BlerdCon 2018: The Experience
I stumbled across Blerd Con when they were advertising at Awesome Con in 2017, but work and life kept me from attending. When I ran into Hassan Parrish, one of the co founders at Awesome Con this year, he noticed my media badge and asked if I'd be interested in covering the event as press this year. I agreed.
Blerd Con was established to provide a space and a voice for those who have been traditionally left out of fandoms-people of color, women, the LGBT population, and individuals with disabilities. Now in its second year, it was on track to almost double the number of attendees. In 2017, they sold a total of 1600 tickets. This year, according to Hilton George, co-founder of BlerdCon, they had hit that number in pre-sales, and anticipated a final attendee total of 3000 to 5000 guests.
Blerd Con was an enjoyable experience-but just like any large gathering, had its challenges.
Panels as Group Discussion, Not Lecture
The first panel I attended on Day one was the very first one scheduled to run: Defining Justice: A Panel on Media, Policy, and Saving The World While Black. Intended to discuss how Black Superheroes navigate the world differently than their White counterparts, it promised to be an interesting presentation.
Except...the panelists didn't show.
In a moment of altruism and with a desire to have the conversation, two individuals who were scheduled to be panelists elsewhere volunteered to moderate the panel in the absence of the original presenters. We sat in the room and had a beautiful conversation about the topic, with insight from lawyers and engineers who were in
attendance at the conference. It was a sign of things to come. The meeting spaces were small enough to allow the presentations to be more than just a group of individuals talking at the audience, but an interactive discussion and think tank experience. This shared discussion highlighted something that is often looked at other conventions-the knowledge and expertise levels of individuals in attendance. In this space, that expertise was celebrated and valued.
Visibility and Transparency
I was worried about the presence and inclusion of the LGBT community at Blerd Con given the complicated relationship between some Black nerds and members of the LGBT community. One of the first displays I came across was hosted by LGBT Headquarters. Referring to themselves as "The Hub For All Things Gay at Comic Cons", their tables were where I wound up spending the largest amount time. D'Manda Martini, a DC area Drag performer and hostess at Eleanor's New Deal Cabaret, was so welcoming and kind-and her outfits, which she seemed to change every time I saw her, were fantastic. D'Manda allowed me to take several photos and have a conversation about her current reign as Captain Green Lantern. I was also able to chat with Nico Vasilo, one of the creators of the Kid Riot and the Riot Squad series about his experience as a gay Cuban but white presenting minority and the genesis of his graphic novel. That visibility, as well as their presence right outside of the main presentation halls, spoke volumes to me about the value placed on their attendance.
Visibility and transparency seemed to be an important theme to the convention organizers. During their opening remarks, Hassan Parrish, co-founder of Blerd Con, discussed the importance of providing visibility to populations who in the past had been relegated to the shadows, but also of the importance of the convention founders and organizers being present and transparent with their activities and decisions. They were on the floors during the weekend, assisting with coordination and putting out fires. Their names and contact information were easily accessible. The Murder Mystery on the first night left a lot of individuals upset (it started 40 minutes late) but the individuals responsible for the event were present to deal with the issue as well as the disappointment. That is a rare sight at conventions.
Any convention will have burps and hiccups, especially in the first few years of launching. As the convention grows, the organizers will want to look at a larger space. The panel rooms were right on top of each other, and consisted of a converted ballroom separated by built in panels. Unfortunately that meant that if a panel got lively, the group in the next room struggled to hear their presenters over the revelry.
The Inescapable Reality of Toxic Masculinity
It's my fault. I own that I sometimes go into situations with an idealistic mindset, truly hoping that everyone would present the best of themselves. Then I wound up in a conversation that started off innocently enough (or so I thought), but went EXACTLY like this:
Black Male Con Attendee (BMCA): What are your thoughts on the new She-Ra?
Me: Well, I'd hoped they would go the Rebels CGI animation route, but I know that's like a million dollars an episode so it wouldn't happen. That said I'm excited to see what they do with it.
BMCA: They should have made her look more like a woman. There's no boobage.
Me: *insert Blinking Man GIF here* I'm sorry?
BMCA: It's confusing. I showed my six year old daughter and she thought it was a boy with long hair.
Me: Well, She-Ra is a 16 year old girl, the older version was actually overly mature, and to be honest, we as adults aren't really the target audience. Plus, there are some teenage girls who ARE shaped like her who will see themselves in her.
BMCA: Well I watch television with my daughter.
Me: And I watch many shows with my son, and while I may enjoy them, I also understand I am not their target demographic.
BMCA: She still needs more boobage.
Me: Have a nice day sir.
I am not exaggerating this conversation. I truly believed that individuals who had issues with She-Ra not being overly sexualized and objectified were comfortable hiding behind animated avatars on Twitter. I had actually found one of these not rare unicorns in the flesh.
The toxic masculinity did not stop there. While I enjoyed all the panels I attended, it was not lost on me, particularly on day 2, that individuals (read: MEN) were very comfortable with the patriarchy and not afraid to show it. This manifested itself in cutting off female presenting panelists during presentations, as well as cutting off and interrupting marginalized audience members. In one exchange, a woman asked a man who had rudely interrupted her to let her finish making her point. He did the typical sounds you hear when someone tries to make it seem like "a female is overreacting."
I am not sure what, if anything, can be done from an organizing standpoint (perhaps in room moderators who assist with taking audience questions and comments and ensuring civility), but a space that was designed for safety in some places wound up being a battleground not unfamiliar to marginalized voices. The sad part was the battleground was in a place that was supposed to be a safe haven where reasonable discourse could take place and voices would not be diminished. It will also be important for the co-founders and organizers to set that tone, not only in their speech and actions, but also in the materials and rules of civility they publish prior the convention.
It was an enjoyable time. I did appreciate hearing from people that looked like me, as well as being exposed to conversations about marginalized groups I don't represent, but whose struggles are very similar to mine. It will be interesting to see where the convention organizers take the event moving forward.