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How Does Your Store Handle Controversy?

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This month, I joined a new group: players who have been sexually harassed by other players. So far as I know, apart from needing extra hugs from my wife (not a bad idea anyway), I'm not scarred by it; the incident was minor relative to harassment generally. But the transpiration of events was uncommon enough to be potentially helpful to situations you might encounter, so here's my story and what I've taken from it.

What Happened?

Keepsake Gorgon
I'm one of the judges at my local store, running about forty percent of events. A forty-six-year-old veteran and grandmother on Social Security started attending Friday Night Magic just before the Theros prerelease. She was new to the game and wanted to improve, so I helped her out with deck-building and so on where I could, for which she was appreciative.

By her third week at the store, it was clear that she was unorthodox in her expressions but apparently well-intentioned. As forward as some of those expressions were to me personally, things were fine; I'm there to help people as they exist, not as I would like them to exist. But a half an hour before FNM, she, I, and some others were standing around when—and I don't remember what immediately preceded—she looked at one of my moobs (thanks for those, law school stress), reached over, and played with one of my nipples, and then leaned in and intimated, "I have a thing for men's nipples." Er . . . um . . . okay then. Ignoring this for the time being—it was sort of a stun-gun moment for me—I moved on a couple minutes later to discussing my Draft "strategy" of taking all the good cards and leaving everyone else all the bad cards (I went 2–1 in G/W/U/b/r, so it worked). She leaned back in to say, "If you let me play with your nipples, I'll let you have all the good cards." Hey, there's that stun gun again.

I tried to diffuse the situation with humor, not calling attention to what was going on. Before the tournament started, she picked up some indication that I was uncomfortable—primarily when I said, "I'm an only child with the personal space bubble of a small state" (my usual line)—and she apologized for crossing my personal boundaries; she didn't bother me the rest of the night, and I didn't think much of it.

When I got home, however, I realized that, with increasing unease over the situation and my role as store judge, this was very much my equivalent of workplace harassment, and my "boss," the store owner, should know it happened. So, the next day, I went back to the store and told the owner the entire story. The owner said she would talk to the woman; the owner also had seen the woman make some others feel uncomfortable (I had not seen this before), so there were increasing reasons to sort this out.

Fleetfeather Sandals
No sooner did I and the owner get out of our closed-door conversation than the woman sees me, notices I'm wearing shorts, comments "Well, you've got legs," and, in the owner's plain sight, makes a grab at my leg, laughing lightheartedly and saying, "I just like to make you feel uncomfortable."

I had asked the owner not to talk to the woman until I had left the store; I didn't want immediate conflict or retaliation or anything like that—it would be contextually clear that I instigated the talk. The woman wound up worrying some non-Magic players in the store, and so the owner had the talk and received sincere apologies out of the woman while giving a last-chance warning, of which I was informed by e-mail.

The day after, the owner sent another e-mail, saying she decided to ban the woman anyway on grounds of gender reversal. If a man had done to a woman what this woman did to me, the owner would have kicked the man out without question or warning, so I was going to receive equal treatment. I sincerely believed things would be fine even without a banning, and I wasn't about to leave a store community I'd worked hard to help maintain over one person I could usually ignore, but once I knew the strict standard in one direction, I was grateful for the respect going the other way.

So Why Write About It?

I normally shy away from controversy. Very few of my concerns in a social issue are addressed by prevailing sides, and fewer of those concerns can be discussed adequately on Twitter or in article comments. I also become anxious in the face of discussions wherein my friends disagree or express strong feelings about things. I have a lot of views, but I don't make friends for the purposes of discussing them.

Having said that, here are a few ideas I've developed post-incident that you might find useful if you did not already have them.

Future Sight
Harassment Isn't a Linear Development. It's a long way from, "Hi!" with a hug to "Hi!" with nipples and confessions. Even if or when there are warning signs, improper actions are probably going to be a surprise. In one sense, that's how it should be: Harassing incidents never should be so common that people are no longer surprised. But that leads to a second problem.

