Nanaimo Fringe Festival director steps down after community calls out transphobic online speech

The artistic managing director will continue to advise so the August event proceeds as organizers vow to investigate community safety concerns this fall.
The Nanaimo Fringe Festival banner is installed in the lead up to the 2021 festival. <b>Photo courtesy of Nanaimo Fringe Festival/Facebook</b>
The Nanaimo Fringe Festival banner is installed in the lead up to the 2021 festival. Photo courtesy of Nanaimo Fringe Festival/Facebook

Organizers of Nanaimo’s Fringe Festival announced Friday, July 7 that artistic managing director Bryony Dixon would be placed on leave in response to “an ongoing complaint from the Nanaimo theatre community regarding [Dixon’s] personal activities on social media.”

Pacific Coast Stage Co. (PCSC), the local organization behind Nanaimo Fringe Festival, plans to investigate community concerns this fall. 

Tamara McCarthy, PCSC’s associate artistic producer tells The Discourse that with Nanaimo’s Fringe kicking off in just four weeks, running Aug. 10 to Aug. 20, PCSC does not currently have the capacity to remove a staff member entirely from the organization and conduct a thorough investigation.

“Bryony will remain with the organization in an advisory role through the execution of the 2023 Nanaimo Fringe Festival to ensure that the obligations to our audience, artists, and funders are met,” PCSC’s statement reads. 

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Local artists and community members raised concerns regarding Dixon’s ongoing social media posts on trans women in prisons, whether puberty blockers cause medical harm and the inclusion of trans athletes in sports

Dixon has publicly stated transitioning threatens queer youth, specifically gay children, and that medically prescribed hormone blockers to ease gender dysphoria “castrates” children, citing a documentary that features sex offender David Arthur Kendall as one of the ex-trans activists.

A screenshot obtained by The Discourse of comments made by Bryony Dixon in a public forum. Photo provided by The Discourse

“I will remain involved in the 2023 Nanaimo Fringe Festival in an advisory capacity to offer guidance and mentorship to new and current staff,” Dixon explained to The Discourse in an email. 

“Without this transfer of operational knowledge, the festival could not proceed and all 12 theatre artists/groups, 25 stand up comedians, and 4 musical acts would all lose their platform (this includes several queer and gender diverse people),” she added.

In a public statement posted on Facebook July 7, Dixon noted she volunteered to step back into an advisory role and thanked the Board of PCSC for plans to look into the matter, characterizing it as a “cancellation campaign.” 

“It is my sincere hope that by demonstrating true liberal principles and assisting to platform even those with whom I disagree (and even those who have called for my firing), I can lead by example in times of encroaching group-think and authoritarianism,” she states.

Chelsee Damen, Nanaimo Fringe Festival co-founder and general manager from 2011 to 2015, tells The Discourse she understands why PCSC placed Dixon in an advisory role so close to the festival.

“They’re a small team with a lot of work to do,” Damen explains. “And they’re pouring their energy into putting this festival on. I can imagine that they probably need some time to get their bearings and figure out how to move forward. I have so much patience for that, I’m sorry that they’re going through it.”

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Public actions and statements made by any board of directors member or PCSC staff member could jeopardize the Fringe standing of the festival, as stated by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF).

While CAFF does not directly govern local Fringe organizations like PCSC, the national association was registered as a non-profit in 1994 to help support fringe festivals across North America. CAFF requires festivals wanting to brand themselves as Fringe to meet certain requirements. 

For example, since 2017, festival producers cannot interfere with artistic content and festivals must promote and model inclusivity, diversity, and multiculturalism. Those unable to continue meeting CAFF requirements will have their trademark permission revoked, losing the title of Fringe. A loss of title could also be a loss of resources and nationwide support for Nanaimo Fringe Festival.

“When I was producing a Fringe Festival, I received so much guidance and support from CAFF,” Damen says, explaining the role CAFF played during her time creating and leading Nanaimo Fringe Festival. “It’s a great resource for festival producers to come together and help each other

In an email to The Discourse, a CAFF representative underlined the Fringe Festival’s philosophy as described on the website, of providing accessible, inexpensive and fun theatre-going. 

“Any festival wanting to be known as a Fringe festival must follow CAFF’s mandate and ideals,” CAFF tells The Discourse. 

In January, New York’s Frigid Fringe Festival pulled an anti-trans play from its program, the New York Times reports, and stopped billing itself as “uncensored” to ensure it wasn’t platforming hate speech.

Nanaimo Fringe Festival and PCSC remain supportive of all Fringe artists, says McCarthy, including “marginalized artists from all equity-deserving communities. We support trans rights and our queer colleagues.”

When asked what measures are in place to keep staff, artists and Fringe Festival participants safe, McCarthy says PCSC implements Safer Spaces training, which helps guide organizations in creating environments that are supportive and non-threatening for everyone’s gender identity, sexual preference, health and economic status and background. 

The organization also has a code of conduct for all Festival participants, including staff, and a clear reporting process of how Nanaimo Fringe deals with issues, complaints, or problems, she says.

”There will be visible postings around Festival sites reminding everyone in this space to be respectful of the space and one another,” they add.

Dixon tells The Discourse she has no doubt Nanaimo Fringe Festival will be able to meet CAFF diversity and inclusion expectations for the 2023 festival. 

“I believe it does (highlight a diverse population), and has grown in its capacity to do so under my leadership,” she says.

“Trans rights are human rights, that’s so important,” says Damen. “There is no room to debate the existence or basic human rights of a group of people. There is no debating the existence of trans people and no one has that right to do so.”

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