Racism in sapphic publishing, it’s time to talk about inclusivity again

It’s Pride month, COVID-19 is still in circulation, and the Black Lives Matter movement is finally opening many people’s eyes to the racial injustices all around us. Couple this with the fact that GCLS’s cancelled conference is now a virtual one and you have a perfect storm.

For those of you who haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about; there’s been a lot of chatter on social media about racism in sapphic publishing. The Lesbrary wrote an article about it, you can check it out here. This social media conversation has reached the ears of the GCLS Board of Directors and yesterday I, and I presume the entire GCLS Membership, received a letter from Mary Phillips the Executive Director.

Here is a copy of that letter:

Dear Members and Friends of the LGBTQIA literary community,

Over the past few days, there has been discussion over social media about the schedule of the Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) Virtual Conference. We appreciate you drawing our attention to this critical topic, and we recognize it’s important to communicate an explanation and a proposal for the path forward.
When Covid-19 placed the GCLS in the position to have to cancel our conference in Albuquerque, the Board had a choice:

Go the way of Clexacon and Saints and Sinners, indefinitely postponing/canceling.
Try to cobble together some activities in a Virtual Conference.

We opted for the second choice. Each year our conference presents a collection of panels that have been proposed by attendees. The conference programming stems from the suggestions of the attendees. When they propose a panel, some propose panelists, and some do not. For those who propose a ready-made panel, they are expected to strive for diversity, which is defined by GCLS to include race, as well as gender identity, size, publisher or indie standing, differently-abled, religion, etc. There are also panels that are proposed with no panelists, and our scheduling committee, through the panelist application process, selects panelists, adhering to our same guidelines for diversity.

We realized, with only six weeks to plan, we didn’t have time to go through the full panelist process. Instead, we opted for 11 ready-made panels. We chose the panels that were most diverse and able to participate. The virtual program does not have the full breadth of inclusion we would have had at an in-person conference where we would have had 25 panels, plus master classes and presentations. Diversity is represented on every panel. On 5 of the 11 panels, racial diversity is represented.

We’ve heard loud and clear from the social media discussions that this year’s conference doesn’t meet with the level of expectation for inclusion. We agree that we haven’t done enough.

The Board will take the following actions:

  • Add a fourth pillar for Inclusivity to accompany the existing GCLS pillars of Educate, Promote, and Recognize WLW literature.
  • Conduct a GCLS survey of members, and those who have registered for the virtual conference to glean thoughts and ideas about the issue of inclusion.
  • Conduct a public listening session with a professional community leader/moderator to put it all out on the table.We hope you will participate in this forum.
  • Add a new section of the Strategic Action Plan focused on inclusivity.
  • Focus our new Director of Engagement, Cris Perez-Soria, on diversity recruitment reaching out to all types of BIPOC literary organizations, hoping to form alliances and bring new members to GCLS.

We take diversity and inclusion seriously, hoping to build on the modest gains we’ve made in the last few years. We’ve done a little, but there’s much more to do, and we want to do it quickly and thoughtfully.

Everything I’ve mentioned will involve legwork: acquiring our data, bringing the right people to the table, and extensive interactive working sessions with members, the Board, and others. We invite you to participate in these sessions, in helping us achieve these goals for our community. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.


Mary Phillips

Now, as you may expect, I have some things to say.

But first; some background.

As many of you will know, I’ve butted heads with GCLS before in the past. GCLS, or the Golden Crown Literary Society for the uninitiated, is basically an organisation for people who write sapphic fiction. And that is most definitely my language and not theirs. Because the reason I have had issues with them in the past has been one of non-inclusive language, predominantly the use of the word lesbian. You see, I’m not a lesbian. I’m a bisexual woman who happens to be married to a woman. Many of the characters I write are also bisexual women, you just happen to read about them in a story where they are in a relationship with a woman. This doesn’t make them a lesbian. It doesn’t make me a lesbian. And I do not write lesbian fiction. However, GCLS, the only organisation that exists for sapphic fiction, insists on using the word lesbian or the term lesbian-themed. Which is, essentially, lesbian. Obviously.

And so I have debated whether or not I wanted to be a part of an organisation that effectively erases me.

Now, if you are a lesbian and you’re starting to feel a little uppity about my wanting to erase you or diminish you in some way let me reassure you that is absolutely not the case. My wife is a lesbian and I don’t wish to erase her, she does most of the laundry. But, in all seriousness, it’s about wanting to be seen and I feel that I’m not. I feel like I, and many other bisexual female authors, have been pushed to the side. I tried to get GCLS to change their language and publicly called them out several times to no avail.

However, in being a voice standing up against GCLS’s stance on language… I found a lot of people crawled out of the woodwork to tell me that they had also had issues with GCLS.

Which brings us to today.

Because GCLS doesn’t only have a problem with inclusive language when it comes to sexuality, it appears it also has an issue with racism. Now, as a white woman I have obviously zero personal experience with this but I have been listening, not only to the social media conversation but also to the people who have approached me over the last few months to speak up about GCLS. Now it appears that GCLS might be trying to do something about it but I’ve heard all this lip service before and I’m hesitant to believe this will bring much change unless people drive it forward.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not just being unkind, I don’t have a vendetta against GCLS. But their record doesn’t show them in the best possible light. Would you like an example, I bet you would!

