BiCon 2013 – the letter that was never sent

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I was on the team for BiCon 2013, held at the University of Edinburgh's John Macintyre Conference Centre (sessions) and Pollock Halls (accommodation in surrounding blocks).

Pollock Halls is, looked at from one perspective, a large hotel that just happens to have students in it for much of the year. Over the summer, the demand for accommodation in Edinburgh is enormous, even outside the assorted festivals in August.

The university's 'Edinburgh First' conference team take advantage of this with their expensive pricing and by having the earliest effective deadline to set the final number of bedrooms required of anywhere BiCon has ever used: a whole six months before the event. (Many other venues want them one or two weeks ahead. Some are happy with a couple of days' notice.)

To give you an idea of the implications of all that, above a very small margin for error, for every six rooms we didn't fill, it would have cost us over a thousand pounds!* So a very deep breath was taken when setting the prices and opening bookings, particularly given the mix of single vs double rooms and number of accessible rooms available.

We also complied with all their requests, including the 'no-one else has ever asked us for this' one of sending our Code of Conduct to them and making a change to it in response to a request from them to do so.

So what with that and meeting our numbers target, we fulfilled our end of the deal. They did not.

We always knew that there would be others using the site for accommodation: Pollock Halls is so big that we would only be using about a tenth of the rooms.

What we had no idea about was that we would be treated very differently throughout the whole process from all the others, including at least one 'English as a foreign language' school and people, including G4S employees, working at or attending 'The Open' chamionship golf tournament that was happening near Edinburgh the same weekend.

Reader, it did not go well…


Dear [name],

As you know, BiCon experienced numerous problems this year. We expected that Edinburgh First's invoice would make substantial allowance to reflect the following:

The prejudicial way we were treated prior to the event

When you came to be updated about the problems with the main other users of the site, it came as a great surprise to have it casually mentioned that we had been treated differently by Edinburgh First. On being questioned about this, you told us that there had been an incident in 1999, the last time BiCon used Pollock Halls, involving two men being sexual together in the grounds. When asked for the documentation about this, you said there wasn't any, but it was the basis for BiCon being told to submit our Code of Conduct in advance and Edinburgh First telling us to make a change to it.

One of the organisers this year, Ian, was also one of the organisers in 1999 and the primary organiser then was also present at BiCon this year. Neither of them had been told about this allegation at any point, then or since.

Had they been told at the time of the incident, they would have taken the necessary action, including removing anyone known to have taken part and making announcements to that year's event, but they would also have pointed out to you that it was highly unlikely that it was anything to do with BiCon. Our attendees don't need to hide same sex behaviour from their peers, and we doubt that is the case with the footballers we remember sharing the site with at that event or some of the local population.

Instead it appears that unsubstantiated and offensive gossip has been passed on between individuals working for Edinburgh First for the past fourteen years, including telling people who have only recently been appointed, without ever having been written down to prevent the story 'growing in the telling'. We find it shocking that anyone would rely on this as the basis to run any service, and would like to know who is responsible and who else has been gossiped to about this.

It is made worse by the fact that had the other groups on site this year been held, as part of their contract, to the same standards of behaviour that we were, we would not have had anything like the problems that we did with them.

Access issues

Although it must have been known long ago that the site would be extremely full during the event, Edinburgh First did not inform the BiCon organising team about the unusual restrictions to on-site vehicles earlier than a few days before the event, and we did not discover the full-extent of the policy till BiCon was well under way.

Not only was there no parking except for a possibly limited umber of 'blue badge' holders; attendees and organisers were not permitted to be dropped off inside the site at all by either private cars or taxis.

At times venue staff were rude and aggressive in explaining this policy; local taxi drivers didn't know about it and there was no visual notification at the gates. In practice, this policy was applied inconsistently with some attenders being permitted drop-off, sometimes after an extended debate with staff, and in one case a non-disabled man was given access to park his car on-site and thus given favourable treatment over disabled people who had genuinely needed this adjustment.

When an attendee raised this as a disability access issue with the staff on Thursday, '[first name]' from Operations claimed that it wasn't possible to allow disabled people in taxis the reasonable adjustment of being dropped off inside campus as all taxis had to be treated the same to prevent argument. This is not an acceptable response to "failure to make reasonable adjustment", which is a form of direct discrimination which cannot be justified.

Indirect discrimination occurs when a policy or practice which applies to everyone but specifically disadvantages disabled people and which cannot be objectively justified. We would also like to query the blanket nature of the policy and whether Edinburgh First considered the impact of it upon disabled people or sought advice from the university's Disability Services, especially given BiCon had told the venue how many disabled people we had on site many weeks in advance.

