Last December, while I was still a member of the SCA, I was contacted by a couple of student journalists at The Tattler, a student newspaper in Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland. Isabel Danzis and Grace Harrington, two student reporters for the paper, had been speaking to members of the local SCA group on issues of sexual assault, white supremacy, and the culture of silence within reenactment and LARP communities and someone had referred them to my blog, as I’d written extensively on those issues over the previous few months.
After some back-and-forth — not least of which was my making it clear that I don’t and can’t speak for the SCA in any official capacity — I agreed to be interviewed via email for an article which they expected to publish in the January-February issue of their campus news magazine. The article wasn’t completed for the January deadline, and was pushed back again and again. Other things happened in my life during that time, of course, and by late March I’d decided to quit the SCA, and still there was no news on the article. Frankly, I’d started to wonder if I’d ever see it.
Fortunately, I received an email this afternoon that the article was published in The Tattler’s March-April edition, fittingly focused on the challenges that young people have coming of age in a toxic culture, and that I could read it via their paper’s Issuu app, which was linked to the homepage of their publication. The link to that issue is here, and the article The Dark Side of Medieval Reenactment is on pages 17-19.
Ms. Danzis and Ms. Harrington, the student journalists I spoke with, were extremely thorough in their investigations and I, particularly as someone who has a college diploma in journalism, was quite impressed with both the depth and breadth of their reporting. I have sent them an email expressing my admiration and thanking them for letting me be a part of their work. I hope they both go on to prosperous journalistic careers, and I encourage everyone in the SCA to click the link, go to page 17, and start reading.
That being said, they only used a small part of my interview, and not what I thought the best parts of it were, either. Okay, okay, I’m mostly joking: My ego can handle sharing space a number of other SCA interviewees, especially as one of them is Gigi Coulson, the Society’s interim Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer whose job, let’s face it, is to answer the sorts of questions they were asking.
Plus I think I kind of overwhelmed them with the volume of my answers.
However, I think what I wrote back to Mss. Danzis and Harrington stands on its own and lest I be accused, as a now-former SCAdian, of pulling a ring-and-run, I’ve decided to include it below. The italicized sections are the questions I was asked, my replies are in ordinary format.
This interview occurred via email over several days in early December 2018.
For how long and in what capacity have you been involved in the SCA?
I’ve been a member of the SCA for almost fifteen years now, and have in that time served in a number of officer’s positions at the local-group level, including a term as Seneschal of the Canton of Petrea Thule. Senechal is our “medieval” title for a local chapter president. I don’t currently hold any offices, but I’m active in the Niagara-region chapter of the SCA in Ontario, Canada, The Barony of Rising Waters, and for the past five years I’ve written a blog that frequently touches on SCA issues. Rather to my surprise, my blog has recently become quite popular in SCA circles.
What issues do you think affect the SCA, if any?
The SCA, like any other hobby organization, has two major concerns: first, recruitment and retention; and second, legal liability. Recruitment means bringing new people into the SCA, retention means keeping them participating long-term. Legal liability is largely focused on preventing trouble or at least not being sued in the event of trouble. One of my concerns, which many participants share, is that the SCA’s current focus on legal liability issues doesn’t seem to place a priority on preventing harm to participants but rather preventing consequences from damaging the organization. This has led, in my opinion, to a serious failure in accountability for problem players.
We’ve heard from other sources that many creative anachronists aren’t interested in talking about these issues because they draw negative attention to the SCA. Why do feel that it’s important to talk about these issues on a public platform (on your blog)?
This goes back to the recruitment and retention issue; there’s a fear that if the SCA gets bad press that people won’t come out to play or will quit in response. There’s also fear that openly addressing problematic behaviour in the SCA might make the Society as an organization the target of legal action; if we kick someone out they might sue us. There’s an unofficial attitude among both the general membership and Society’s leadership that if you talk about a problem – like harassment or racism or sexual assault – that the public will somehow turn on the SCA and we’ll be ruined. This has unfortunately led to a situation where the corporate culture of the SCA is very opaque when it comes to addressing problems and a few bad actors have taken advantage of that.
Keeping problems quiet might have been a viable strategy in the past – the SCA is more than fifty years old, after all – but there’s two problems with keeping things hush-hush: First, it’s morally wrong to cover up problems because the problems don’t actually go away, they just happen underground; and second, covering stuff up simply doesn’t work in the age of the internet. One of the reasons that I’ve started writing about this sort of thing on my blog is that I think the attitude of “don’t talk about it” is actually harming the SCA community.
Have you faced any backlash or consequences (both in either an official or social capacity) for any of the comments that you have made on controversies within the SCA?
