By DL Haydon
With less than a week to go, the hype around Houston’s annual three-day Anime Matsuri convention is rapidly escalating, as is the controversy surrounding its organizers.
AM, which was started by John Leigh and Deneice Leigh, has been criticized for several years due to allegations of mismanagement, among other issues. The allegations of sexual harassment against John, which have circulated since 2015, have become the tipping point for AM’s future.
Sexual harassment allegations have been previously documented and covered. A quick google search will pull up screen-shotted conversations, news articles and even a response or two from John himself (ranging from explanatory apologies to cease and desist letters).
What has become a little harder to keep track of is the ever-swelling online exchanges between those for and against.
Facebook debates, Twitter flame wars, 4chan and Reddit threads are cropping up and spilling out from the internet into real life with reports of doxxing, stalking, spamming, harassment and general bad behavior.
The Pro-AM crowd seems to be a mixture of volunteers (some genuinely decent, some who drank the Kool-Aid), teenagers who know no better, zealot-like fans who have (allegedly) attempted to doxx protestors, and con attendees who just want to have a good time.
Those who are against AM are an equally motley crew made up of harassed cosplayers, previous-attendees who had an all-around horrible experience and boycott organizers who (for the sake of not getting doxxed) have asked to remain anonymous.
“We revived the boycott in force around mid-January and since then have been spreading the word via social media,” Boycott Anime Matsuri said in an online interview.
At this point it's important to note I also made several attempts to contact AM regarding the situation, including reaching out to volunteers, but have yet to hear back.
Boycott AM said its protest technique involves spreading awareness of the alleged harassment, as well as contacting scheduled guests to bring the issues to their attention.
Since starting, the boycott self-reported that more than eight voice actors and two major companies cancelled their plans to attend, as well as a number of smaller local companies, artists and cosplayers.
The pro-AM crowd has alleged that Boycott AM is conducting harassment by contacting guests and attendees. Boycott AM denies this, saying its emails are no more intrusive than typical outreach methods.
I should also note this is not my first run-in with Anime Matsuri.
In 2014, the year AM moved to the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, I received a volunteer badge from a friend of a friend and was essentially given the run of the place.
Instead of volunteering, I spent the weekend shooting photos and taking notes. My observations ranged from people having a great time, to scenes an event planner would only describe as hellish.
Mind you, this was a year before allegations of sexual harassment surfaced.
The AM 2014 coverage I wrote up was a mixed bag. Delays. Speakers cancelling at the last minute. More delays. Hentai viewing parties that started off as a laugh but ended up getting creep-tacular. Some more delays. Stagnant lines queuing from one end of the convention center to the other like rush hour traffic on Highway 290. And possibly the most egregious sin of all, dollar store cookies being served at the Lolita maid cafe.
Still, people attended. As they continue to do.
“It’s the only game in town” as Canada Bill Jones would say. Though there are other conventions (Delta H con, Oni Con as examples) the people behind Boycott AM cited that both have suffered thanks to the ongoing situation with Anime Matsuri.
“If the fans/businesses of Houston give Oni Con and Delta H all the love and support they’ve (inexplicably) given to Anime Matsuri over the last few years, we have no doubt that they’d grow into conventions just as big as AM and infinitely better run.”
It is at this point I should also note that Boycott AM has denied being in any way involved or affiliated with alternative cons. Given the condition of anonymity, this cannot be confirmed nor denied.
Boycott AM said it has reached the point with international guests where they can do no more. They have received information about the boycott, and were still reviewing their options.
“You kind of hit an impasse at some point,” Boycott AM said. “For people who know about the harassment but still decide to go, it’s a value judgement that supporting John Leigh is worth it in exchange for whatever they’re getting out of going to AM. When they’re at that point, it’s a waste of effort to try to convince them not to go.”
Ideally, the boycotters said, the Leighs will “make the smart decision to sell the con off to someone else”.
“If that happens, everyone wins,” Boycott AM said. “AM loses its terrible reputation and starts bringing in American industry guests again. Nobody has to feel bad about going to Anime Matsuri.”
“Unfortunately, everything we’ve heard about the Leigh’s indicates that they wouldn’t be willing to make a move like that,” Boycott AM said.
If Anime Matsuri continues, so does the boycott, according to protestors.
“The groundwork is already out there,” Boycott AM said.
Anime Matsuri is (as of now) set to begin on March 30 through April 1 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas.
DL Haydon has been writing, reporting and shooting photos in Houston since Hurricane Ike. When not conducting journalism, he can be found (in various bars) people-watching, shooting pool or absentmindedly scribbling on cocktail napkins. DL focuses on politics and underground culture.