You did acknowledge that information provision about this policy had been poor but there seems to be no acknowledgement that the implications of the policy itself are fundamentally problematic.

The inability of Edinburgh First to provide a safe environment

We take our attendees' safety very, very seriously. In the many months running up to BiCon, we talked to [our main contact at Edinburgh First] many times and in great detail about the sort of harassment BiCon attendees can face, and how important BiCon is for its attendees as a safer space in which they can be themselves once a year.

As a community, we have spent much time over the past two years ensuring that the guidelines that manage the event explicitly reflect, to an even greater degree than before, issues around all sorts of discriminatory and unacceptable behaviour.

So we are extremely unhappy that we faced multiple and continuing problems from other users of the site because of prejudice on the grounds of sexuality, disability, ethnicity and gender. The following examples from attendees' reports are just a sample of that behaviour. If any of our attendees had done anything similar, they would, at the very least, be given a final warning about their behaviour or thrown out of the event without a refund.

Sexuality:

  'I was walking back to my room last night when two young men started walking behind me by the JMCC. They asked why I was here, I said for BiCon, a conference for bisexuals. They asked if I was one, I said yes. They said, is that because I'm really greedy. I said we're here to combat those kinds of prejudices – and got a lot of negative comments in return. I know BiCon isn't responsible/can't control behaviour of non-BiCon people on campus, but I felt terrible that this happened.'

  'Very drunk non-BiCon male appeared in (pantry used by two women) at 2am. He was being very creepy and invading personal space. I saw 2 security guards and asked if they could get him to leave. They spoke to him while we were in our room. Upon returning to kitchen he was still there sitting with no lights on. It felt very much like he was waiting for someone to walk in and not be aware he was there. We tried to get to sleep but he then began knock-a-door running our room twice in twenty minutes. We became very scared and incredibly unsafe that security had left this very drunk man in the room next to us. Dialling zero did not call the security desk I headed there at 3am and had to demand they remove him. It took them about half an hour to do this.'

By this point, the problems we were having were known to security, yet it was not possible to reach them by phone and it took an excessively long time to remove someone who was harassing some of our attendees.

Disability:

  'I was waiting for the lift at ground floor of B Chancellor Court. A group of small French-speaking children came out of the lift. One BARGED into me, after a few minutes another one made remarks about my hand-impairment and a second child barged into me and giggled as she walked off.'

After we reported this and other issues with the language school students to the police and they intervened, their supervision did improve, but as this was from a completely invisible level, that is not saying much.

It should also not have needed the police's intervention on Saturday afternoon to make it happen: we got the feeling that Edinburgh staff did not want to be told that the children were apparently unsupervised when we initially raised it on Friday evening.

We now know another female attendee was 'physically knocked out of the way by a language student when they were leaving the residence' on Sunday morning. We continue to be amazed that such an inadequate level of supervision of children was ever seen as acceptable by anyone at Edinburgh First. Per your conditions, all our children had to have a named adult to supervise them – why did this not apparently apply to the language students?

We do not know how many language schools were using the venue. We understand it may have been more than one, but if so it was impossible to tell which any individual child belonged to. All our attendees had to wear identification – if they had misbehaved, it would have been obvious who to raise this with. Why did not other groups have to do so?

Ethnicity:

  'Two G4S men were overheard having a chat:
  "She must be illegal"
  "Oh just stop her and ask for ID, she'll think you're security"
  (inaudible)
  "Oh, come on, don't tell me you've never done it!"'

When we reported this and other issues concerning G4S to the University's security, it was apparent that [name of Edinburgh's local head of security] was already aware that G4S staff were pretending to be connected to the University and using that to facilitate unacceptable behaviour. Why were they able to continue to do so?

Transgender / gender presentation:

  'Shouts of "tranny" directed at me. I have no sense of safety here at all.'

  'Four men directed verbal transphobic abuse at (another trans attendee). She was deeply emotionally damaged by the incident removing all sense of safety at the event. I can report she had PTSD due to the abuse. This has destroyed the event for her.'

  'I was in the bar 6.30pm and I could her a group of guys in white commenting about me and if I was male or female and whether I was a hermaphrodite. It made me feel uncomfortable in the space and I left early.'

Intersectionality:

  'An ongoing sense of being looked at like aliens/zoo exhibits.'

