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24 Carol Ritter, RWA’s Deputy Executive Director, informed Milan they had found a “gap between policy and process” and rescinded the penalties – “pending a legal opinion.”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. Maybe Milan “should have foreseen complaints being filed.” That doesn’t mean that the complaints are valid. Teachers get complaints for not giving students A’s they haven’t earned.

    It’s It would have been nice to see Amanda Green standing up for the free speech of a woman of color who was unfairly censured by a writers’ organization.

  2. Thank you for pulling this information together, Mike. I’ve been following this in real time, but didn’t have a good resource to point folks to if they wanted to catch up.

  3. Rwa has always been a reactionary organisation, from its refusal to accept minority authors to a very stringent definition of romance, I remember that in the old guidelines that a Book was considered Romance only if it had two people falling in love, which posed a problem for the large wave of menage romances which were cropping up at the time.
    So I find it a bit disingenuous for some people on Twitter to suddenly see this problem in the organisation, when it’s been a staple of the way they’ve done business for quite some time.
    And I also find it interesting that now that a white author is being attacked, suddenly everyone is ready to condemn rwa but when minority authors were turned away and discriminated against there was not a peep from the mainstream romance community, except ironically from people like Courtney Milan.

  4. Thanks for covering this debacle. Excellent summary with many useful links.

    And who do we find objecting to objections to racism? Why, that would be the mad geniuses. Milan mentions another genius (sic) called Adair. Remarkably consistent geniuses, aren’t they.

  5. Annie: And I also find it interesting that now that a white author is being attacked, suddenly everyone is ready to condemn rwa

    It’s my understanding that Courtney Milan is a POC. Or are you referring to a different author?

  6. @JJ–

    t’s my understanding that Courtney Milan is a POC. Or are you referring to a different author?

    Courtney Milan is mixed race, half Chinese. This started with her objections to the portrayal of a half-Chinese character in a white writer’s book. I shall refrain from in odious speculation about Annie’s intended meaning.

    I’m also looking at “half-Chinese” in my comment and feeling doubt that that’s the preferred description. Someone please correct me if it’s not.

  7. And the more it opens up the more the RWA stinks. So many people with different horror stories to tell. Was there no part of the organisation where ethical standards got more than lip service?

  8. Speaking of marginalized groups — I am especially horrified to see this happening under Damon Suede, who writes mm romance. What a mess!

  9. The bizarre thing here is neither incompetence nor malice is sufficient explanations on their own. There is so much about how the complaint was handled that suggests it was an intentionally done that way as a manoeuvre against Milan and her status in the organisation…but to set something like that in motion and not expect a counter-reaction is extra-ordinarily naive. What did board members think would happen when they voted to approve that report?

    From what I have read the board had the power to refer the report back to the committee — which would have been a smart move even if (especially if) they thought Milan deserved censure: i.e. if they were going to pick this battle, you’d want to do so with the tightest, most watertight case you had. Instead, they led with a report that is confusing, poorly argued and vague.

    Vicki Rosenzweig on December 27, 2019 at 5:24 am said://It would have been nice to see Amanda Green standing up for the free speech of a woman of color who was unfairly censured by a writers’ organization.//

    Yes, interesting isn’t it. A blog that has ostensibly championed free speech, the rights of authors and frequently complained about publishers and publishing, overtly sides with a publisher demanding that an author should be censured for her speech.

  10. @Camestros Felaptrom: What did board members think would happen when they voted to approve that report? Possibly they thought the censured person would knuckle under like a good little PoC and everyone else would either agree or shut up. (This lines up with a response to your last paragraph: free speech is (in that universe) only for Certain People, not for the excluded masses — witness the forwarding of the lie about what happened to the Sad Puppies.) Note that I’m using “think” in a sense that doesn’t included much actual ratiocination; could your question be clarified by punctuation, e.g. “What, did board members think?”

  11. I’m more of a what did board members know right now. It feels as if they read that vague and confusing report and from a totally new group. How was that group made up, was it by the staff or some other people? If it was by the staff and it got support from the president, it might have been that they went by trust because they had so much else to think about before Christmas.

    There’s so much information still lacking, the most important how the heck the new committee was created and who decided it.

  12. @Chip —

    @Camestros Felaptrom: What did board members think would happen when they voted to approve that report? Possibly they thought the censured person would knuckle under like a good little PoC

    But can they have really been that stupid? After all, Courtney Milan is a very successful author and a lawyer.

  13. Chip Hitchcock on December 27, 2019 at 12:31 pm said:
    Possibly they thought the censured person would knuckle under like a good little PoC and everyone else would either agree or shut up. (This lines up with a response to your last paragraph: free speech is (in that universe) only for Certain People, not for the excluded masses — witness the forwarding of the lie about what happened to the Sad Puppies.) Note that I’m using “think” in a sense that doesn’t include much actual ratiocination; could your question be clarified by punctuation, e.g. “What, did board members think?

    🙂 You are right in so far as that is how it looks but also…they knew Courtney Milan. I mean, I can see how somebody might make that mistake in under-estimating the counter-reaction in general, but to make that error specifically in this case, presumably with the express purpose of trying to shut somebody up, is an extraordinary miscalculation.

