What happened at Katsucon 19/BBYO IC 2013 and why did it happen?

This post is going to contain discussions about and examples of misogynistic, homophobic, abilist and antisemitic language and behavior. People who are triggered or otherwise sensitive to such content may wish to avoid reading further.

I first found out about Katsucon 19 and BBYO IC 2013 via +Bronwyn McGuckin I was curious so I started following up the story. Over this last week or so I've read accounts, mulled over rumors, media statements and interviewed sources. I'm now confident enough to turn it into a blog post.

When I first found out about Katsucon 19 and BBYO IC 2013 I found the subject fascinating.
Unfortunately the story was spread over Blogs, media statements, comments in reddit, tumblr posts and various other social media fora. So this is my attempt to weave this story into a cohesive whole based on what I read and a few interviews I’ve had with people.
While I've tried as much as possible to eliminate bias, due to the nature of my sources and my own subconscious this story is going to be biased. Perhaps in stories like this totally objectivity is impossible.

On the president's day weekend of 2013 (February 16 to 18) two conventions were booked for the same hotel, the BBYO IC and Katsucon. The BBYO is an international Jewish youth organization and its international convention had about 2 000 Jewish boys and girls of high school age along with adult organizes and hired security. Katsucon is an all ages Japanese popular culture convention with around 10 000 attendees. Neither party was informed of this parallel booking with each discovering the other as they entered the space on the Friday.

On the Friday evening the attendees of both cons started to filter into the hotel. There was a degree of intermixing. As one could expect for a gathering of over 12 000 people there were some incidences. A few people acted antisocial and disrupted the fun of other people however the reports from this time period are for the most part positive. The BBYO attendees who had a shared popular culture with the Katsucon people recognized some of their favourite characters. Some even had their photographs taken with the cosplayers or photographing them.

However this period did have a major problem. In the foyer outside one of the ballrooms is an absurdly photogenic gazebo. Over the years that Katsucon had been in the hotel this gazebo had became extremely popular backdrop for cosplay photo shoots. However the ballroom had been rented by the BBYO and the gazebo was unavailable to the cosplayers and their photographers.

In some ways cosplay is an anomaly within the geek subculture. It is a predominantly female actively in the mostly male subculture. Because of this misogynistic elements within the greater geek culture have called into question the genuineness of cosplayers and some people who have cosplayed have been the target of slut shaming, harassment and other violations.

Geeky women and their allies have been pushing back against this misogyny for cosplayers and all females within that subculture. Using convention rules and advocacy for cultural change they have been working to make a difference. Katsucon in particular is considered the premier con for cosplay and its leadership has worked hard to foster an inclusive environment. So the loss of access to the gazebo smarted.

Thankfully the leadership of the BBYO and katsucon were able to get together. The leadership of the BBYO was generous enough to allow Katsucon to make use of the Gazebo. Then leadership of both conventions came to an agreement to segregate the space of the convention center between the two cons so the two conventions wouldn’t interfere with each other. Parts for the hotel where designated for Katsucon attendees and other parts BBYO areas, the attendees of each convention not permitted to enter the other’s spaces.

This caused problems for the Katsucon attendees as the BBYO area covered a number of choke points. One of the elevators and internal access to the car park was off limits to katsucon badge holders. The elevators being out of bounds meant that many of the attendees had to take an inconveniently indirect route to get to and from their hotel rooms. While not having internal access to the car park meant that to get to the car park the attendees had to leave the hotel travel and use the external exit to enter the car park; an option many felt wasn't safe at night.

However the experience of people with disabilities was significantly worse. While Katsucon did arrange for a system of chaperones to escort through BBYO space this was reportedly not well publicized to the attendees or staff enforcing the boundaries. This meant people with disabilities effectively lost easy access to rooms, transport and in some cases toilets. As an accommodation the chaperone system was a poor one as it increased dependency rather fostering independence.

After this virtual partitioning of the hotel another change was noted. The BBYO attendees started referring to the Katsucon attendees as "Faggots" and "Retards". First this was just when talking to each other then over the weekend this escalated to the point where female cosplayers reported being called "Sluts" or "Whores" by the BBYO attendees.

The environment grew so toxic that a girl described as "she wouldn't hurt a fly" and "one of the nicest people I have ever met" felt it was appropriate to tweet that she enjoyed to “secretly judge the people dressed up in strange costumes with your new friends!!”

The BBYO staff members actions towards the Katsucon attendees were also problematic, widely described as acting rude, shouting at people and in a number of occasions pushing or shoving Katsucon attendees. Many of these accusations are now under investigation by the hotel and conventions.

A backlash followed both online and in person. While some of the complaints were narrowly focused, related directly to experiences the complainer had and avoided using racist slurs, other complaints didn’t. Some of the complaints used anti-semitic slurs and one anime fan said “Hitler should have finished the job". Thankfully the bulk of Katsucon attendees (at least those commenting publicly) realized that this exceeded the limits of acceptable behaviour and called them out on it.

The BBYO’s official response to this first wave of complaints was extremely disappointing to the Katsucon attendees. The official messaging from BBYO at this point in time was that complaints were untrue or exaggerations, that there was only minor inconvenience and no official complaints had been lodged. At the same time they puled down the flood of complaints posted to its facebook wall, regardless of their nature.

As other social media disasters have shown, responding in this way just increases the anger. The dismissal and minimizing of the anime fans’s concerns only served to confirm their belief that they were not being taken seriously.

In contrast the Katsucon’s official media response both acknowledged their own failures, the problems without minimising them, their disappointment at the communities anti-semitic behaviour and gave an address to submit complaints. This was prominently posted on their facebook account and on the main site for the convention.

After the conventions finished BBYO posted via Katsucon’s leadership a weak acknowledgment of the problem and an address to report problems. This however wasn’t posted via any of BBYO’s official outlets. Since then everything has settled down and there hasn’t been any further developments.

So why did this happen? At a basic level these events happened because people of their own free will sometimes make the choice to do the wrong thing. Some chose to make misogynistic slurs and others chose to respond in an anti-semitic manner. People must bear the responsibility for their own action.

However, as an answer this is profoundly unsatisfying. While what I just said is true people don’t spontaneously decide to act like jerks. By examining the environment that fostered this we can learn how to prevent similar problems in the future.

The prime contributor to the problem is the lateness that both conventions become aware of each other. With less than a day to plan and negotiate space it was inevitable that mistakes were going to be made. That being said I think the biggest mistake was segregating the convention center into Katsucon space and BBYO space.

When I set out to write this I tried to search for a neutral word for the act of dividing people based on some attribute. However every word for this had negative historical association. This is not coincidence and this event is an example of why this is the case. Within the katsucon members there were Jewish people and within the BBYO attendees there were fans of japanese popular culture. Before the segregation of the hotel identifying, one didn’t negate identifying as the member of the alternative.

However when the groups were separated the two conventions became the Other to each other. Two communities often separated by little more than a line down the center of a hallway still having to interact with each other but rarely being able to have longer term interactions that would have promoted bonding and understanding.

In addition there was the message that the segregation sent. When you tell someone not to interact with someone else, especially when you tell young people that, it carries with it the implication that person is dangerous. Few people wish to be judged as such.

I expect if the everyone had a little more time and the ability to think about the implications of their actions they would have been able to set things up so everyone involved had an environment which encouraged to imagine other people complexly and prevented the mess we have now.

#katsucon #bbyo

Thanks to +Stephen Thomas for proof reading And +Kieran Salsone for editing this.
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