Why A Non-Lady Attends A Conference For Women

To understand the value of genderfluid and female-leaning spaces, you have to actually spend a few days in one.
Publish date:
October 23, 2014
women, conferences, women's fiction, fantasy fiction, Women's Spaces

The drive to Skamania, Washington from Portland is ridiculously beautiful, even for someone who already lives in the Pacific Northwest. (I realize this will spark a furore in the comments, but, yes, Northern California IS in the Pacific Northwest, speaking climactically, geologically, and geographically. Suck it, Washington and Oregon.) It's a drive along the Columbia River Gorge, filled with dramatic waterfalls, amazing foliage, and a strange sense of moody quiet.

For the last three years, I've taken that route every October on my way to Sirens, "...a conference on women in fantasy literature. We are part scholarly examination, part networking weekend, part personal retreat -- and always a chance to discuss fantastic women. We welcome adult readers of all types, including scholars, authors, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals. We encourage all attendees, regardless of background, to share their perspectives as part of our conference, and all attendees are welcome to submit presentations for our programming."

It's my favorite conference, and I will wax poetic about it at the slightest provocation, because, truly, there's a lot to get out of Sirens. If you like any aspect of science fiction and fantasy with awesome female characters, Sirens is the place for you. It's a place filled with people who love books, and, specifically, people who love books with women in them, written by women. Whether you're attending a panel on gender, or sitting in the lobby talking about something you've read lately, or hanging out in the hot tub, Sirens is an amazing weekend of connecting with people who share your interests.

When I tell people I'm going to a women's conference about fantasy, some ask why, as a genderqueer, I'd go to a "women's" space, and I understand the confusion. As someone who's read and marked as a woman, I spend a great deal of time fighting the notion that I should be collapsed into women's spaces -- I do not belong in spaces explicitly marked as being "for women," because I am not a woman.

While it's perfectly fine (and, I would argue, good) to have spaces that are explicitly for women, it's a misunderstanding to welcome nonbinary people into those spaces, because we're not women. However, Sirens isn't a women-only conference, nor is it explicitly a space "for women." It's about women in fantasy, and it's telling that the vast majority of the attendees are, in fact, women, as though women in fantasy are not somehow of interest to people of all genders. (Again, I am reminded, the default in fantasy as elsewhere is "male," the literary "everyman" character, and thus, many men would never think to attend a conference about women in fantasy.)

There are a lot of reasons I go to Sirens, and one of them is that it's one of the few spaces where I can talk with a concentrated group of people about something that I love: Women in fantasy. At other large conferences dedicated to fantasy fiction and other fantasy media, a female-centric focus isn't the norm, although it might pop up on some programming. The ability to delve deeply into the role of women in fantasy is incredibly valuable, and important -- at Sirens, we skip over questions about whether women should be "allowed" to write fantasy, or about whether female characters should be fully realized, complicated, interesting people.

We can get into the nuances of things like the characterization of women, the presentation of gender, the huge variation in women's representations in fantasy. We can delve more deeply into diversity within fantasy, both in terms of characters and writers; this year, for example, two of our guests of honor were women of color, and we included a specific panel discussing diversity and the shortfalls of not just the publishing industry, but the conference itself, the kind of critical self-examination that's rarely seen at conferences.

We don't have to waste time establishing basic factual information, like the fact that women are human beings, and that the publishing industry is heavily male-dominated, with many of those men being white. Publisher's Weekly publishes an annual survey on salaries in the industry: Overall in 2013, men made $25,000 more every year than women. Instead, we can focus on how to fix these problems.

What I love about spaces like Sirens is that they are among the few environments where I feel comfortable expressing myself, both in terms of my gender identity and in terms of speaking up. The environment feels more supportive, friendly, and open because of lines of shared interest, and because the conference is organized explicitly around themes of progressive representation of women in fantasy. It's not about toeing the party line when it comes to representations in fantasy; we can move beyond that.

It's telling that the same kind of respect and open communication doesn't seem to be available in other environments where people share interests, like, say, gaming. At Sirens, our love of books brings us together, and our interest in female characters creates common ground, but that by no means ensures that we will agree on everything.

In fact, we come from wildly diverse backgrounds, points of view, and perspectives; as Hallie frequently says at the opening remarks, she hopes we leave the conference thinking about at least one thing that we disagree with. While no one breaks into knock-down, drag-out fights on panels or in the halls, that doesn't mean conversations don't get passionate.

I may find myself at lunch one day sitting with a table full of people arguing briskly about the Lord's Prayer and the history of the Eucharist, subjects I know nothing about but which are still totally fascinating because I'm in the midst of people who are amazingly knowledgeable. Or I might find myself listening to Kendare Blake's keynote speech (which was screamingly funny) and thinking about the role of women in horror and the "final girl." Or I find myself sitting in the hot tub, talking about gender and pronouns in "Ancillary Justice" -- and learning that Ann Leckie had to fight to keep her pronouns. Or I end up getting into a conversation with a linguist about fascinating variations in regional idioms.

All of these subjects are highly relevant to my interests, in different ways: Exposure to an unfamiliar culture; a discussion on historically male-dominated purviews; an in-depth exploration of gender and social norming; intriguing information about the way we use language and communicate.

There's a well-documented phenomenon in fiction where works by women are classified as "women's fiction," works by, say, Chinese-Americans are "Asian-American fiction," works by lesbian authors are "LGBQT fiction," and these texts are shunted to the back of the bookstore, regardless of their subject matter. Thus, a book like Andrea Hairston's "Redwood and Wildfire" is "African-American fiction" instead of just fiction, or fantasy. Meanwhile, "fiction" (Important Books By Important Men) occupies center stage, as though these lesser works are simply subgenres. Sirens goes into the corners of the bookstore and drags these works into the light for examination, while also asking a critical question: Why do we consider these works lesser, and not suitable for general audiences?

I wouldn't attend a women's conference; that's not for me. But I most certainly would attend a conference about women's issues and the representation of women, and I'd play a role in presenting at that conference, participating in round table discussions, and asking questions at the end of panels, because that is for me. Because, as a human being and a member of society, the treatment of women is relevant to me -- and, further, as someone who was socialized as a woman and who is typically read as one, I am directly affected by a number of women's issues.

Sirens is moving to Denver next year, and I'll be following it -- because I can't wait to talk about the "Rebels and Revolutionaries" theme, and to meet up with all my old friends (and the new ones I made this year). Maybe next year, I'll propose a panel on why fiction by women and featuring women is for everyone, not just those who identify as women -- but it would be kind of unnecessary, since that's what the whole conference is about.

You don't need to be a woman to care about women, and it's telling and tragic that so many people seem to think that being a woman is some sort of prerequisite for being interested in "lady things."