  14. Contrarius on December 27, 2019 at 12:56 pm said:

    But can they have really been that stupid?

    I mean, let’s think of some different kinds of people you might not want to get into a procedural/social-media war with and if you had to, would ensure you had a really strong case:
    1. somebody with a strong legal background
    2. somebody with a strong social media presence
    3. somebody with an extensive history of campaigning on social justice issues
    4. a romance author with a loyal following of readers

    Combine all four and you’d want to be on really firm ground before launching into a fight.

  15. One of Courtney Milan’s tweet-threads talks a bit about how she’s got a small but dedicated hateclub that was making itself very loud in repeatedly contacting the RWA to complain, and that that may have given the organisation/the board a false impression of how her being censured would be received by the membership.

  16. I suspect that there was some groupthink going on around how awful the AOC were and there was genuine belief that this would be hailed by many. After all, apparently racist comments are left on the RWA forums and comments criticizing them were moderated.
    And yes, the thread by Hampus is a good one.
    Here’s another tweet with a view of what is precipitating the fight. Note that Ilona Andrews writes romance but is not a part of RWA.

  17. Annie on December 27, 2019 at 8:59 am said:

    Rwa has always been a reactionary organisation, from its refusal to accept minority authors to a very stringent definition of romance

    And I also find it interesting that now that a white author is being attacked, suddenly everyone is ready to condemn rwa but when minority authors were turned away and discriminated against there was not a peep from the mainstream romance community, except ironically from people like Courtney Milan.

    The RWA was founded by a woman of color, for what it’s worth. And Courtney Milan is not White, she’s biracial Chinese.

    The RWA has had many problems and the membership has often been reactionary and awful towards authors or any romance involving nonwhites, nonChristians, nonCis, nonHets or any number of participants greater than two.

    Part of the reason this incident is so infuriating is that recently it had looked like the RWA was sincerely trying to do better.

  18. Contrarius on December 27, 2019 at 10:46 am said:

    Speaking of marginalized groups — I am especially horrified to see this happening under Damon Suede, who writes mm romance. What a mess!

    Suede seems to be problematic in several directions, including by many reports the sadly common “gay white man gets what he wants, throws all other LGBTQAs under the bus” trope.

    Among other things, as president of the RWA he’s refused to investigate Dreamspinner Press, a publisher which is currently well behind in paying nearly all of its authors royalties due – although they have paid Suede royalties. It’s unclear what criminality may be involved, but apparently as long as Suede gets his he does not care.

  19. @Peace —

    Suede seems to be problematic in several directions

    Yeah, I read some of those tweets after my previous post. Very sad on many fronts!

  20. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 12/27/19 With Slow Glass Pixels, It Will Take Ten Years To Scroll | File 770

  21. Courtney Milan, in a comment on her own 2014 blog post, said “I’m hapa. Some people think I’m white. Some people think I’m Asian. Lots of people ask me, ‘WHAT ARE YOU?’”

    The Wikipedia article about Hapa says: “…In Hawaii, the word refers to any person of mixed ethnic heritage, regardless of the specific mixture.[3][4] In California, the term is used for any person of East Asian or Southeast Asian admixture.”

  22. @Hampus: is there anywhere that the board duties/powers are more legible? (These are microscopic and clipped on my system, even with huge margins on both sides.) In the US model, a board’s greatest power is the ability to replace the head executive as the board sees fit, but the bit I can see here says that the board’s first duty is loyalty.

    @Mallory_S: I have no idea how accurate the Andrews thread is, but it sounds horribly plausible.

  23. @Chip
    When I click on the image (there are two in that tweet), it embiggens itself to a quite readable size. But I’m not reading it on a phone.

  24. @Mallory_S @Chip Hitchcock
    I strongly suspect Ilona Andrews knows what they (Ilona Andrews is a pen name for a married couple) are talking about.

    It’s also something that is happening in many genres, not just romance. One of the issues at the root of the Sad and Rabid Puppies controversy is that SFF is changing, different stories are being told and new and different voices are being heard and that those who write the sort of SFF that used to be popular and win awards suddenly find that their works are less popular and maybe even criticised for all sorts of things that never bothered anybody (or least anybody they’d listen to) before.

    We’ve seen this conflict flare up in romance before, e.g. when a popular review blog outed an unrepentent plagiarist who wrote awfully racist Native American romances and turned out to have plagiarised whole passages from reference books and was completely unrepentent, because it was just a reference book, there were those who attacked the reviewer for harrassing the poor elderly plagiarist.

  25. Cora Buhlert on December 27, 2019 at 11:42 pm said:

    And Chuck Tingle just jumped into the fray:

    Ah! I’d just logged on to say that!
    Lying about Chuck? That’s definitely devilman’s work

  26. Mike Glyer on December 28, 2019 at 12:02 am said:

    Chuck is peeved!

    I mean, I know that he’s not “ours” and he’s his own thing and nobody has any claim over him but himself and so on but…lying about Chuck? That’s made me cross.

