Over the weekend Daniel Zachariou, founder and Event Director of Supanova, Australia's largest pop culture expo, posted a petition on his Facebook page calling for transgender education in Australian schools to be stopped.
The petition claims the 'Safe Schools' program forces children to "learn about sex, gender fluidity and transgenderism at ages as young as 5 without the supervision of parents". It has been publicly criticised as "fear-mongering".
Reaction to this post among con-goers has been swift and negative, with many calling for for a boycott of Supanova.
The Safe Schools initiative is a network of organisations that work with schools in Australia. Their goal: "create safer and more inclusive environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families".
The initiative has been the source of controversy recently, after Liberal MPs Cory Bernardi and George Christensen called for a full parliamentary inquiry into the program, resulting in Bill Shorten calling Bernardi a homophobe in a terse exchange in front of Australia's political press core. The inquiry caused some aspects of the Safe Schools program to be changed. Some found these changes transphobic, homophobic and short-sighted, others believed those changes didn't go far enough.
The problem: this isn't the first time Supanova has incited controversy in regards to cultural issues like this. Last year Supanova and Zachariou came under fire for inviting Adam Baldwin to the event at a time when Baldwin was considered a high profile supporter (and instigator) of GamerGate. Supanova's decision caused The Ledger Awards to remove the convention as a sponsor. Many popular cosplayers withdrew their support of Supanova as a result; some were genuinely fearful for their safety.
For many, Daniel Zachariou's post confirms Supanova is not a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community and suggests a level of transphobia.
That being said, it's important to still support Supanova as the employees have been working for years to make it an inclusive show.
— Jennifer Scheurle (@Gaohmee) June 5, 2016
Liam Esler, who runs GX Australia, Australia's first queer gaming convention, was extremely disappointed by Zachariou's post.
"As a diversity advocate and someone who loves pop culture and gaming events, the fact that Supanova and those who run it have now repeatedly shown disregard for the LGBTQI+ community, women and other minorities is hugely disappointing," he said. "As much as I want to support events for gamers throughout Australia, there's no way I'm going to do that when those running it post transphobic asshattery.
"The safer schools program has been effectively shown to help not only LGBTQI+ students but also LGBTQI+ faculty and staff. This is a vital program for a highly vulnerable group."
Cosplayer Eve Beauregard publicly boycotted Supanova as a result of Adam Baldwin's attendance last year. For her, this statement affirms her earlier decision to avoid attending the show.
"Supanova has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. It's heartbreaking that the information that has come to light about the company over the last two years means I can no longer in good conscience support the show," she said. "Our diverse and welcoming community deserves better. The exhibitors, guests and staff who work hard to make Supanova a safe place deserve better."
Jordan Raskopoulos, the lead singer of Australian comedy act Axis of Awesome, is also a trans woman. Jordan too was deeply disappointed the Zachariou's comments.
"I hope that this can be an opportunity for Zachariou to confront his own ignorance," she told Kotaku. "I have worked alongside Safe Schools and Minus18 in Victoria and have seen, first hand, the positive impact their work has on young queer people. It took me until I was 32 to come to terms with being transgender. I was confused and alone with my feelings when I was young and a program like Safe Schools would have made an incredible difference to me.
"The gaming and pop culture community is incredibly diverse and it's heartening to see the continuing efforts of events like PAX and GX to be inclusive. These events have gone beyond merely accepting diversity and are now at a point where they celebrate it. It has been a joy to be a guest at those conventions. It is profoundly disappointing to see how far behind Supanova is in this regard. I hope that they can learn from this and become a better convention in the future."
Daniel Zachariou posted the following public apology on the Supanova Facebook page.
I want to express my sincere apologies to all staff, volunteers, guests and attendees of the Expo, and especially those who identify as LBGTQIA+. Recently I shared a link on my personal facebook page. In doing so I hoped to express some concerns about the nuances of the Safe Schools initiative. In no way did I intend to express transphobic or homophobic views, which would not align with the values of acceptance and camaraderie that I hold and aim to demonstrate through Supanova. Moreover, such views would not reflect the perspectives and diversity of the phenomenal team of staff and volunteers that make up Supanova as a whole.
Nonetheless, I realise the severity of sharing such a link and the impact it has as a representative of Supanova. My post and the discussions that followed have made many valued members of the community feel unwelcome, offended or uncomfortable. I take full responsibility for this and am committed to working with my team to continue doing what we do best and what you’ve enjoyed wholeheartedly these last 15 years; wonderfully inclusive events whose size and scope are a reflection of every portion of the community coming together as one. As a part of this, I am introducing a new Diversity panel to the line up for our June tour. This panel will be hosted by Supanova staff and volunteers, including members of the LBGTQIA+ community. I invite you to come along, share your views and provide suggestions on how we can continue to grow as an inclusive, diverse event.
Everything we’ve done down through these years has been about broadening the team so as to best represent all of you, working tirelessly in doing so, and as the Event Director and Founder of Supanova I do ask that the whole team not be punished for my comments. Both I and the team of Supanova are committed to ensuring it remains a welcoming, enjoyable and inclusive environment for all just as it’s always been.
The reaction to the apology has been mixed, with many still planning to boycott the show.
Elissa Harris, co-founder of Flat Earth Games, is a trans woman. She believes the apology doesn't go far enough. To her, this is about the broader issue of education and awareness.
"It's hard to overstate the importance of efforts like the Safe Schools program for the mental well-being of all children," she says. "The damage that can be done by even a handful of young people who, due to lack of education on the subject, might hurt fellow students who are dealing with their identity in an already-complicated environment is big enough to be a very real problem.
"The personal 'opinions' of people who have positions of power over public events is hugely important and they need to realise this. It is not as simple as a conflict of beliefs — education on this matter can foster human compassion and understanding at an age when it's most important.
"Lack of education doesn't "just" result in bullying, either, it often ends in violence, as evidenced by the incredibly high rate of assaults on trans-people. This is something that needs to change, and education is and always has been the best way to bring about any positive change in a society."
Zachariou expanded on his opinion on Safe Schools, in this Facebook comment, claiming he was not completely against Safe Schools. His issue was with teaching younger children about gender issues.
But many believe this only exacerbates the situation. According to Liam Esler of GX Australia, reaching children at young age is often paramount in preserving the mental health of teenagers and adults later in life.
"Talking about queer and trans people or issues shouldn't be something we only do with teens or adults," he explains, "especially for trans kids, talking about it during childhood is super important in avoiding mental health issues later down the line."
Daniel Zachariou told Kotaku he believed he'd been taken out of context.
"My share, which I didn’t realise linked to an image and supporting text, wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of my post or personal ideals, was never meant to look the way it did nor emphasise any gender," he says. "It was the opposite in seeking not to limit the imposition of gender theory on young children without parental permission.
"Nothing I say will be enough just as my apology is being criticised as simply being bad PR. But as I have indeed sincerely apologised I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to do."
The Diversity panel, which Daniel announced today as part of his apology, is part of a direct response to common criticisms of Supanova.
"Up until now we've been so inclusive as to not need to flag something as Diverse because so much of what we've done simply has been. Like our Stay Supa campaign which was always there, but because of the perception that others were doing more we had to get more vocal about our existing policies, rebrand it, and almost present it as if it were new."
Daniel believes that, with Supanova, his track record in providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ speaks for itself.
"We have an amazing expo run by an amazing team and we've always sought to provide a space that's inclusive and fun, which we've successfully achieved."