You Can't Know All the Relevant Details Leading Up to a Sudden Event. Ideally, we all would remember everything that mattered about a story that mattered. But that assumes linear development of the story. The suddenness can shock you into remembering only a few things from an incident, especially if you don't quickly write down what you can remember. I have legal and criminal justice backgrounds, so I'm reasonably trained to put on evidentiary eyes and ears as soon as something appears suspicious. But I can't remember what happened in the three to five minutes before I was harassed. I didn't prioritize it because I had no suspicion I'd want to know it.

This sort of thing matters on the witness stand—mitigating and aggravating circumstances are incredibly important in most narratives—but the absence of certain memories does not imply unreliability of the story. With too much missing, perhaps the story becomes suspicious, but the related problem isn't solved by mandating the recollection of every detail. I'd love to remember if there were something I might have done that made things worse or anything I could have improved on to avoid the situation, but things were so mundane to that point that the memory won't ever show up. It's not my fault; that's just how memory works.

Ambassador Laquatus
Not Everything That Is Important Will Seem Important at the Time. Some of you might be surprised that I considered not telling anyone about what happened, but I didn't even think of it from a store perspective or my own concerns until well after FNM. Although I wasn't judging the tournament, I still tend to adopt Ambassador Mode a lot, both as a store leader and as a Magic writer, so my initial focus in an incident is helping tournaments proceed smoothly and helping new players (like this woman) feel welcome. It's like any job that requires professionalism: You turn off some reactions for a bit to make sure you fulfill your assignments. But it means that initial shock or lack thereof doesn't correlate with the seriousness of the event or how it will impact you in time.

Now for the big one relative to Magic:

If You Don't Think Your Store Would Handle an Incident Like This Well, Consider Why You Even Go There. Although the solution went through a couple iterations, I trusted the store owner completely to have my back. If the chat produced a sincere apology and a warning, I knew she'd stand by her warning. Now that the offending woman is banned, that's not an issue, but the point is that I knew I'd receive a response and constructive support if I brought something up.

And that matters to me more than the specific solution. Ultimately, I just want to know that there's somebody who wants me around, that somebody would pick me for something if she had the chance to do it over, and that I can feel safe somewhere. And, as in the rest of life, feeling safe isn't about the elimination of every danger, but the peace from knowing you won't face those dangers alone.

If I hadn't been involved with this store for the last twenty months, maybe this incident would have caused me to leave; it's not as though the Seattle area's bereft of Magic venues. But I know I can trust my store no matter what comes up, and that's a big deal.

If your store is indifferent to customers in day-to-day interactions, your store has chosen to fail you if you are harassed or threatened. The former is practice for the latter, whether for good or bad. And what amount of tournament challenge or prize support is worth the risk of playing at a store that will leave you emotionally stranded in a potentially traumatic situation? This applies outside stores as well; if the playgroup you're in doesn't care about its members, its health is a coincidence, a d20 that hasn't rolled a 1 yet. The Magic community is huge and full of people ready to care about you; don't waste your time in its netherworld.

Conclusion

Collective Restraint
Whether you're on the receiving end of harassment, whether you're in a position to help someone through a crisis, or whatever it is, remember to care about people and to associate with people who will care about you back. Good times with friends are practice for the bad times. I'm blessed to have a support system at my store and in the larger Magic community for when something goes unexpectedly awful; if you don't have that now, go find it.

And although there are approximately 97,823 people in the Magic community better qualified than I am to help you through something, feel free to e-mail me if you've had a negative experience like mine and want to talk it out. I'm earthdyedred at gmail dot com; as a lawyer, all my contact information is public and searchable, so you won't intrude on my nonexistent e-privacy by dropping me a line. I have to maintain both attorney–client privilege in my job and my nondisclosure agreement with Wizards, so I can keep things as confidential as you like.

I know what I went through is trivial compared to what others have endured, but the severity is irrelevant to my point: Make sure your store or playgroup is dedicated to its people now so that it will be part of the solution—and not the problem—when a crisis of any severity arises.

I hope your future stories never resemble this one, but if they do, I hope this article serves you well.

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