A perspective on attendee safety at Python community events

I’ve been involved in the organisation of 10 African Python conferences since 2015 - multiple editions of PyCon Namibia, PyCon Africa (see our report from 2019) and most recently the first DjangoCon Africa.

These events have occupied my thoughts and energies for a decade, and of all the things that I’ve been able to be a part of, they are the ones that mean the most to me.

Organising these events is always a financial challenge, because of the vast differences in wealth of people and organisations from different parts of the world who will be involved, and somehow the conference always has to make ends meet.

For context, the total conference budget of PyCon Namibia in 2023 (a three-day event for 90 people) was less than US$ 7000. The overall balance at the end of the conference was just over US$ 100.

Like other Python community conferences, African events rely on funding from international bodies such as the Python Software Foundation. These bodies have duties to the members of their communities. They need to take care that the events they fund will be safe spaces for attendees, and will uphold common values and apply the same codes of conduct.

The Python community in particular has worked hard over many years to establish practices and standards to help guarantee the well-being and safety of a widely-diverse community.

A question of safety

An additional challenge for African events is that concerns are sometimes raised whether African events can provide the required safety guarantees, in particular for LGBQT participants, and whether bodies like the PSF should therefore support them.

It’s a fair concern. In almost all African countries, the law is not friendly to LGBQT people, and a lot of hostile rhetoric can be heard. One can understand why someone might find it hard to support a grant to an event being held in a location where many members of the community might feel (or even actually be) unsafe.

No exceptions

A Python conference or a DjangoCon must be a safe space for its attendees, and pay special attention to the well-being of attendees who might otherwise have reason to think twice about what, who and where is safe for them - whether that’s because of their sexuality (or gender, or gender expression, or other characteristics).

No event, no matter where it’s held, can be an exception to this.

What actually happens

At any conference there will be LGBQT people, and whatever the local laws or customs there will be LGBQT people in the Python community.

At every African Python event I have attended the parts of the code of conduct referring to sexual expression and gender identity have been explicitly mentioned in the conference address each day. Those people get to hear, and so does everyone else in the room, that LGBQT people are valued and welcome, and are in a safe space amongst friends.

Someone might think that pointing out a code of conduct at a conference will be taken as seriously as the safety demonstrations on an airline flight. I don’t believe that’s the case. At an African community conference, having it reiterated in person - by a local person - makes it something that has carries real weight and meaning.

At a PyCon Namibia a few years ago, a young undergraduate who was leading the conference presented the code of conduct address on the first day, to an audience that included senior members of the University, and a Minister of Health. This is an example of quietly and effectively asserting values in a way that gets them noticed. It has real meaning and power, and it also demonstrates the commitment and courage of local Python event organisers.

I have worked with young African Python leaders at multiple events. They stand up - literally - to assert Python community values, and they do it in contexts that are certainly more complicated than at western events. I’m proud to have them as colleagues.

They need, and deserve, to have the rest of the international community behind them.

Where is “safe”?

I have yet to hear concerns raised about events in western Europe or the USA, that they might be considered less safe for certain groups of people. It’s simply not a question that really gets asked.

How “safe” is it to be black in the United States? Arguably the USA became a country so materially and visibly dangerous to black people that it triggered a global Black Lives Matter movement.

How unpleasant should the experience of Muslim visitors arriving in the USA for an event become before there’s an expectation of a warning about it? At what point might the anti-trans laws and hardening rhetoric in several states of the USA prompt public questions about whether Python events should be funded there?

It would be quite a surprise if the organisers of a Python event in the west were to issue safety guidance to black or African attendees. But one doesn’t need to look far to find examples of black community members who have encountered racism while visiting Python events - in countries that no-one would raise concerns about supporting.

Humiliation and violation

  • A former PSF director this year reported the experience of walking into a café in Italy, and being told “we are closed”. Then she watched a white family enter, to be sat down and be served.

  • One of the organisers of an event I’m currently working on was strip-searched at Schiphol Airport (“they wouldn’t believe that a Tanzanian would be coming to the Netherlands on business as a software engineer”).

  • Another organiser of the same event was reduced to tears a few years ago at a Nordic embassy, by hostile and racist questioning when applying for a visa to speak at a DjangoCon Europe.

  • A few years ago I went into a supermarket after a PyCon with three African attendees, amongst them another organiser of this event. I waited outside for them afterwards, and watched as all three had their bags checked on the way out - by the same security guard who hadn’t even given me a second glance.

Experiences like these are fairly normal, and they tend to go unnoticed and unremarked - partly because they are black and African experiences, and partly because the people they happen to don’t want to talk about them. It’s much easier to be aware of the stark facts of an oppressive law in an African country than to understand what happens on a regular basis to certain minorities or visitors in our own.

Nowhere in the world is really safe. There are only places where we fail to realise that someone is in or has had to pass through a potentially hostile environment to get there.

The investment of courage

What’s remarkable is how effective events like PyCons are at establishing safe spaces.

PyCons are not safe merely because they are spaces where “harassment is not tolerated”. They are safe because they are positively warm and welcoming, and because enough moral courage has been invested in them that they influence the people who join them.

Courage goes into creating them, and in turn they give courage to people who need to know that others are on their side. And then they continue to radiate those values into their surrounding context.

It is right that careful attention be paid to the risks and harms that LGBTQ people might face, and it is right to ask questions about how events can provide safe spaces for them. The same kind of attention should be paid to the experiences and well-being of black and African people. Conferences and countries in the west should be held to the same standard as African ones, and also considered critically from multiple perspectives - not just their own.

Moral laziness

Failure to do this is a kind of moral laziness - a casual version of the same expression of western moral superiority that has already done more than enough harm to Africa and Africans.

What makes it sting in a more personal way is that it feels like a negation of the enormous efforts that have been made by African conference organisers; it undermines them, and threatens their achievements.

And, finally, it has the material effect of diminishing the safe spaces that the community has worked to create.