“We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that"
Nine board members of the Houston-based Romance Writers of America resigned last week. The organization, which represents a billion-dollar industry, has more than one hundred chapters, nine of which are in Texas. The RWA begins its fortieth year with “decimated leadership and lingering questions about its focus and future after several romance authors questioned the association’s commitment to a diverse community,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Then Publisher's Weekly reported on Tuesday, January 7, that the 2020 RITA Awards have been canceled.
"Due to recent events in RWA, many in the romance community have lost faith in RWA's ability to administer the 2020 RITA contest fairly, causing numerous judges and entrants to cancel their participation," the RWA said in a release. "The contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre. For this reason, the board has voted to cancel the contest for the current year. The plan is for next year's contest to celebrate 2019 and 2020 romances."
The controversy began with a tweet last summer. Author Courtney Milan tweeted about a romance novel, Somewhere Lies the Moon, calling it “a (expletive) racist mess.” Milan had previously expressed displeasure with the organization’s diversity.
Two other RWA members, identified in a statement as Suzan Tisdale and Kathryn Lynn Davis, filed complaints with the organization in August over Milan’s tweet. A panel was formed by the RWA, and the complaints were heard, followed by two votes: one to affirm the findings regarding the complaint, the other to determine what steps would be taken to resolve the situation. Milan, an RWA ethics committee member, was suspended, which caused an outcry.
Then, just before Christmas, according to the Washington Post, RWA reversed course, rescinding its vote “pending a legal opinion.” On December 24, Milan tweeted a screenshot of an email letting her know the vote had been rescinded. But the damage was already done. 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 all resigned their positions.
“We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that,” the RWA said in a statement. “We will strive to uphold the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do.” Damon Suede, who had been named president-elect, was made president.
A letter from twenty-eight organization leaders in various regional positions on December 26 asked for the resignation of the RWA president, the president-elect, and the executive director.
On December 30, the RWA posted this statement on their website:
“To provide a path forward, we are taking or have taken the following actions:
1. In an abundance of caution over confusion regarding RWA’s policies and procedures, the complaint against Courtney Milan has been closed and no action is being taken at this time. Ms. Milan remains a member of RWA.
2. RWA affirms our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are in the process of recruiting and nominating strong, diverse candidates for the vacant Board seats to foster a Board culture rooted in transparency and accountability; all candidates are subject to Board approval.
3. RWA will authorize a full, complete, and transparent review of the Member Code of Ethics and enforcement procedures.
4. RWA is hiring an independent, outside law firm to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.
Our members have strong opinions, which we applaud. But when expressed inappropriately, and in some cases far worse, by our organizational leadership – past and present – these can result in personal and financial harm to members. Other members have inappropriately shared personal and/or private information which has legal consequences and has resulted in members feeling threatened, exposed, and unsafe. This is unacceptable behavior. As writers we know more than most, words have consequences.”
The Austin chapter of RWA tweeted a “summary” of their correspondence with the national board, which demanded a recall election, the resignation of the president, and an audit. The entire summary can be found here.