An Open Letter about EPIC and Homophobia

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Dear EPIC Community,

I’m Gary, co-chair of EPIC2017 here at HEC Montréal.

I’m writing this open letter because there have recently been some social media posts by an individual accusing EPIC of homophobia. Specifically, someone who submitted a proposal for EPIC2017 felt that his submission had been rejected due to homophobia: “I sensed clear homophobia and cannot see any other reason for awarding me the very lowest score.” This accusation has been published in some outlets along with the “Silence = Death” imagery most widely associated with the social activism of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) starting in the late 1980s.

Wow. Where do I start?

As a “very open” gay man, who was co-chair of EPIC2017, who opened the conference by reflecting on my own experiences of seeing the world differently as a gay man – in reference to the Perspective theme of the conference – I felt shock and disbelief that someone would accuse EPIC of homophobia. As a gay man who came out in 1984, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and lost lovers and dear friends to AIDS; using the “Silence = Death” imagery in relation to an EPIC proposal rejection was beyond hyperbole and personally offensive.

No, I’m not EPIC. EPIC is all of us. But nobody – absolutely nobody – who knows me would believe that I would put up with any talk or behaviour even remotely homophobic related to a conference that I’m running.

For anyone who participated in EPIC2017, I trust that the accusation of homophobia falls flat.

However, for people who weren’t able to participate in EPIC2017, let me share some highlights. In addition to the out and outspoken gay professor who was conference co-chair – me – I had the best co-chair ever, Rita Denny, who is one of the most awesome, inclusive, sensitive and wicked smart people that I know. Rita could not be more inclusive or open to other perspectives. She was responsible for crafting the Perspectives theme and had primary responsibility for conference content. She is not homophobic, nor would she tolerate any homophobic behavior.

Of our four keynote speakers, only one was male: My dear friend and colleague David K. Johnson. David, who also happens to be gay, presented his research that’s the basis of his forthcoming book by Columbia University Press, “Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement.” If you haven’t seen the talk, “Consumer Culture and Political Resistance—How Gay Entrepreneurs Sparked A Movement,” it’s worth watching. David’s pretty damn awesome and his talk was incredibly well-received. And it was super gay. Another speaker shared some pretty heavy insights about being a trans person doing research on gender.

I could go on, but here’s my point: EPIC2017 was pretty gay. It was the gayest conference that I’ve ever attended. What EPIC2017 was not – by any imaginable metric – was homophobic.

I would also like to believe that anyone with any significant experience with the EPIC community realizes what I have come to realize over a number of years: EPIC is a very welcoming, diverse and incredible community. I honestly feel more comfortable – and accepted – at EPIC than I feel in Montréal or working within a Québécois University. It is because EPIC is many, many wonderful things – and it is not homophobic.

Real Challenges for EPIC

One outcome of being such an awesome community is that we are growing like crazy. When we started planning for EPIC2017, EPIC had 200 paying members. Now, we have nearly 1,000! EPIC2017 sold out two months before the conference started – a stunning first for EPIC and a bit of a shock for us. We stopped admitting people to the waitlist when it surpassed 200 (conference attendance was capped at 300).

One challenge of growing so much is that EPIC receives more and more proposals for its conference every year. Last year, we had an acceptance rate of less than 30%. In other words, more than 70% of people who submitted a proposal were disappointed that they wouldn’t get the chance to present their work at EPIC2017. I get that and it sucks. It really does. Even members of the EPIC board know this; they’ve been rejected by EPIC’s blind peer reviewers too. So have I – and it sucked! For EPIC, this is what one of my bosses once referred to as “rich man problems.” For a proposal author, it sucks. But it’s not homophobia.

I know that as an author it can be difficult to understand why your proposal didn’t make the cut, particularly given the inability to see the other proposals and their reviews. Many people have written eloquently about the challenges for authors and reviewers inherent in peer review. It’s tough and an imperfect exercise. Committee members are human and doing the best they can, given the need to evaluate a large number of competing proposals. But what I can say with 100% certainty is that no one who submitted a proposal for EPIC2017 was rejected because of homophobia. Full stop.

I wish all of you who have submitted this year the best of luck. I hope to see all of you, even if you aren’t gay, at the East-West Center for EPIC2018.

Sincerely,
Gary

  9 comments for “An Open Letter about EPIC and Homophobia

  1. Profile photo of Glaucia Holzmann
    April 16, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Hi Gary,
    I’m so very sorry this has happened. As an EPIC member I support you and all your text above. It’s not fair to play the “gay card” on EPIC. The conference is so free of prejudice and so diverse. Please, receive my love and compassion in such an unfair situation.

