Indiana’s anti-gay bill spurs Gen Con threat to leave state

Photo of two cosplayers at Gen Con 2014.

For the state, Senate Bill 101 a hot-button dividing line.

A threat to move gaming convention Gen Con out of Indianapolis over anti-gay legislation may be empty for the time being, but the ramifications for Gen Con in the geek culture world could be seismic.

On Tuesday, the Indiana House approved Senate Bill 101, which has been described as a “religious freedom bill.” The Indiana General Assembly website identifies the bill as a restoration of religious freedom, and “Prohibits an applicant, employee, or former employee from pursuing certain causes of action against a private employer.” 

In other words, if a store owner decides they don’t want to keep a gay person on staff, SB 101 allows the store owner to fire the gay employee without fearing a lawsuit.

With passage by both halves of the Indiana state legislature, the road is clear for Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to sign the bill into law. In a letter from Gen Con LLC’s CEO and owner Adrian Swartout to Pence, Swartout reminds him that Gen Con brings in $50 million every year to the city of Indiana, and that diversity of attendees is a key to Gen Con’s success.

“Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy,” reads the letter, “and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.”

Future years means “beginning in 2021” as Gen Con has a contract to hold the convention in Indianapolis through 2020. The Indianapolis Star reports that Stacia Kirby, a spokeswoman for Gen Con, says that the con does not plan to break its contract to appear in Indianapolis through 2020. But in light of events in gaming culture since 2010, this could turn into a public relations nightmare for Gen Con.

In 2012, when a game designer reached out to Swartout to report an incident of sexual harassment at Gen Con 2011, Swartout promised to investigate the lack of a formal, anti-harassment policy for the convention. “It’s critical to me that Gen Con is a safe environment for everyone,” wrote Swartout, “and we can’t address policy changes if we don’t know that there are issues around them. I will follow up at the end of this week or early next week with details on how we are going to address the harassment policy.”

In 2013, it was reported by Gen Con attendees that an exhibitor was selling Nazi paraphernalia and women’s underwear that read “I could use a little sexual harassment” and “Get me drunk… then we’ll see.” Gen Con on its Twitter feed promised to remove the offending clothing, but the merchandise was not removed.

A clearly worded anti-harassment policy was put into place for Gen Con 2014. Attendees reported that the opening ceremonies also made it clear harassment was not to be tolerated. It’s probable that even in light of these steps and regardless of contractual obligations, if Gen Con is held in a state that has effectively legalized discrimination against homosexuals, Gen Con will be pushed back into the spotlight of the continuing debate about convention harassment and diversity in the gaming world.

The Star also reports that Gov. Pence has seen the letter, and has not changed his mind about signing SB 101 into law. If a long-term, annual influx of $50 million into Indianapolis from Gen Con means anything to Pence, he ought to rethink his support for a bill that will legalize discrimination against the gay community.

Photo via Carlos A. Smith/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca was the Daily Dot's gaming reporter until 2016. He loves first-person shooters, role-playing games, and massively multiplayer online games. His work has appeared in Salon, NPR, Ars Technica, Kotaku, Polygon, Gamasutra, GamesBeat, Paste, and Mic.