It’s been a crazy few days at DragonCon. I didn’t get to do half the things I wanted to do (by the end of the day, my brain was so exhausted I could barely keep my head up straight) or hang out with all the people I wanted to hang out with. Honestly, I don’t know how some of these writers do it. My social battery drains very quickly and needs significant time to recharge.
One of the highlights was taking time out to go over to the Decatur Book Festival to see Anica Rissi, who acquired my first book, speaking about her own first book, Anna Banana and the Friendship Split. That was a really special thing to get to see. And while I was there, I met up and had drinks with long-time friend Matthew and Andrew Smith. I’ve run into Andrew a few times, but I’ve never had the opportunity to really sit down and talk to him, and it was awesome. More about that later.
What I really want to talk about is this:
This was the DragonCon YA track Diversity in YA panel. My friend Matthew took this picture and posted it on Facebook, where one of the first responses was “Where’s the diversity?”
If you look at that picture, you can see all of us on the panel thinking the same thing. Some background: When the organizers of the YA Lit track were putting together the panels, I asked to be on the Diversity in YA panel to represent the LGBTQIA+ community.
Wait, before I go on, I want to talk about why I feel like a fraud when it comes to diversity. Yes, I am gay. Yes, I’ve faced discrimination and abuse. Yes, I’ve feared for my safety because of my sexual orientation. Yes, I’ve hidden my orientation out of fear of being discriminated against. Yet, I can choose to “pass” as a straight, white male. Unless I make an effort to let people know I’m gay, they assume I’m straight. And sometimes I let them because it’s easier. My “otherness” is only an issue if I make it one. Which is one of the reasons I am vocal about queer representation. But it’s also the reason I feel like a fraud. Most “others” don’t have the same luxury.
Back to the panel. So a couple of days before I was set to leave for DragonCon, one of the organizers emailed me and told me that Cindy Pon, who was supposed to be on the panel, had a scheduling conflict and would need to back out. Which meant the panel would consist of me, E.C. Myers, A.J. Hartley, Tricia Woldridge, and Susan Fichtelberg. E.C. Myers was the only non-white member of the panel. I was the only gay member of the panel. Clearly this was not okay. But it was late in the game.
I’m not going to blame the YA Lit track organizers. They’re a hardworking and thoughtful group. The reality of DragonCon is that nearly all the writers in the YA track that attend (and probably in all of the tracks) pay their own way. It’s expensive. And it means that the pool of available writers they had to choose from consisted of those who could afford to come (which also speaks to privilege, but I’ll talk about that another time). Still, they knew the panel makeup was a problem and were trying to figure out what to do about it.
My suggestion was to not try to pretend that this was normal or okay. That we shouldn’t press forward like we were a perfectly diverse panel. Instead we should acknowledge the problem and use our panel’s makeup as a jumping off point to discuss the lack of diversity in all aspects of publishing—from editors to agents to interns. Our panel definitely wasn’t representative of diversity, but it was representative of the lack of diversity in publishing.
And I think we had a great conversation. We discussed the roadblocks that exist in publishing. How the unpaid internships and low-paying entry-level editorial jobs are a barrier to those who lack the economic means to work in NYC for very little (or no) money. We discussed how a lack of diversity amongst editors and agents leads to a lack of diverse books being acquired and published, and how that lack of diversity trickles down to writers who then believe that their diverse voices aren’t welcome in publishing. We discussed the need to for more diverse books written by those who have actually lived those experiences, and the responsibility non-diverse authors have if they choose to write books featuring diverse characters. We discussed intersectionality and the broader definitions of diversity.
It was not a perfect panel, and it was not a perfect discussion. There were voices absent. Voices that, no matter our good intentions, we couldn’t speak for. Being an ally can mean speaking up for those whose voices aren’t heard, but the best way to be an ally is to step aside so those voices can speak for themselves, and in that I think we failed this time.
I wish I could have stuck around after the panel ended, but I had to rush over to another panel (where I got to geek out about Dollhouse and Orphan Black). After Matthew posted the picture and people began to comment, an awesome writer asked how he could get on that panel next year. So I got his email address and passed it on to the YA Lit track organizers.
It’s 2015, almost 2016! We shouldn’t still have problems with diversity in publishing. Young adult literature is one of the most welcoming and accepting groups I’ve had the pleasure of working in. But we’ve still got a long way to go. It’s not enough to just say we need diversity. We have to eliminate the barriers to entry in publishing jobs, we have to actively seek out diverse authors, and then promote those authors. We have to support diverse books and diverse authors by purchasing their books.
A member of the audience told us a story that really pissed me off. She worked in a bookstore, and wanted to create a really big display for her teen readers highlighting books with diverse narrators. She ordered something like 35 books with non-white protagonists. Of those, only 3 featured non-white faces on the cover. And she wondered what it said to non-white kids that books featuring characters of color weren’t represented on the covers. I can tell you that growing up not seeing queer teens represented in books or on book covers told me that I wasn’t welcome. It told me I was second-class. It told me I wasn’t worthy of inclusion, and no kid should ever have to feel that way.
So I hope that next year’s diversity panel will feature more diversity. And more than that, I hope all the panels will feature more diversity. Diverse authors shouldn’t be relegated to only panels about diversity. As for next year, I don’t think I’ll ask to be on the panel about diversity. Because even though I’m gay, I still have a shit-ton of privilege. And I’d rather not take a spot from someone who can really speak to the issue of diversity.
Until next year!