  27. Not only has Damon Suede a history of falsely claiming credit for other people’s works and inspirations, he has just proudly posted a big photo of the tin full of homemade cookies sent him by the owner of Dreamspinner Press.

    https://twitter.com/sean__kennedy/status/1210440908052688897

    You may recall Dreamspinner is at the center of a big controversy for not paying its authors. As president of RWA Suede has brushed aside criticism of Dreamspinner as nothing RWA can do anything about, or even give legal advice over. Suede, by the way, is one of the few Dreamspinner authors who has actually received royalties due, and he has spoken disparagingly of those who have not been paid as the “moneymakers” like him have.

  28. The CIMRWA chapter is running a Petition to Recall Damon Suede ib accordance with section 11.4.2 of the Bylaws:

    “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.”

  29. Pingback: Stacking the Shelves (372) – Escape Reality, Read Fiction!

  30. Message sent out to Chapter Leaders by Damon Suede. Reads like he’s hitting all the buttons without showing any of his hand or character. There’s a line from Blazing Saddles that seems plausible here.

    The timeline is fascinating, but I’d like to know more about the formation of the new-and-disimproved “Ethics” committee that started this mess; maybe one of them will ‘fess up as to when they were tapped and what they were told. I’m not sure we’ve seen a list of who was on it so that Suede’s claim of balance can be tested.

  31. Yes, as far as I can tell this new ethics committee is in fact so transparent that you can see straight through them…

    Given that only six board members didn’t vote to accept this new ethics committee report, and only four didn’t vote to approve the sanctions that they recommended against Milan, it’s interesting that eight board members resigned on the grounds that they “no longer trust or have confidence in RWA’s leadership”. Does this mean that they feel they were misled about how the report was put together, or have they only belatedly realised what an abuse of process it apparently was?

  32. Oh, and this is interesting and doesn’t appear to have been linked yet: Damon Suede’s statement to chapter leaders says that he was the board liaison to the RWA ethics committee, but the RWA constitution specifically lists the ethics committee as one of those which doesn’t have a board liaison…

  33. Joe:

    “it’s interesting that eight board members resigned on the grounds that they “no longer trust or have confidence in RWA’s leadership”.

    And one more had already resigned at that time. It is my belief they were misled, but are bound by code of silence, so they can’t explain why without taking legal risks. This because the discussion occurred during Executive Session.

  34. Something else occurred to me, which may already be obvious to everyone else. People often have more than one motivation for what they do. What are the RWA’s budget and bank accounts like? (That may not be public information, but it shouldn’t be Top Secret either.) With so many people resigning from the board after Milan was pushed out, is there anyone to say “stop” if Suede and/or the remaining paid staff spent the money inappropriately?

    (This could be going on along with the racism and possibly the desire for whatever power or egoboo comes with being president of the RWA. )

    NB: The existence of paid staff isn’t evidence of wrongdoing or bad planning. You want people who understand things like accounting and event planning to do those things, and to pay for their time, so the organization’s work doesn’t always get shunted to the bottom of the pile, “real soon now, but I have to travel for the holidays/finish my book/do my own taxes first.”

    Similarly, bad planning and carelessness aren’t crimes, but people spend a lot of time and energy trying to conceal things to avoid embarrassment.

  35. @Vicki
    The subject of an investigation into their finances has been brought up by some of the people involved, all among the AOC.

  36. Lots more keeps coming out, pretty much all of it making the prior board and Damon Suede look bad. Lynn Spencer’s concise and lucid piece Has RWA Lost Its Way? at industry blog All About Romance makes enlightening reading, as do many of the reader comments. Yesterday’s revelations on Twitter included (in addition to Chuck Tingle continuing to be the stand-up guy Romance and SFF fans know him to be) recent-past RWA President HelenKay Dimon bracingly refuting RWA’s nasty suggestion that Milan had inserted the ‘social media exception’ into the Ethics Code to benefit herself:

    And one more thing: Courtney didn’t draft the ethics code to exempt her social media comments. That’s bullshit. I drafted the fiduciary duty provisions, the Chapter Code of Conduct and almost every motion re: the ethics comm for years. Look at the Board Minutes.

    I have a hunch that, when the definitive history of all this gets written, the hand of Mr. Suede as prime mover will be prominent. And I think those pointing out that his claims of fact must be taken under advisement have a point. As someone who grew up with a compulsive dissembler as his sibling, I find the playbook familiar.

  37. Firstly, I’d like to apologise for my comments about Courtney Milan race, they were completely uncalled for after having done some more research.
    I wanted to highlight a particular post made by PG on the passive voice blog today because I think it shows how defenders of Rwa are going to argue from now on.
    https://www.thepassivevoice.com/has-rwa-lost-its-way/
    PG is fairly conservative and so are his commenters, he completely glosses over the issues regarding the ethics committee and jumps straight to applying the idea that criticising a book for racism is akin to calling an author racist, and continues on that assumption.
    He also posits the idea of a statute of limitations on criticism because supposedly it’s not fair to hold someone accountable for something they said if it was more than 20 years ago.

Comments are closed.