All-women panel reckons with past harassment at FanX and grapples with how to make geek culture safe for all

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) A "Consent is KEY" poster is displayed next to the escalator during the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Convention officials were accused of mishandling an allegation of sexual harassment after the fall 2017 convention.

Kira Coelho scrolled through cosplay-related Facebook pages on Friday, searching for posts from people who had a less-than-good experience at this year’s FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention.

Coelho soon found something that shocked her: A girl said someone came up to her at FanX, ripped off a piece of her costume and then punched her in the breast.

Coelho, who is a member of FanX’s new community advisory council to oversee its anti-harassment policies, discussed the allegation during a Saturday panel at the convention. After the panel, she told The Salt Lake Tribune that the council is still investigating the report. The alleged assault, though, is a sign that while the convention is taking steps to address harassment and abuse of attendees, there’s still work to be done at the convention and in geek culture in general.

The all-woman panel, called “Creating a safe space for all: Dealing with harassment in geek culture,” came together Saturday to do that work by reckoning with past abuses and starting the process of moving forward from them.

Panelists didn’t shy from FanX’s history of harassment. Moderator and literary agent Michelle Wittes opened the panel with a quick recap of recent events: Utah author Richard Paul Evans touched and kissed a woman on the cheek without her consent at the fall 2017 convention. FanX officials were accused of not responding well to the allegations or related criticism, giving out the email address of a female author who spoke out. Many people decided not to attend this year’s convention because of it.

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Panelists sit behind a table for a discussion about sexual harassment at the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Left to right: Callie Stoker, Rebecca Rode, Cat Umano, Kira Coelho (AKA Kiki Furia), London Reynolds, Tawny Fritz and Michelle Witte.

From there, the wide-ranging discussion defined harassment (“It’s as simple as keep your hands to yourself,” Coelho said) using examples from recent popular culture, like when pop star Ariana Grande appeared to be groped at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, and explained intersectionality (for example, how “women get harassed, and [women of color] get harassed doubly”) and how harassment is a long-standing, systemic issue that is more than just “saying mean things online,” as Witte said.

While harassment isn’t new, panelist and local podcaster Cat Umano said, talking about it is.

Now that women are talking about what they’ve experienced, it’s important — especially for men, who perpetrate much of the abuse — to listen and not get defensive, Witte said.

Yet sometimes just the act of women standing up for themselves can “freak people out,” panelist and illustrator Tawny Fritz said, because “historically women are supposed to be quiet.”

The contrast between women’s historic subservience and shifting societal norms that give women more agency is part of why the issue of harassment and abuse has come to a head recently, said panelist and manuscript editor Callie Stoker.

Coelho, who cosplays and spoke at the panel as Kiki Furia, added that not all harassment comes from men. She said other women have harassed her because of her ethnicity.

While Saturday’s panel took place more in the realm of the real than fantasy, Fritz was able to combine those worlds when responding to a question about how bystanders should respond if they see someone being harassed.

As in the popular roleplaying tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, Fritz said, not everyone has to be a warrior.

“It doesn’t necessarily take running in with your sword on fire and chopping heads off,” she said.

Instead, in these instances, it’s just as useful to have a healer, someone in the team who can comfort or help the situation in a different way, like a cleric or a bard, to get the victim back on their feet.

After the FanX harassment allegations, convention officials have taken additional steps to keep attendees safe.

In addition to the community council, they’ve instated a hotline that connects directly to the Utah Attorney General’s Office where attendees can report harassment, in addition to a zero-tolerance harassment policy.

FanX organizers also said they would donate money to the Time’s Up campaign, a legal fund for people who’ve been sexually harassed.

Coelho said the steps are just that — a start — but she hopes the convention will keep building toward keeping all attendees safe. In addition to the incident where the girl was allegedly assaulted, Coelho said the council has heard of a few less severe altercations. It’s likely things have happened that council members don’t know about.

“It’s hard to get everything,” she said, “but I think the more people who contact us and report it, the better.”