I Will Not Be Attending The Midwest Writers Workshop In Indiana

I won’t be attending the Midwest Writers Workshop in Indiana this July.

I’m heartsick to have to announce it (and yesterday was a stressful enough day dealing with fallout surrounding it), but let me explain why.

Indiana is home to the RFRA, the Religious Freedom Rights Act in Indiana, which grants theoretical religious protection to discriminate based on religion, and the focus of that discrimination is the LGBT community.

MWW issued a statement afterward, and the statement noted that the conference is against discrimination, but mentioned nothing about being against the law. I said as much to the conference organizers, and I said that my hope would be that they would include language specifically condemning the RFRA.

They updated their message to this one:

In light of the current state and national discussion around the recent Indiana legislation, we wrote the below statement to affirm our commitment to the inclusiveness of our conference.  It was brought to our attention by 2015 Faculty member Chuck Wendig that our first statement of inclusiveness did not go far enough to explicitly state our position on discrimination.  So we’d like to add that the Midwest Writers Workshop has been and will always be an organization and a community that will not tolerate discrimination. 

As always, if you are human and write words, you are welcome to the Midwest Writers Workshop.

(If you aren’t human and write words, you are welcome to our conference as long as you agree to allow us to videotape you writing so we can win YouTube, especially if you are a cat.)

Regardless of your title, cover, genre, or translation, you are welcome to our conference.

If you are gay or straight or somewhere in between, you are welcome to our conference.

If you are a grammar guru, someone who will fight against the Oxford comma, or someone who will fight for it, you are welcome to our conference.

Regardless of your race, creed, religion, immigration status, political- or planetary-affiliation, you are welcome to our conference.

Our point is that EVERYONE is welcome, and we consciously work to make our conference more diverse and inclusive. Last year we were excited to have Daniel José Older lead a session titled Fundamentals of Writing “the Other” and this year Christa Desir is leading a session titled: Everything You Want to Know About the World of Gay Romance But Were Afraid to Ask. (see our full list of sessions)

Even though Muncie, Indiana, might not be the most diverse city in the United States, the MWW committee believes that diversity of people, thoughts, and opinions, make us stronger as a community and as writers.

The only changes to the statement, I believe, appear as the italicized portion (italicized not by me) at the top of the statement. That statement was made on March 30th. (The revised statement was also made a little prematurely — I was, at that point, yet to have the scheduled phone call meant to discuss their messaging and policies. I was also surprised to be called out specifically, but I’ll take my lumps there, as I guess it was me who has been pushing on this front.)

The statement remains lacking any condemnation or even discussion of the law.

Now, to unpack a little why I asked for this change: because you can in one hand be against discrimination and yet, at the same time, be in support of the law. Meaning, you might say, I personally don’t discriminate and neither does my organization while simultaneously saying (or not saying, but still believing) But I support the right of the religious to do so and I support the RFRA. I spoke to friends of mine in the LGBT community as well as other people in my life I trust, and they uniformly said the same thing — this was soft messaging and could easily be interpreted as, “We support the law.” (To be clear, they likely don’t support the law. The staff is home to LGBT individuals, in part. But clarity in organizational statements matter.)

I continued to ask for the change because I felt that a blanket boycott of Indiana may not be the best way to deal with my appearances there, but that it was important instead to support those businesses, individuals and organizations that were explicitly opposed to the law. MWW was not yet explicitly opposed, and so — I asked. I was clear that the change to the messaging was necessary for me to honor my commitment to MWW to appear as faculty in July.

I was told that amending this statement a third time was an uncertain hope, and understandably so because MWW is affiliated with / nested in a public university, Ball State, which had not made a formal statement either. (Other public universities have made explicit statements, it should be noted. Indiana University’s president said: “While Indiana University hopes that the controversy of the past few days will move the state government to reconsider this unnecessary legislation, the damage already done to Indiana’s reputation is such that all public officials and public institutions in our state need to reaffirm our absolute commitment to the Hoosier values of fair treatment and non-discrimination.”)

In a discussion on Facebook, however, members of MWW noted that this ran counter to the reality which was that they were going to make a statement separate from (and regardless of) the university’s own statement. Which, okay, great.

But then, later in that thread, the director of MWW confirmed the following:

Ok, folks, as someone who writes a Happy Day Moment every day, I would like to say this: Let’s have more understanding. More compassion. More grace. More mercy. More community. More forgiveness. More kindness. More charitableness. Let’s not be cruel or hurtful or selfish or judgmental or isolating or thankless or intolerant or vengeful or rude. Midwest Writers Workshop is celebrating our 42nd year and we’ve always been welcoming to all. We are a writers’ conference. We are under the umbrella of Ball State University. It is not our role to speak for or against the RFRA law in question. We want people who agree with the law and people who disagree with it to feel welcome at our conference. Midwest Writers does not discriminate based upon political beliefs and it not our place to get into politics. We reject the perception of the RFRA law, but we will not discriminate against anyone and their beliefs. All are welcome.

(emphasis mine.)

That if, of course, MWW’s right to make that call.

But I have to make a different call. After some rather stressful conversations yesterday, I pulled out of the conference. That was not done easily or with a light heart. On a practical level, this costs me a speaking fee — meaning, I’m losing a paycheck. (And we writers tread water or drown sometimes based on a single paycheck.) It also wounds those participants who were coming to see me speak, some of whom are surely members of the Indiana LGBT community. At the basic level, I’ll probably lose fans and readers over this. Even friends.

Thing is, though, this sort of thing doesn’t have a playbook. Being an ally in this regard — or trying to be an ally, at least, however clumsily I make the attempt — does not mean taking the one shining golden path to Being The Good Person. Some people will applaud what I’m doing and others will condemn it. (I’ve seen both on social media. People calling me either hero or bully for making this decision. I reject both of those labels. I’m not a hero, and I may very well be getting this wrong. I also don’t believe this makes me a bully.)

I have to follow my gut and my heart, and to try to make the right call by my LGBT friends and by my wife and my son, and that’s where this takes me. I don’t think MWW’s statement was sufficient, and neutrality regarding this law feels like an act of appeasement. Further, the narrative coming out of MWW by members of its staff did not make me feel like I was a particularly good fit for this conference. I endeavor to be polite and professional, even in disagreement. I hope others do the same.

I apologize to those who were planning to see me there.

For those who were hoping to see me at MWW, I’ll offer this — individual Skype sessions or group Google Hangouts to those Hoosier writers who want to talk about writing or this law or facebees or being a parent or whatever. If you are one of those writers who wanted to see me there (and who doesn’t, y’know, hate me for withdrawing from the conference), bounce me an email at terribleminds at gmail dot com. I’m on deadline at present, so these writing hangouts or chats will likely happen over the summer sometime.

Thanks all for understanding.

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