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.


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