So. Here's a thing.

I attended Windycon in Chicago earlier this month.

James Frenkel was there and he said something unnerving and I can't let it pass unremarked.

James Frenkel is a book agent and editor. He has been banned for harassment from WisCon after a long history of incidents with many women at many events.

At Windycon I was on several panels, including Friday evening's "I Really Hated That Book Cover", a lighthearted look at some of the visual misfires of SF's past.

The next evening there was a panel titled "I Hated That Book Cover Even More Than the People Did Yesterday." James Frenkel was on the panel, something which didn't quite register. I attended as an interested audience member.

Panelist Rebecca Frencl introduced herself as an eighth grade teacher trying to get kids interested in books.

Ms. Frencl highly recommended the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, which are a series of fairy tale adaptations set in a dystopian SF world of cyborgs and future tech.

Unfortunately the first book, “Cinder”, has a cover of a cyborg foot in a red spike-heeled pump. It looks so “girly” that Ms. Frencl couldn't convince her eighth grade boys to give it a second glance.

She expressed her frustration with a book cover skewed so heavily towards a stereotypically female audience that it lost the interest of boys.

At that point Mr. Frenkel said the unnerving thing.

He smiled and said "Except for the wrong boys."

And I sat there, blank and shocked as the audience, some of them, laughed.

And as my stomach dropped thoughts raced through my head.

What just happened?

How would they be wrong?

Wasn't it a good thing that boys, any boys, be interested in that book?

Did that man just make a joke at the expense of eighth grade boys who would read this book?

What. The. Hell?

And then the moment passed and the panel went on and I wasn't sure if I should interrupt to object, if it would spoil the mood, if it was an irrelevance or a distraction.

I was on edge for the rest of the convention.

For most of a fortnight I've been thinking about what to do.

It has helped that over on File 770 comments this past week (on “Pixel Scroll 11/15 Scrolled Acquaintance” http://file770.com/?p=26029 ) “Rev. Bob”, an employee of Steve Jackson Games, has eloquently argued why it is important to speak up when we see abusive behavior in the SF community, that historically fandom “relies too much on 'the grapevine' and too little on reporting.”

Is what I witnessed abusive behavior?

The casual dismissal of entire categories of people in careless jokes contributes to a hurtful atmosphere, an environment that tells them they are not welcome and not important enough to respect.

In some ways it reminds me of the incident this summer when SF author Brad Torgersen tried to insult SF author John Scalzi by jokingly insinuating that he was gay. After a public uproar Torgersen apologized for the insult to Scalzi -- but not for the brutally backhanded insult to gay people, the casual assumption that they are somehow just inherently a marker for wrongness.

There are a number of important questions that urgently need discussing if we are to have any sort of careful, agreeable, professional and accepting environment for our conventions.

Many people make thoughtless remarks or cruel witticisms or little jokes. Should people be more mindful of them?

Is it right to treat a category of people as inherently funny or insulting?

How much tolerance should there be for little jokes? At what point does laughing them away become aiding and abetting the marginalization of a segment of the community?

Should a person with a known history of abusive behavior be held to a higher standard than others? What about a person in a position of authority?

Should we not speak up when we see such behavior?