Behind Calgary Comic-Con’s Freeze-Out Of The Honey Badger Brigade

Patrick Bissett Freelance Journalist
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One of the most hotly anticipated events in the North American geek culture calendar took place this past weekend, with the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo (CalEx) attracting more than 100,000 people through its doors. Fans got to meet many of their heroes at the three-day event, but not everybody left Calgary with fond memories. CalEx turned sour when a group called Honey Badger Brigade (HBB) was kicked out because of apparent harassment claims made against it. That decision, and the subsequent refusal by the expo’s organizers to fully explain their decision, has caused outrage from online critics, accusing CalEx of bullying, misogyny, and censorship.

The trouble started last Friday when HBB members were setting up their booth. CalEx staff approached, telling founding member Alison Tieman that she had to pack up the booth and leave. CalEx claimed to have received 25 harassment claims, arising from HBB’s presence at the panel discussion “Women Into Comics” the previous night.

What is clear from the audio recorded at that panel, however, is that even by the most liberal interpretation of the word, no harassment took place. That claim is risible.

After HBB was ejected, CalEx organizers provided a short statement:

“The Calgary Expo is a positive and safe event for everyone. We have reason to believe that the Exhibitor in question does not fall in line with this mandate… so we have politely requested that they not participate in our show or future shows. We continue to build a positive and fun event for everyone.

“We have evidence that the group in question was actively disregarding our mandate. We support free speech – and continue to promote equality across the board. Their removal from the show had zero to do with gender, and everything to do with our show policies, which apply to all exhibitors and attendees.

“We are very proud of our initiative for #ExpoEquality and we wish everyone a happy, safe and fun Expo.” 

As PR statements go, it’s pretty poor. The reader is no wiser about what happened or why HBB was sent on its way. When contacted by TheDC, CalEx organizers refused to provide any additional comment, sending the same statement via email as a response. It has no callback information for press, no dateline, no byline. It’s not even branded. To some, this might appear as an exercise in nitpicking, but the lack of a professionally crafted response speaks volumes about the simmering contempt in which CalEx holds those who are seeking answers. Five days after the initial incident, HBB has yet to receive any communication from CalEx, leaving its members without a legitimate explanation for their removal.

Here is a group that raised thousands of dollars from fans and supporters to bring members from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to the expo; that spent weeks in preparation for the event; sourced and created merchandise; crafted press releases; promoted their attendance on their radio show and social media; here is a group that put hundreds of hours into getting everything ready — summarily booted out, with the only explanation being a vague reference to anonymous threats of harassment. HBB members were given no chance to answer the charges, nor were they allowed to examine any evidence.

Karen Straughan of HBB says that the harassment claims (whether real or not) are a smokescreen, and that it was HBB’s association with Gamergate and its members’ status as men’s rights activists (MRAs) that saw them kicked out.

HBB member Hannah Wallen agrees, claiming to have overheard CalEx staff singling out HBB for ejection early in the day Thursday, many hours before HBB took part in the “Women Into Comics” panel that night. “There was a fellow and two CalEx staff members at the customer service table right across from us and I overheard ‘Start shutting some booths down’ and then I looked up and they said, ‘Yeah that one over there,’ pointing at our booth.”

Rather than pack up and go home early, HBB members stayed on in Calgary and made efforts to accommodate fans who’d traveled to see them. They held a number of impromptu events in bars and outdoor venues. There was no sexism. There was no misogyny. There was no hatred. But there was anger — anger that exhibitors who dared to have a different point of view were ejected from a taxpayer-funded event.

And CalEx seemed determined to make matters much, much worse.

HBB and fans met at Reader Rock Garden on Sunday, a public park close to the CalEx venue, Stampede Park. It was thought that holding the get-together close by would enable as many fans as possible to meet HBB.

That didn’t matter to CalEx organizers, apparently, who upon learning of the assembled group called the police. To all appearances, CalEx was not content with booting HBB from the venue with no cause; not content with costing HBB thousands of dollars; not content with banning HBB from all future events; now, in what could only be described as a petty and mean-spirited act, CalEx called the police on a group of geeks chatting casually to each other in a public place.

When asked specifically why police were called, CalEx organizers responded generically that the incident was “a police matter.”

The police response was that that it was a waste of their time. According to a Calgary Police spokesperson, the incident was filed as a “miscellaneous complaint” (police lingo for nonsense), with the responding officer concluding, “There was no risk and no action needed on our part.”

No doubt for some, the whole affair seems like a tempest in a teacup — much ado about nothing. But that’s a dismissive and ultimately wrongheaded view. Not only did HBB invest thousands of dollars, donated by fans, but so too did the woman who perhaps more than any other was affected by CalEx’s actions, Alison Tieman. Tieman invested a considerable amount of her own money into preparations for the event and for the past seven years has worked on her comic series Xenospora. CalEx was an opportunity not only to represent HBB, its fans and the issues they care about but also to promote and sell her work.

“What I want to be is a comics artist and a writer and theorizer of ideas,” says Tieman. “I don’t want to be a f***ing activist. But when I see people who are terrified to talk about certain ideas I can’t sit by and just say, ‘Oh that’s okay.’ I don’t want to be the person who got kicked out of the expo in my home town but I don’t want people to have to hide, and not to be able to express themselves.”

There is a real, serious human cost for those who are ostracized in this fashion. It’s humiliating; it’s degrading; it’s heartbreaking. This is bullying. For those readers who may doubt that, or for those who sit smugly behind their computer screens, happy with what CalEx did, just take a look at this video.

Shame on CalEx.