I really sort of burst onto the discussion with my blog this past summer, because I weighed in on a controversy that was happening down in Florida. Long story short, the King of Trimaris at the time began using their position in a very trollish manner, deliberately trying to upset people and promote at least one openly racist person over the wishes of the community. The problem, in my opinion, wasn’t so much that there was bad behaviour, it’s that there’s really no mechanism in place to hold that person – or anyone, really – accountable for their actions. It’s the lack of accountability that’s the real issue here, and I’ve been very vocal in challenging both the Board of Directors and the leadership at all levels to come up with a solution to that lack.
I have not suffered any official consequences for writing about these issues; there’s been no censorship or threats, or anything like that. For all that we’re re-creating a medieval atmosphere, it’s still the twenty-first century and freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our civilization, so even if someone wanted to officially punish me, they wouldn’t be able to. As for unofficial consequences… well, that’s a bit harder to judge. I’ve been the target of several anonymous threats by people who didn’t like that I was critical about the King of Trimaris. I’ve had internet trolls harassing me for calling out a lack of accountability in internet forums, and so on. I try not to worry about that stuff because, well, everyone who puts themselves forward on the internet has to deal with trolls.
Closer to home, I know for a fact that there are a number of people who are upset with me on a personal level for some of the criticisms I’ve made about the SCA and I do feel kind of bad about that. Peer pressure is a very significant concern in a hobby community and I won’t deny that I’ve felt some of that in recent months. On the other hand, I’ve gotten an enormous amount of support and encouragement from a great many people, and I have to say the support has vastly outweighed any negatives.
Your blog has recently attracted a lot of attention both within the community and outside of it for your comments. Why do you think that people are interested in talking about these issues now?
I think that the increased attention on my blog was largely a matter of lucky timing. I addressed an important issue at a time when it was on a lot of people’s radar, and people seemed to like what I had to offer and started sharing what I wrote. I went viral, or at least as viral as you can get in the re-enactment community. I then took advantage of that and began writing about serious issues more often and there’s been some momentum because of that. I can’t take too much credit, though: I think that people are genuinely interested in making changes in the way the Society for Creative Anachronism operates, because those changes genuinely need to happen. I’m not the only person who worries about the long-term viability of the SCA, and I think that a lot of people are looking to have a discussion about how to effect the necessary changes.
We saw that the SCA mission statement has changed to expand the SCA’s sphere past western Europe. Have people been generally welcoming of this change or has it been meet with some backlash?
Over the past few years the SCA’s Board of Directors has been working on a new series of policies to modernize the Society as an organization. While one of my criticisms of the BoD is that they act very slowly, I’m certainly not going to deny that they are working towards changes. This summer, for example, the SCA adopted a social media policy for the first time in its history, and that was relatively well received. They also adopted a new mission statement, and that was a little more problematic because the wording specifically limited the official focus of the Society to western Europe. Whether this was intentional or accidental has been the subject of much debate but there was an immediate and very vocal backlash from the membership about that limitation which was seen as arbitrary and unnecessary. To their credit the Board of Directors realized that this was an unwelcome change and in August they issued a revised mission statement that removed the wording which focused on Western European culture. Some people have been critical of the revision, fearing that it’ll change the fundamental character of the SCA. I disagree with that assessment: as a friend of mine said about the revised mission statement “If you build a bigger playground, more people will come out to play.”
Since the change in the mission statement has there been an increase in minorities joining the SCA or has it still remained relatively few?
The theoretical effect of the change to the mission statement has been to open the SCA up to any culture that existed before the seventeenth century, not just European ones. Whether that’s actually happening isn’t too clear yet – it’s still early days. From a practical standpoint, the SCA has largely been focused on European history for the last fifty years, so I suspect changes will occur slowly. But a barrier that existed has been removed, so I hope there will be some momentum that builds.
How did racism used to be treated in the SCA and how has it evolved over time, if at all? Have people become more willing to talk about and find solutions now and if so, what do you attribute this change to?
Because of the European focus of the SCA over the past fifty years, the Society is largely made up of people with a European heritage, that is to say, white people. Because of that minorities have been, well, very much in the minority. That leads to an environment where unconscious racism, systemic racism can flourish. I want to make it clear – the SCA is not now and never has been a place where open racism is accepted or made welcome… but it has been a place where problematic behaviour has been let slide, and some of that behaviour has been racist behaviour. I’m happy to report that there is an increasing groundswell of feeling in the Society that such things can’t be allowed to continue, that they need to be confronted. A lot of that simply stems from changes in our wider culture; the SCA doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and what our parents and grandparents might have considered acceptable simply doesn’t fly with younger people anymore.
