Courtney Milan Controversy Decimates RWA Leadership

News that Romance Writers of America suspended Courtney Milan from membership and imposed on her a lifetime ban from leadership as the result of two ethics complaints has triggered protest resignations by numerous RWA directors and local leaders, the departure of two responsible officers, and the creation of a petition to remove the incoming president-elect, Damon Suede.

Doubt has been raised that RWA officers adhered to the rules for handling ethics complaints in Milan’s case. The questions were serious enough that leadership was forced to respond, and on December 24 Carol Ritter, RWA’s Deputy Executive Director, informed Milan they had found a “gap between policy and process” and rescinded the penalties – “pending a legal opinion.”   

Saying that they were going to get a legal opinion meant this was neither a genuine reversal nor an apology — was, in fact, nothing more than an attempt to pump the brakes on a runaway car.

One surprising revelation has been that the people who issued the Ethics Committee Report weren’t the members empaneled as the RWA Ethics Committee. Milan had, until a few months ago, chaired that committee and according to (now former) Ethics Committee member Ruby Lang, “RWA did have to get new committee members who weren’t appointed to the ethics committee under Courtney in order to avoid conflict of interest, however, the way they went about this and the way they presented the findings leave a lot to be desired.”

Not only were they bypassed, the original ethics committee members were not even informed that RWA officers had created a separate panel just to handle the Milan case. The upshot is that RWA’s entire original Ethics Committee reportedly has resigned – with announcements on Twitter by former members Ruby Lang, Mia Sosa, and Dee Davis.

The result has been a widespread loss of faith and confidence in the organization, symbolized by additional resignations among the RWA’s dozen Directors-at-Large, including Chanta Rand, someone who had voted against accepting the Ethics Committee report.

Adrienne Mishel wrote about the directors’ resignation in a thread that starts here.

The identical resignation statement was posted by Seressia Glass, Tracey Livesay, Pintip Dunn, Priscilla Oliveras, Farrah Rochon, Erica Ridley, and Denny S. Bryce.     

Milan has pointed out some of the defects in the complaint process that was used. Thread starts here.

Some of the early reactions on Twitter included —

As the conversation developed there were more expansive comments, like these —

  • Felicia Grossman
  • Alexa J. Day
  • Brina Starler, in a thread that starts here.
  • Alexis Daria

The dustup attracted the attention of mainstream media. The New York Post’s article quoted extensively from Twitter

Writer Hillary Monahan summed up the debacle: “Chinese American author critiques white woman’s portrayal of Chinese Americans, white woman calls her a neo-nazi for it, RWA backs white woman and censures author, -BACKLASH-, RWA rescinds censure, everyone eats a giant holiday meal, RWA roils in own vomit. Missing anything?”

A rare voice speaking in favor of the RWA’s actions is Mad Genius Club’s Amanda S. Green (“RWA and Courtney Milan, Pt. 2”):

Here’s the thing. She [Milan] might have done all this with the best of intentions. But she did them in the wrong way. She should have known it would blow up. She reasonably should have foreseen complaints being filed. Most of all, she should have thought long and hard before hitting the post button with accusations phrased in such a way any reasonable person would know they would bring derision on the person they were aimed at.

I applaud RWA for taking the allegations seriously and not sweeping them under the rug. That’s certainly more than SFWA did when certain members (including past and future officers) attacked members of the Sad Puppies and did their best to ruin careers….

Meanwhile, the Milan controversy has drawn attention to corollary issues about other marginalized groups. Thread starts here.

CIMRWA, the Cultural, Interracial, and Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of RWA, has condemned the Milan proceeding and called for RWA’s top leadership to resign. Thread starts here.

A letter signed by 28 RWA members, many of them officers of local organizations, also calls for top officers to resign.

…This board and the staff of RWA misused the policies and procedures of this organization to punish a woman of color who has done nothing but stand up for those that RWA has historically kept out and mistreated. The handling of this situation is shameful.

In October, for the first time, RWA had a board that was a majority of people of color that we felt represented our membership. This leadership has failed them so completely that after barely two months they have lost all faith in the organization and been forced to resign.

The president, the president-elect, and the executive director of RWA need to take responsibility for what has happened and step down. It is unfair to ask local chapter leaders to represent an organization that conducts itself in this way. All of us feel personally failed by all of you.

It appears two one of the targeted officers have vacated their positions. The RWA webpage has been updated, with Carolyn Jewel removed as the President together with Executive Director Carol Ritter. [Ritter’s information appears on the RWA Staff page.]

