FanX, after being accused of mishandling harassment issues, launches advisory council

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Cosplay fans fill the Utah Capitol rotunda for Salt Lake Comic Con's announcement of celebrity guests for FanX 2017, by founders Bryan Brandenburg and Dan Farr, at right, set for March 17-18 at the Salt Palace.

Aiming to rebuild trust after its handling of a sexual-harassment complaint ignited a public firestorm, FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention has created a community council to help oversee the event’s anti-harassment policies.

Kira Coelho, a Salt Lake City after-school education consultant who cosplays under the name Kiki Furia, agreed to serve on the 10-member board. She said Friday the council is “a huge step forward. It’s all about change. It’s all about positivity. It’s about people being heard. It’s about being represented.”

“I am glad that people are coming together to help make things safer for everyone,” said another board member, the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, former executive director of the Utah Pride Center.

In a statement, FanX founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg said the council members are “diverse, smart and specialized people” who will give the event “an independent, experienced and expert perspective on individual situations as well as on policy decisions we make.”

Details on how the council will work, and what will happen with harassment incidents and other issues referred to it, are still being ironed out, Edmonds-Allen and Coelho said.

Without that clarity, and until the council can show an effective track record, some critics of FanX say they remain skeptical.

Other members of the council are:

• Rachel Burt, a human-resources professional who has led sensitivity training sessions for FanX staff.

• Valerie Cameron-Walker, host of B98.7’s morning show and an event management expert.

• Debra Daniels, director of the University of Utah’s Women’s Resource Center.

• Kerry Jackson, a host of X96’s “Radio From Hell” and founder of “Geek Show Podcast.”

• Debra Jenson, professor of journalism and communications at Utah State University, and a frequent advocate for diversity on FanX panels.

• Erika Lynn Sabrowski, longtime volunteer coordinator for FanX, who now oversees the League of Utah Volunteers, an offshoot organization.

• LaShel Shaw, a Salt Lake City attorney who specializes in entertainment and media law.

• Jay Whittaker, Utah stand-up comedian and actor, who hosts the “Incredibly Vocal Minority” podcast and is a regular FanX moderator and panelist.

The formation of the council follows another move FanX recently announced: A hotline, set up through the Utah Attorney General’s office, that convention attendees can call 24/7 to report instances of harassment, assault, abuse or bullying during the convention, which runs Sept. 6–8 at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The hotline is modeled after one established during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Edmonds-Allen called the hotline “a wonderful way for any potential victims to know that their concerns will go directly to the highest level.”

Issues of sexual harassment and abuse — which became a front-burner issue in the wake of accusations against national media figures and the rise of the #MeToo movement — reached critical mass at FanX in May.

That month, a complaint against Utah author Richard Paul Evans, accused of giving an unwanted hug and kiss to an author at last September’s Salt Lake Comic Con, became public. Evans denied wrongdoing but said he would ask fans before embracing them; he is not scheduled to return to FanX.

A coalition of writers accused Farr and Brandenburg of not taking the woman’s complaint seriously. The writers were incensed with Brandenburg for reacting to best-selling author Shannon Hale by posting her private email address online — which Brandenburg said he did accidentally.

The online incident led to Brandenburg taking a leave of absence from the event he co-founded. It also led FanX to revamp its social-media practices, formalize its anti-harassment policies, and hire a new public-relations firm.

Last week, FanX announced its biggest celebrity “get” to date: Ben Affleck, star and director of the Best Picture Oscar-winning “Argo,” and current Batman in Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe franchise.

Robison Wells, one of the Utah authors who challenged Farr and Brandenburg over their handling of the Evans accusation, was cautiously optimistic about the council.

“They seem to be complying with all the requests” the group of writers made, Wells said. However, “real trust comes from a proven track record over time. … Words are cheap. This looks like a good start, but it’ll take a few years of compliant behavior before I’m going to trust them enough to go back.”

Bryan Young, who as editor of the website Big Shiny Robot and host of the “Full of Sith” podcast has been the convention’s in-house “Star Wars” expert, is less impressed. Young wrote last month, in his column in Salt Lake City Weekly, that he would not participate in FanX until Farr and Brandenburg were no longer in charge.

Young said Friday that the council is “a PR move designed to prevent Bryan Brandenburg and Dan Farr from taking accountability for the systemic issues in their organization.”

The council, Young said, “would be a great group to form a new board in charge of the convention,” but only if Farr and Brandenburg step down. Young added, “Actions have consequences, but so does inaction in the face of sexual assault and harassment and, frankly, Brandenburg and Farr haven’t suffered any.”

Coelho said she wrestled with whether she should stop attending FanX after the sexual harassment issues surfaced. Ultimately, she decided to stay.

“I’ve always been about being positive,” Coelho said. “You can’t make change unless you’re on the inside.”