White supremacy also seems to be an issue relating to the SCA. We have heard from other sources that white supremacists have “appropriated” medieval culture and taken many historical symbols for their own use, but there are no white supremacists within the SCA itself. However, we have heard of at least one incident of a white supremacist gaining office in the Kingdom of Trimaris. How would you say white supremacy relates to the SCA? Are there any white supremacists within the SCA, or is it just an issue of white supremacists connecting with medieval culture? How does the issue of white supremacy change people’s views on the SCA?
There’s been a lot of attention paid to this issue in the reenactment world, and people are genuinely concerned. A few years ago there was a controversy in the HEMA community – Historical European Martial Arts – that neo-Nazis and suchlike were deliberately moving into these groups and forcing out non-whites as a kind of cultural gate-keeping exercise. There’s also concern that these violent white supremacists are using groups like the SCA for combat training: when I look at the images of Charlottesville where you had these alt-right types with helmets and shields and clubs and then I get into my armour and pick up my shield and rattan sword to do SCA heavy fighting, well, there’s definitely a part of me that wonders.
The concern about white supremacist was also demonstrated a couple of times in the last year within the SCA: There was a situations in Caid – the SCA kingdom in southern California – where the King and Queen wore garb decorated with swastikas. Swastikas are an actual medieval pattern, of course, and in the middle ages they had no negative connotations. But they do have that connotation in modern times and there was quite a bit of uproar over it. To their credit, the King and Queen apologized and stepped down, but it definitely raised some questions in people’s minds as to whether or not it was a deliberate signal to white supremacists.
The Trimaris situation is a bit different – there’s not a lot of question that someone was acting in bad faith, but there is a question whether they were doing it as a white supremacist or just to be a troll. The situation is being investigated by the Board of Directors, but while that goes there’s not a lot of official comment about it, which brings us back to my concerns about accountability and transparency, of course.
Are there white supremacists among us? Yes, I think there are. But they’re a very small minority, and the vast majority our membership is horrified by the idea that there might be some kind of infiltration going on. These two incidents in Caid and Trimaris have definitely opened people’s eyes to that possibility, and the community is increasingly sending a firm message that they are not having it.
We have heard from other sources that there has been a problem with sexual assault in the community. Do you think that sexual assault is a problem within the SCA? If it is, have people been held more accountable than before? If so, what you attribute this change to?
Sadly, sexual assault and harassment is an ongoing problem in the SCA, and in LARP and re-enactment communities in general. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. And right now, there really isn’t much of a structure in place to deal with this sort of thing in the SCA; as it stands the Society can’t even ban a problem player without a criminal conviction. This has led to what’s called a “missing stair” attitude, that is, if you go to a friend’s house and there’s a missing stair they tell you to “just step around it” rather than trying to fix the broken stair. In the SCA new players, especially women, are sometimes warned “don’t be alone with this person” and so on, but nothing is done to remove the person in question because there’s simply no set of rules in place that would allow the SCA to remove them. One of the things I’ve been advocating for is creating structures and rules to remove that sort of person so that the SCA is a much safer space.
You mentioned in your blog some aspects of homophobia in the SCA. Is homophobia a typical part of SCA culture?
I’m an LGBTQ person, and have been openly LGBTQ my entire adult life. I have, on occasion, run into homophobia in the SCA. Groups like the SCA are a microcosm of our society as a whole, so problems like homophobes carry over. Even having been on the receiving end, my personal concern about homophobic incidents aren’t so much that they happen, but that there’s not really a method of addressing them when they do. Just like the concern about sexual assault, there’s not currently a structure in place in the rules to address the issue. That needs to change.
In your opinion, how has the SCA overall changed recently in terms of dealing with racism, sexism, etc?
When you talk about the problems of racism and sexism and homophobia in an organization, it’s really easy to think that’s all there is to the organization, which would be a mistake. The problems are a very small part of the whole, obviously, or people simply wouldn’t participate. The vast majority of people who participate in the SCA are well-intentioned and don’t want these things to be in our community. This isn’t a new attitude, but I think people are more inclined to push back against the problems then they have been in the past, partly as a reflection of the larger changes in our culture. The #metoo moment is happening in reenactment communities the same way it’s happening everywhere else.
Changes in attitude are important. But I also think that changes in the rules are important too. Of course, the SCA is a volunteer organization run by a volunteer Board of Directors, which can limit the speed at which changes occur to the rules. The BoD is definitely trying to bring the SCA forward to reflect these cultural changes; people like me are pushing them to move faster.