Also, “A Message to RWA Members” has been posted as a response to the crisis. The message concludes –

…It was never the intent of the Board to suggest that members cannot and should not discuss, call out, or criticize instances of racism or other forms of discrimination. Indeed, we have tried to provide opportunities for members to do just that, and again, we apologize that we have caused members to think otherwise. Many of you have asked about the procedure surrounding the handling of the complaints against Courtney Milan. A second statement will follow with more information. 

As it stands now, the organization is at a turning point. 

We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that. It’s going to be a hard road, maybe one of the most difficult we’ve traveled since our inception. We know it’s a lot to ask, and that not everyone will travel this road with us–for that we are sad, and we are sorry, and we understand. We hope that you will be able to join us on this journey again one day, and for those of you who continue with us, we hope that we may prove worthy of your loyalty. 

We are also in the position of having to fill open leadership roles. President Carolyn Jewel, as well as Board Members Denny S. Bryce, Pintip Dunn, Seressia Glass, Tracey Livesay, Adrienne Mishel, Priscilla Oliveras, Erica Ridley, and Farrah Rochon have resigned their positions. To them, and to the committee leaders who have resigned, we offer our sincere gratitude for your service to the organization. President Damon Suede and the remaining board will be looking for a strong, diverse group of new leaders who have the ability to think strategically and believe in the mission of the organization. 

It’s going to be really difficult in the coming years to restore the trust we have lost, but we’re going to work hard to match our words with our actions as we focus on the mission of the organization–to promote the professional and common business interests of romance writers. We will strive to uphold the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do….

However, Courtney Milan says President Damon Suede should go, too.  Thread starts here.

Examples follow.

And Alyssa Cole alleges Suede has a conflict of interest about an issue where writers have tried to enlist RWA’s help.

A petition was launched today to recall and remove President/President Elect – Damon Suede

Milan encourages eligible RWA members to participate in the recall.

Some who tweeted about quitting answered that they were going to try and stay in RWA long enough to vote for the recall.

[Update 12/27/19: Corrected to show that Carol Ritter is still listed by the RWA webpage as being on staff.]

97 thoughts on “Courtney Milan Controversy Decimates RWA Leadership

  1. I have a certain amount of sympathy for the idea that holding someone accountable, as the person they are today, for something the person they were twenty years ago did or said, is sometimes inappropriate. I think most people change their minds or regret actions they took two decades ago. (I, for one, was ten years old, and I assure you my opinions have evolved since then.) Tumblr, for example, has a problem with people digging back through years of posts to find something that looks maybe sort of bad out of context and holding it up to try and get someone attacked by an internet mob, and that’s both pointless and cruel.

    I have a lot less sympathy for anyone who defends their twenty-year-old racist book by saying something like this.

  2. Point of fact, Name of the Wind was originally published in the 1990s (more than 20 years ago), however it was re-published in 2014 (5-6 years ago). Apparently the kindle version doesn’t show that it was a re-print. And this was in context of Tisdale as a publisher.
    Tweet thread from Dr. Debbie Reese demonstrating that the book had multiple, racist tropes.

  3. “I have a lot less sympathy for anyone who defends their twenty-year-old racist book by saying something like this.”

    That “paraphrase” slightly misrepresents what was used as defense. She says that it was a metaphorical trope, i.e that the blue eyes was used to connect her to the failed father who created disasters and specifies that it was not about race, but by family connection and symbolism with regards to the british empire.

    While I do think that defense is bad on its own (and seems madeup), it is not the one that Milan gives the impression of. It can be found at the third link of this tweet.

  4. Mallory_S:

    “Tweet thread from Dr. Debbie Reese demonstrating that the book had multiple, racist tropes.”

    Fascinatingly enough, a lot of tweets showing the problems of the book was used in the complaints against Milan, sent in by Tisdale. See second link of this tweet.

    Then remember that that complaint document was not shown to the board when they judged the report. I.e, the document clearly showing the racist stereotypes in the boom – a part of the complaint – was withhold by the liaison of the new committee (the current president), instead showing them only the confusing report that in no way showed what the complaints were about. And I’m not sure they even knew that this wasn’t the usual committee or that the board remembered that there wasn’t even supposed to be a liaison.

    And that’s why I think of this as a coup.

  5. @Hampus,
    I think it’s now a coup attempt but I think it was originally groupthink believing they could easily get rid of a thorn in their side.

