoms and abilities." GeekGirlCon panels include "Disability in Education and Beyond," "Cosplaying While Fat," "From Geek Girl to Geek Mom," and "Gaylaxy Quest: Exploring Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Fiction," among other topics.
What's different about this community is that mistakes are acknowledged, apologies are made when necessary and without qualification, and that "the strongest emotion present at the convention is love and acceptance."
Within a broader community that seems to want to shout at and divide itself, GeekGirlCon provides a venue in which people can listen to and learn from each other. Or, as Sheena McNeil of comic zine Sequential Tart explained during the panel: "It feels like family. You may not agree with everyone, but you feel comfortable around these people."
You also feel like, within this oasis, you are visible.
"I love being at GeekGirlCon," Anita Sarkeesian said as she concluded her panel discussion. "It's the most supportive place I speak at all year."
One of the of the loudest arguments shouted in this recent volley of hate—besides the relentless assertion that women are cunts and whores, which is not technically an argument—is that gaming culture is unethical because it is too insular; that the same voices make the games and review the games and talk about the games.
GeekGirlCon is ready to prove them wrong.