Jun 23, 2013
Alex Dally MacFarlane

On SFWA: Making Bigots Unwelcome

I will admit that joining SFWA was never a major milestone for me as a writer. I joined because I had the spare dollars, I had heard good things about Griefcon and I wanted to nominate and vote for the Nebula Awards. I’ve been watching recent events with a rising sense of I am so fucking sick of this, and now my MA essays are done I have time to put some of my thoughts in words.


The recent problems are widely known. The SFWA’s professional magazine, the Bulletin, has contained sexist material: suggesting that women should have “quiet dignity” like Barbie (a good woman is seen, not heard!), then suggesting that women who protest about that suggestion are “liberal fascists” committing censorship! (A certain type of American likes to enthuse far more about free speech than about not being a piece of sexist shit.) (It was especially amusing~ to me that some white American males were crying about fascists when actual fascists were marching on the streets of the UK, attacking mosques and Muslims. Not to mention what’s been happening in Istanbul, say. That is fascism. That fear and violence. Not someone saying “Hey it’d be great if you didn’t suggest women should never speak.”) There’s a good link round-up here, as well as a much-needed international perspective here.

Then Theodore Beale, a member known for being a racist skidmark, used a SFWA Twitter feed to promote a post in which he used exceptionally foul, violently racist language against N.K. Jemisin, a black woman. Amal El-Mohtar rightly called for his expulsion from SFWA. As I write this, a decision has not been announced. Rumours do not bode well, although I hope the rumours are wrong.

While SFWA deliberates on whether to punish someone for violently racist language against a black woman, the people speaking up in support of her – especially other women of colour – are receiving threats of violence and murder. The forums of SFWA remain, as always, off-limits to those of us who are not white men: we will be dismissed, verbally abused. (Be quiet, like Barbie!)

SFWA is more than its racist members, of course. I know many people in the organisation want Beale out, want change: want SFWA to really be for everyone, not just a 1970s-era crowd of old white straight American dudes. A lot of this change takes time. Kicking Beale out? Not nearly as much time.

SFWA and the wider world of science fiction are not unique in their racism and sexism. Sexism is everywhere. Racism, likewise. But I am sick of SFWA-related bullshit, nonetheless.)

Here is what I’m sick of:

I’m sick of an organisation in which bigots feel welcome. I’m sick of forums in which bigots feel welcome, while anyone else is warned right from the start to steer clear. I’m sick of the fact that Beale’s language was not universally condemned, that reaching a unanimous decision to kick him out of SFWA is not proving to be easy. I’m sick of bigots having no consequences for their actions, while people speaking up in support of the people they hurt are harassed, upset and afraid. I’m sick of soft-footing in bigots’ favour.

No one can stop Beale from being a racist. No one can stop people from saying that it’s a bit too extreme~ to kick him out of SFWA.

Here is what can be done: create an environment in which racism and sexism and all other forms of bigotry are not welcome. Create an environment in which racist and sexist words are removed, their speaker banned from the forums, eventually banned from the organisation. (Yes, this needs a careful process of warnings and investigation and the potential for people to learn and change. Duh?) Otherwise bigotry will continue, bigots will continue to hurt and threaten people.

This is the beauty of being a closed organisation: it’s a closed environment, it can be shaped. It can be better. Racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and ableism and all other bigotries are not matters of opinion. They are not. I am fucking sick to fucking death of them being treated like they are. I am fucking sick of an American idea of “free speech” in which bigotry is not stamped out. (I won’t claim the British hate speech law as it currently stands and is utilised is perfect, but fuck, the idea that there is such a thing as “hate speech” and that it’s unacceptable is such a good fucking starting point.)

So this, SFWA, is what I want. I want Beale out. I want bigots unwelcome.

The other beauty of a closed organisation is that I can choose not to be a part of it.

I want an organisation in which bigotry is unwelcome. Otherwise it’s worthless.

I see no purpose in demanding less.


  • I can’t speak to the SFWA forms because I am not a member. I don’t support racist speech. I do remember people being routinely being expelled from organizations for their racist views. That view being that racial views or ethnicity mattered in being a member. I think his views are immoral. I can never support a membership criteria based on your views. Sooner or later it comes back to haunt you if you travel that road.

    • Are you really suggesting that SFWA making bigots unwelcome could lead to the same consequences as organisations that have marginalised – and oppressed, and worse – people based on race/ethnicity?

  • This is wonderful. Thank you for saying it.

  • […] And finally, Alex Dally MacFarlane talks about making bigots unwelcome in SFWA: […]

  • Hi Alex – While I agree with some of your points and sympathize with the frustration, I don’t agree with the characterization of the SFWA forums when you say, “I’m sick of forums in which bigots feel welcome, while anyone else is warned right from the start to steer clear.” I admittedly have some personal investment there: I started working with the moderating staff for the forums in March. While I’m not saying there haven’t been problems, I believe that we work quickly and effectively when content that violates our policies through incivility, trolling, or other abuse. There is a means for people to report posts they feel violate the guidelines, and reports are looked at and responded to quickly and I do not believe anyone should feel unsafe on there.

    I mention this because it concerns me that SFWA members are saying the forums are problematic when people, including myself, are working hard to make them a place that people can exchange useful information and interesting conversation, to the point where they become a reason to want to join SFWA. I invite SFWA members to check them out and decide for themselves whether or not we’re making progress toward that.

    • I mention this because it concerns me that SFWA members are saying the forums are problematic when people, including myself, are working hard to make them a place that people can exchange useful information and interesting conversation

      Cat – I am sorry, but these two things are not mutually exclusive. You and the other volunteers work extremely hard and I commend your work and dedication. At the same time, the forums, in my experience, are triggery, upsetting, and generally unsafe for me. I am not the only one who feels this way, and do not think it is productive to suggest that I should not feel this way.

      • Rose, I apologize for a comment that makes it seem as though I’m suggesting how you should or shouldn’t feel about the forums. That’s not my intent. At the same time, if there are comments that are triggery or upsetting, I wish people would report them so the moderators can do something about them. While understanding there are different points of view on the matter and that many don’t have the spoons for every struggle, to me it’s frustrating to have people abandon the forums to the yahoos rather than claim them as their own.

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