    Remember the facts of the book/tweet thread should have been immaterial to the Ethics Committee since it took place on twitter. By RWA’s rules, that means that the Ethics Committee had no jurisdiction anyway.

  6. Mallory_S:

    The decision to anyway send it to a committee wasn’t taken by the board, it was taken by the staff. And the report specifies that non-rwa social media are excluded, giving the impression that the complaints are about something else.

    I think a lot of the board members didn’t really know what they were voting on, instead trusting the explanation from Suede.

  7. Totally agree Hampus. It stinks all the way around. If people had not resigned, I think this would be akin to SFWA. Staff started removing people after a recall petition had been sent out to the membership. If people had not resigned, I do think it’d have come down to numbers and Mr. Suede may have been surprised. As it stands now, it is effectively a coup.

  8. Good point Hampus. I’ve been puzzled by the confusing nature of the report from the beginning. I hadn’t considered that the lack of clarity was intentional i.e. it was being used to intentionally obscure the facts of the complaint to make it easier to pass the board with added verbal interpretation from people who wanted Milan gone.
    I can also see how once the committee had made a finding, board members might be persuaded that the RWA might be financially liable in a future lawsuit from the complainant if they didn’t act.

  9. Meredith wrote:

    I have a certain amount of sympathy for the idea that holding someone accountable, as the person they are today, for something the person they were twenty years ago did or said, is sometimes inappropriate.

    I once heard anecdote about someone confronting Mohandas K. Gandhi with something he’d said decades before was now obviously wrongheaded, and he was claimed to have put up his hands and said ‘But I have learned since then!’ (Probably an apocryphal story; I’ve been unable to track it down. But a happy invention.) I would hope, if confronted with one of the vastly many chuckleheaded things 1999-era me said and wrote, I would have the good grace to do likewise and not turn into an instant virtue ethics porcupine.

    (I’ll incorporate, here, by reference, the point that Ms. Milan had addressed merits of a 2014ish reprint, not Ms. Davis’s dusty 1999 original edition.)

    Hampus wrote:

    the document clearly showing the racist stereotypes in the boom – a part of the complaint – was withhold by the liaison of the new committee (the current president)

    Funny thing about that: Ms. Milan has lately pointed out that the Ethics Committee is one of the committees that are specifically required by the governing documents (by-laws, I think) to have no liaison, but report directly to the Board without any intermediary. Gee, it’s almost as if a past Board anticipated that a future insider with malign intent could abuse any such intermediary role to do institutional backstabbing, isn’t it?

    rochrist wrote:

    At this point, I can’t imagine how anyone buys as true ANYTHING from Mr. Suede.

    !! ding !! Could be.

    Or, as I have often said about my economical-with-truth sibling’s claims of fact, if she ever said the sun was going to come up in the east tomorrow, I might well get up early to check.

  10. It seems like Suede is a bullshit artist that has gotten above his ability and brought the attention of folks who pay attention and saves the receipts.
    And now we’re getting to watch the flailing as the house of cards comes down.

  11. I’m not sure if they haven’t been saying anything or if I’m just not seeing it reported, but the lack of ongoing thoughts or statements from any of the people who started this (namely, but not exclusively, Davis and Tisdale) is interesting. On the one hand, there’s almost certainly nothing they could say that could help them, so they’re probably making the right decision in keeping silent, but on the other hand….they set their beloved professional organization on fire. I’m sure they thought they’d set off a kerfuffle online but that it would blow over in a couple weeks. I don’t think they realized the extent to which the RWA was apparently already soaking in gasoline, just waiting for a spark. It’s got to be a hell of a thing to watch and know that you literally can’t say anything (even if all you want to say is trying to further blame Milan, which is almost certainly whom they hold responsible for all this).

  12. Also I’m not a member of any sci fi orgs so I’ve definitely missed out on conversations and discussions at cons and things, but somebody’s checking the bylaws of SFWA and WorldCon and everything else to make sure they’re not similarly open to the abuse and secrecy that the RWA has been perpetrating, right? Someone’s gone through all the submitted ethics compaints and making sure nothing’s got lost? I know SFWA has gone through some similar growing pains, and it would be unnecessarily tragic for something like this to surface in SFWA (or any other org) while the RWA is in the middle of writing a cautionary tale for all of us on what to avoid.

    (To be clear, I don’t just mean the complaints against Milan here, or even the shadow ethics committee. I mean the shunting aside of complaints by minority members against white/cis/straight folks, the lack of action on things like DreamSpinner, and the apparent inability to either follow procedure or even clarify what the procedure was supposed to be. The more endemic, cultural stuff that allowed the firestarters here to even get as far as they did.)