  'I was very aware of the old straight golf fans who were checking out my arse, and then the other group who were clearly unhappy about my knitting in the bar. As a vulnerable autistic woman with a history of depression and panic attacks, the open, non-judgemental space is the main reason I come to BiCon. I spoke to several other people who felt the same.'

  'Some men from one of the groups connected with the Open Championship were openly playing a drinking game in the downstairs bar on Thursday. Participants had drinks depending on whether they thought they had spotted a trans person ("tranny"), someone with visible disabilities ("DLA"), or someone else they did not find attractive ("fat chick").'

Despite that atmosphere, for the rest of the event our attendees were faced with the choice of using it or paying higher prices and having less of a choice of drinks in the upstairs bar that we were paying you to have open.** As organisers, we did not have time to use the bars and we did not know at the time that there was any difference in prices, especially for soft drinks. Had we done so, we would most certainly have complained forcibly about it.

Failure to hold other groups to their contract

It would be more proof that the additions that were imposed on our contract – "delegates should at all times be aware of the other guests and staff who are present onsite and respect that inappropriate behaviour be kept private. Please keep public behaviour within what is normally publicly acceptable. Delegates should be made aware of the BiCon Code of Conduct – which will be agreed with the Venue in advance of the event" – were clearly discriminatory if the contracts with other groups did not contain similar clauses.

In any case, they would still have been under clause 1.5 of your basic terms and conditions:

"Should any delegates/guests of, or third parties employed by, the Client behave in a manner that is considered unacceptable to Edinburgh First, then Edinburgh First reserves the right to remove such party from the premises and/or terminate the Contract. In this event no monies will be returned to the Client."

As shown above, both the language school and the Open Championship groups clearly repeatedly behaved in a manner that is completely unacceptable under any reasonable standard. Some of it was actively unlawful. We gave many more examples to Edinburgh First staff over the weekend, yet we understand that none of them were removed from the premises – why not?

What we want from you

The usual relationship between BiCon and the event's venue is made more complicated this year by the way that we were able to have the venue by using the university's staff LGBT network to book it.*** We appreciate this but it does mean that we are not the ones who are legally responsible for paying the invoice and we understand that the staff network, understandably, do not wish to make waves with another part of the university.

Similarly, the shortage of physically accessible venues in and around Edinburgh and an assortment of issues with most other university venues in Scotland mean that anyone who wants to hold an accessible event in Edinburgh and indeed much of Scotland has little choice but to use Edinburgh First. [Another organiser] organises such events and so they are also put in a difficult position. Despite the law, they fear victimisation for pursuing this complaint.

Had these not been the case, we would not feel able to pay the bill as it stands. Even if we had not explained in great detail what having a safe event entailed, we would still have had a right to one and we did not get it. We feel that none of the many problems we spent most of our time dealing with at the event were our fault. Instead, they were down to the failure of Edinburgh First to hold all the groups using the site to the same standards.

As an event, BiCon has been running for over thirty years. As it has grown, it has been a residential event for over twenty. We are confident that the behaviour of our attendees matches or exceeds that of any other group: despite the bar take they generate, we have never had a fight break out or had any vandalism for example. While we have a preference for 'sole occupancy', we have shared venues successfully and happily with a variety of other groups, including other language schools, sports teams and even choirs.

In all that time, we have never needed to call the police. That this was the first BiCon ever to need its own crime reference number should tell you just how badly we were let down.

At this point we have not made a formal complaint to The University of Edinburgh.

We know that the conference team are very lovely individually and we are pleased to know that the Equality Network will be assisting in some training on a variety of issues. But at present we would actively discourage anyone who has a choice from using Edinburgh First for any similar event.


As I say, this letter was never sent, but given how much time we spent over the weekend trying to get Edinburgh First to sort out the problems their failures had caused, they would have known it anyway.

It is, by far, the worst treatment any BiCon has had from any venue. Edinburgh First did not adequately apologise or reduce their bill to reflect their epic fails.

So seven years on, I would still actively discourage anyone who has a choice from using Edinburgh First for any event, especially if they care about LGBT+ or disabled people.


* Looking at their 2020 price list, it's probably only five rooms unfilled = over a thousand quid now

** When I say that it's an expensive venue, one of the things I am talking about is that we were effectively charged £1,000 per night for them to run that 'BiCon only' bar; hence it was not open on the Thursday night; hence attendees had to use the shared one if they wanted a drink then.

*** Because of how the various University of Edinburgh organisations are set up, this was the only way we could get the 0% VAT rate on the venue and accommodation that we are normally entitled to. The event would have been much smaller – and so even more expensive to attend – had we not been able to do this.

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