Mary says in her letter above that GCLS will “Add a new section of the Strategic Action Plan focused on inclusivity.” Great, right? Um. No, not really. You see if you read the existing Strategic Action Plan, and of course, I have, point three already says “increase diversity in all aspects of the organization and lesbian literature” and this was part of a plan established in 2014. And, because I’m so very detail orientated, I did check and this has been a part of their strategic action plan for that length of time, it wasn’t added after the above letter was sent out.

If I refer you to my previous conversations with GCLS on simply adding the word bisexual to their language, I think we can all agree that diversity hasn’t really been high on their list. In fact, the words lesbian literature within that very action point negates one of the levels of diversity they are apparently striving for.

Mary is also keen to point out that the virtual convention has been cobbled together and that the original convention was absolutely diverse. Now, I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I bet that wasn’t the case. History has shown us that GCLS doesn’t do diversity and the sapphic publishing world has a woeful number of Authors of Colour and GCLS seems to have alienated a good number of them. So it would have been impossible for GCLS to have held a racially diverse panel in New Mexico on a certain date, surely?

So what is the solution? Adding a fourth pillar of inclusivity to the existing three pillars of educate, promote, and recognise (sorry, I won’t put a z in recognise. Can’t do it.). To be honest, and I could talk about this point all day, I don’t believe that GCLS does a lot of the first three so the added fourth would be fairly redundant in my opinion. Not to mention that it sounds a little bit like adding a sign to a problem and assuming that problem is fixed. Putting a sign up saying “leaky roof” but not fixing the leaky roof is pointless. To me, this action feels like that.

So, what’s the other solution? Conducting a survey of the membership. And here we have the real root of the problem. GCLS has either lost members or not been able to encourage people to join for some reason, these are the people who need to be contacted. It’s those opinions that need to be canvassed. Asking a white cis lesbian if she’s experienced any problems regarding inclusivity isn’t going to help the matter. Asking the black author who left a convention in tears because of the racism she experienced is. (This happened, let that sink in, this happened.)

And this is where GCLS’s passive approach falls down.

Every year, GCLS asks its members to put together suggestions of panels for the convention. These proposers then need to seek out panellists. I know, because this is exactly what I did this year. Now, I’m an author who has never been to a GCLS convention and I absolutely do not know every sapphic author there is, not by a long shot. But I was asked to seek out panellists for my panel. Now, my panel is a unique one in that it’s about authors who make a living through writing sapphic fiction and that is a very small pool of people. The panel consists of 80% Europeans because I am from the UK and these are the people I know. It also consists of 0% AOC, because I don’t personally know of any AOC who make a living from writing (if there are any please do get in touch with me!). But this onus on the proposer rather than on GCLS means that these panels will obviously become skewed. People will invite people they know, because they can’t invite people they don’t know… because they don’t know them.

However, GCLS, as a large organisation and presumably one of the very few with the potential to have a list, would be able to put people together from a range of backgrounds. That is, if they had the forethought and desire to do so, which I understand they probably don’t because they are a voluntary organisation. However, my point is that this passive approach has led them to the position they are in now.

I know of transpeople, bisexuals, and people of colour who have felt alienated by GCLS and this has meant them either turning away from GCLS and not renewing their membership, or never even joining in the first place. These are the very people that GCLS needs to work with if they are to have a viable, diverse organisation that will stand the tests of time. As it stands, GCLS will dwindle out. A yearly party for the same old people is great, but without any new blood it will eventually become irrelevant and cease to exist.

This self-fulfilling prophecy has taken a while to reach its current form. People feel unwelcome and so they don’t apply for awards, they don’t attend events, they leave the organisation. Before you know it, you have almost entirely white panels and awards ceremonies. As a bisexual, I am able to pass. I can stand in a group of people and smile when they talk about all us lesbians writing our lesbian fiction. But a black person doesn’t have that luxury. It’s clear that they feel excluded and GCLS need to find out why and how to fix that.

It’s a conversation for all of us.

The letter above is a good start but there are a lot of holes in it. But I’m willing to help to steer the ship in the right direction. I’d like GCLS to be a safe, welcoming environment for all. Whether I’m a member or not, I would like to know that a black bisexual reader of mine could attend a GCLS conference and feel safe. I am a part of this community, my readers are a part of this community, and GCLS is a leading organisation for us. It needs to be for all of us.

So, to GCLS, don’t just survey your membership find the wider conversation. Open up to hear the experiences of everyone, past members included.

But, you know what, some of these past members are exhausted from the emotional toll of what they went through. I spoke with an AOC just the other week (before this latest social media conversation started) and she is too emotionally drained and frightening to reenter the boxing ring and have this conversation again. Because that’s what happens. People suffer emotional stress because of this exclusionary behaviour and they don’t want to go back and fight for what should be a basic right.

Which is why I’m putting myself forward as a proxy. If you experienced discrimination by GCLS, either at a convention, online, via the membership, an author, or a member and you don’t feel you have enough strength to take it to them – take it to me. I’ll pass on the messages I receive and I’ll work with GCLS to find solutions to these problems. I don’t want to talk over AOC or for them, but I’m happy to help people who are just too exhausted to have the conversation again and again. No one should feel excluded from an organisation that exists for our community. No one.

I know this won’t be fixed overnight. I know this is a long conversation which needs a variety of people willing to devote time and energy in order to get to a place where we’re all comfortable. I’m willing to take that on and I would hope that others will do so with me because GCLS have proved they are listening and now we need to use this opportunity.

But remember, GCLS is one part of this problem. Racism exists in the industry as a whole, but using the voice of a large organisation like GCLS will help to get more much-needed colour into the industry.

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