  13. Dr. Debbie Reese (tribally enrolled, Nambé Pueblo), the founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature; PhD in Education; Masters in Library and Information Science; ALA’s 2019 Arbuthnot Lecturer, is presently live tweeting as she reads the Native American-themed romance novel “Sing to Me of Dreams” by Kathryn Lynn Davis, one of the two women who spearheaded the attack on Courtney Milan.

    https://twitter.com/debreese/status/1211035556567760896

    Short version: She is not impressed.

  14. @Becca:

    Similar stuff has happened in sf fandom organisations. Arguably, the CoC breakdowns at ReaderCon and WisCon a few years back shows that simialr stuff can happen within sf fandom too. But there are also some significant differences, like that RWA arguably dwarfs most sf fandom organisations in the way in institutional and economic power.

    The specific ways it happens will differ, but I wouldn’t say a similar thing cannot happen in SFWA or Worldcon. Because such stuff has happened here as well.

  15. Reportedly, seeming skullduggery to suppress local chapter CIMRWA‘s recall petition against current RWA leadership has been underway. According to CIMRWA: (1) RWA staff removing dissatisfied RWA paid members from the national membership roster (even though they had not quit), apparently so that their signatures on the recall petition could then be disqualified. (2) Public Web links to documents within the RWA leadership forums pertaining to policy and procedures have been reported as broken. (3) Access to the RWA website has had multiple sporadic outages, making it difficult to verify RWA membership.

    CIMRWA has been apparently contacting via direct e-mail signatories of the petition (which is supposed to have force per section 11.4.2. of the RWA bylaws), to in some way counter the (alleged) sabotage moves. The group says it made sure it had more than the qualifying number of signatures.

    Signatories are required to be RWA ‘General’ members in good standing:

    11.4.2. Petitions to Recall Officers and Directors-at-Large. Petitions to recall Officers and Directors-at-Large shall be signed by ten percent (10%) of the General members listed on the RWA national membership roster as of the date the petition is filed.

  16. @Karl-Johan Norén, re to @Becca: ISTM that conventions are qualitatively different from membership organizations such as SFWA and RWA; for one thing, a code of conduct is not a bylaw. In some ways this difference makes conventions even more opaque (or at least less subject to wide formal steps rather than the court of public opinion), as in the instances you cite.

  17. Cate Eland has tweeted yet another (quite useful) succinct recap/update.

    Among the things Ms. Eland highlights (and it’s easy to miss juicy bits given the firehose of data that’s been emerging):

    ** It’s still unclear who convened or authorised the second ethics committee (nor who’s on it, etc.). Also, the regular ethics committee members were kept utterly in the dark about even the second one’s formation.

    ** Pres-elect Damon Suede invented for himself the post of liaison to the second ethics committee (RM: something explicitly against RWA’s rules), such that the Board never hears from that committee directly, only what Suede tells them, purportedly on behalf of the committee. The Board’s action was based solely on that representation. There is also evidence that Suede supplied undisclosed additional material to the second ethics committee for their deliberation that Ms. Milan was not informed of, or permitted to respond to. A large part of the reason for Board reversal of that action the following day (and then mass Board resignations) is that they were blindsided by seeing the actual complaints and Milan’s rebuttal only after they appeared via Alyssa Cole revealing them on Twitter (Dec. 23). Subsequently, new President Suede now plans to choose non-elected Board members to fill the vacancies.

    ** It’s not just CIMRWA (and its petition) that’s called for high-level resignations, but also 28 local RWA chapters.

    ** Multiple past efforts to report ethics violations have emerged that never made it to the (regular) ethics committee, but stopped with (were filtered by) RWA staff (but should not have been).

    ** Because Tisdale’s and Davis’s complaints were made in their capacity as publishers (Glenfinnan Publishing), the complaints should have been dismissed, as that grievance process is open only to writers.

    ** Records show that suspiciously convenient changes were made (Oct. 5) to the ethics committee procedures after the (Aug. 27) complaint against Milan, but before the second ethics committee alleged-results were acted on (Nov. 19), clearly aimed at retroactively covering Suede’s actions against Milan. (Claire Ryan has more on this, at a page she is continuing to update.)