    • Profile photo of Gary F. Gebhardt
      April 16, 2018 at 9:57 pm

      Glaucia, thank you so much for your kind words, love and compassion! I sincerely appreciate it!

  2. Profile photo of Erin Taylor
    April 17, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    I support Gary’s statement. Proposals are reviewed by multiple people, and it would be astonishing if homophobia ended up dictating the decision to reject a paper.

    • Profile photo of Gary F. Gebhardt
      April 17, 2018 at 4:44 pm

      Thank you Erin! And, in fact, the accusation was investigated last year and again last week – which is detailed in “3 Things We Want You to Know,” written by the EPIC Board detailing EPIC’s response to the accusation.

  3. Profile photo of Mark Wyner
    April 17, 2018 at 5:43 pm

    Hello, Gary. I am new to EPIC. I am also very active in social justice, so I was immediately drawn to this post where I could learn more about the ethics of EPIC were challenged. I am happy to have discovered the diversity of your team, with regard to gender and sexual orientation, and that this has also been represented in your speaker selection. While I have seen some ethnic diversity in past conferences, perhaps there is room to extend this further as well?

    As an aside, I wanted to respectfully comment on Glaucia’s statement about the “gay card.” In the filed of ethnography and anthropology, it is especially important for us to be mindful of the patterns we see in language and behaviors. Consequently, I have concerns with practitioners in this field using phrases like “gay card” or “race card.”

    The idea of marginalized people using “cards” when they feel underrepresented or oppressed is demeaning, and undermines the activism of equity. While someone who feels marginalized may have misunderstood their situation — such as with the individual referenced in this post — we should be sensitive to the weight that marginalized people feel by societal oppression. Especially those of us with privilege — like me, a cis white man — who can’t begin to wholly understand what it is like to feel this kind of oppression.

    Glaucia, I hope you understand that my statements here are intended to be respectful and in no way an attack on you or your character. I simply felt it prudent to bring this to the conversation as a member of this community of practitioners who are helping to build diverse and inclusive ecosystems.

    • Profile photo of Matthew Bernius
      April 17, 2018 at 6:49 pm

      Mark,

      Thanks so much for thoughtfully raising that topic. It’s an important thing to keep in mind.

      To your point, I’m reposting part of a concurrent message from the EPIC board about this incident:

      “EPIC is a diverse community committed to understanding and addressing the ways in which power creates exclusions and repressions. We understand that discrimination can happen even in communities earnestly committed to these principles, so we will always take complaints extremely seriously and we encourage individuals to speak up about their experiences. For EPIC2018 attendees, our Code of Conduct includes instructions for reporting harassment on site.”

      The entire text can be found here: https://www.epicpeople.org/3-things/

      Our goal is to build a diverse and inclusive community. And part of that is to mindfully avoid language that, often unintentionally, leads to marginalization.

      • Profile photo of Mark Wyner
        April 17, 2018 at 9:20 pm

        Thank you, Matthew. I like that EPIC recognizes that intention isn’t explicitly a free pass, and that even those of us who are committed to equity and justice can misstep. This is meaningful in the work for equity, especially in professional spaces such as these. My appreciation to you and your team as you navigate these waters with integrity.

    • Profile photo of Gary F. Gebhardt
      April 17, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      Hi Mark,
      Thank you for your comments.

      Yes, for EPIC2017, I think that I can say that we pushed the boundaries across a myriad of fronts. One of our other keynote speakers at EPIC2017 was Carolyn Rouse, who is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology and the Director of the Program in African Studies at Princeton University, Her talk, “Racist by Design: Why Robots Are Not Taking Our Jobs,” was pretty damn provocative as well – and also incredibly well received. If you’re an EPIC member, you can see it here: https://www.epicpeople.org/racist-by-design/
      I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t seen it.

      Additionally, two of the four salons sought to encourage discussion and reflection on (1) Ethnography & Equality and (2) Design in a Post-gender World. These were not recorded, but you can get a sense of what they were about and also see the accompanying readings by taking a look at 2017 program: https://2017.epicpeople.org/salons/

      Finally, take a look at the keynote speakers for EPIC2018 that were just posted today, it looks like we’ll be having a lot of even more discussions about social justice in 2018 https://2018.epicpeople.org/keynotes/

      Best,
      Gary

      • Profile photo of Mark Wyner
        April 17, 2018 at 9:25 pm

        Excellent news, Gary. I look forward to seeing more about how EPIC dips into these spaces. I will watch Carolyn’s talk, which is especially intriguing to me because I have been giving a keynote talk on ethics and empathy in Artificial Intelligence.

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