  18. @Rick Moen: I’d say “fascinating!”, but somehow that doesn’t seem appropriate for the goat roping this is turning into. (Maybe “Where’s my 10-foot pole?”) I’m remembering the observation that what cost Nixon his office was not the original crime (where his involvement may not even have gone so far as “Will no one rid me of these turbulent Democrats?” but the cover-up; possibly Suede thought he was Dean Wormer creating a new form of double-secret probation?

  19. @Lis Carey
    I read in one of the many, many Tweets on this, that what she wanted was an apology printed in the NYT.
    Having read some of the stuff from the book in question, nope: it’s the kind of thing that should have embarrassed her in the 90s.

  20. @P J Evans–

    I read in one of the many, many Tweets on this, that what she wanted was an apology printed in the NYT.

    Yeah, that sounds sufficiently inflated for her view of herself and the Great Wrong she believes has been done to her!

  21. Does Davis really think that something like “I apologize for calling Davis a racist,.” presented to a large audience who had never heard of her until that moment, would improve her reputation? Is it too late for someone to tell her about the Streisand effect?

    I suspect this is emotional reasoning–“I can make her say she was wrong, and then I’ll feel better”–because it doesn’t make sense as a way to improve her reputation.

  22. Many thanks to @Mike Glyer for the hugely linked and informative posts about this mega-trashfire and to @Various Filers for posting updates and additional links. GAH!

    @Camestros Felapton: That letter . . . OMG, so essentially RWA leadership is blaming the membership and “past and present” leadership because . . . uh, if only everyone had kept things opaque and not transparent and STFU they could’ve finished this underhanded B.S. and OMG how could you unprofessional fools catch us out and complain about it?! I’m struggling to come up with a much better interpretation for that letter. WTeverlovingF. I wonder who’s writing that stuff, Suede?

    @P J Evans & @Lis Carey: I suppose “I’m sorry you wrote that novel” wouldn’t satisfy Davis. 😛 Of course, if Davis had really cared about an apology of any sort, she’d ask for it in the forum where the comments were made, not try do what she did (which sounds unlikely to have been alone) and make ridiculous statements about wanting a NYT apology.

  23. (sigh) Checking the comment box, which I forgot just now. Even if I only get occasional comment e-mails, it’s helpful to get any.

    ::box check::

    There we go!

  24. @kendell

    I wonder who’s writing that stuff, Suede?

    They’d certainly be making out better if the brought on Dr. Tingle to handle their communications.

  25. So many lies in that letter. They say that the board members resigned for “various reasons”. But eight of the nine signed a common declaration, saying the reason was a lack of trust in the leadership for how it handled the Milan-case.

    They also lie about having lessened the punishment of Milan that “ethics report” had recommended, but in fact they voted for the recommendation in full with no changes. And so on.

    Habitual liars seem an apt description.

  26. Oh, god, there are so many bizarre points in the RWA’s latest in Cam’s link. Just jumping out at me:

    They say that the ethics committee initially recommended a harsher punishment; their previous statement said that the board accepted the ethics committee’s findings and proposed sanctions in full. Which is true?
    They imply that the newly appointed ethics panel for the Milan case are part of the standard ethics committee – in this case, why did the rest of the committee apparently not know that they exist or who they are?
    From “In an abundance of caution over confusion regarding RWA’s policies and procedures…” et passim, the letter claims that the policies and procedures were followed. But Carol Ritter’s initial email to Courtney Milan announcing that the sanctions were being waived claimed that the board had identified “a gap between policy and process”. Again: which is true?
    They conclude with: “other members have inappropriately shared personal and/or private information which has legal consequences and has led to members feeling threatened, exposed, and unsafe”. Wait, what? Is this another implicit dig at Milan without coming out and straight up saying that she’s done something wrong? If this is provable, why aren’t they sanctioning the members involved?

    In sum, the statement is a mess, and it seems to explicitly contradict the previous statements that the RWA has made. Who is writing this stuff?

  27. @Joe: I believe that last part is a dig at everyone talking about it and just trying to get everyone to STFU (including Milan and the past president who’s tweeted that she saw the problems and tried to warn them, when she left), but vaguely enough so they can’t be called on it. It’s a warning/threat and IMHO this won’t work and just makes them (him?) look worse.

    The “personal and/or private information” sounds like compete garbage to me, BTW. Just trying to get people not to speak up!

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  29. Team Courtney.

    I read the sample and that was pushing it for 1999, racism-wise. We didn’t still say Oriental. And who puts up a book without looking it over for tweaks?

    I’ve online-GAFIAted the past several months for my own good, and to free up spare time for things like sleep. But I still think fondly of you guys.

    (Both the kitties are fine.)

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