So today I am home from the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, and instead of re-reading job candidate files, I am thinking about transgender activist Sylvia Rae Rivera, who is pictured on the left (as she always was.) I am thinking about San Francisco organizer Harvey Milk, pictured below, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office and the person from whom I have ripped off my title. As those who have seen the new Gus Van Sant movie Milk or read Randy Shilts’s book The Mayor of Castro Street know, the signature opening line of Harvey’s political speeches played on the stereotype of predatory criminal queers obsessed with “recruiting” the young into their “lifestyle.” He would hop up on whatever platform was available and screech, “My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you!”
Thanks to a commenter, one of my first reads today (after the New York Times) was this post by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, reporting on the failed resolution at the AHA business meeting that sought to move next year’s conference from the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. The hotel is owned by Doug Manchester, a financial backer of the Proposition Eight campaign that successfully (for now) ended gay marriage in the state of California. Instead, a compromise resolution was passed that would create programming to address the issues at stake in Prop 8, averting the financial disaster that moving the conference would be. Note to allies who see this as a spineless outcome: the Organization of American Historians is still paying for a similar, politically well-intentioned and financially disastrous, decision in 2005.
According to Jaschik, “Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA, said that under the contract with the hotel, the association would owe $534,000 for breaking the deal now. The association would also lose another $181,000 in lost discounts negotiated with the hotel for meeting room equipment and related services.” Barbara Weinstein of New York University, a past president of the AHA, pointed out usefully that Doug Manchester gets our money whether we like it or not at this point (what she doesn’t point out is that he also gets to re-sell the space), while opponents of the substitute resolution argue that no one should be forced to enter space owned by a homophobe (forgive me if I am too reductive in describing Mr. Manchester, but I’m one of those love the sin, hate the sinner types.) The AHA assures us it will go to great lengths to make sure that no one will have to be around homophobes against their will, which is admirable given that this is a real trick – and I don’t mean trick in a good way! — in southern California. The local arrangements committee will, we are told, provide alternative housing, and will move the job register and other essential services to an adjacent hotel.
Now let me say, with all the sympathy in the world for people whose marriages may be annulled by the success of Prop 8, I have a bone to pick with this strategy. I’m not even going to ask why, while millions of people lose their jobs and civilians are being slaughtered in Gaza (joining civilians from Afghanistan and Iraq in whatever afterlife they are destined for), and given the profound failure of mainstream gay and lesbian organizing to move forward a single civil issue since the 1970s, we are raising the future of gay marriage as a critical issue for the American Historical Association. I know why we are talking about gay marriage more generally — even I, the relentlessly anti-marriage Radical, is so outraged by Prop 8 that I thought briefly about getting married in the good old Nutmeg State (where, unlike California, Republicans are often Democrats in sheep’s clothing) on principle alone. But I do wonder if we who are members of of the GLBTQ Caucus That Dare Not Speak Its Name* ought to be asking questions about why some of our members, and our trusted allies, are responding in such a reactive way at this late date. Who didn’t know who Doug Manchester was prior to Prop 8? In fact, if you are going to boycott conservatives, why go to San Diego, one of the most reactionary, racist cities in the United States, at all? Or the state of California? Or indeed, anywhere but Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont? Because basically what is being proposed is not a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign — a labor strategy that was directly tied to a Fordist logic of economic justice that workers should be permitted a standard of consumption and a standard of economic equity that were tied to each other — but a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Marry” campaign. Which makes no sense, in my view. No sense at all. A boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt is just another feature of the peculiar, incorrect and unworkable logic of gay and lesbian statist politics: that all civil rights struggles, for all oppressed peoples, are simply an extension and translation of African American social justice struggles.
Furthermore, it isn’t clear to me why what happened in California is more homophobic than what is happening in New York, where Governor David Paterson is not willing to move on gay marriage until after the next election. Or that Prop 8 and its supporters have created a more homophobic legal environment than what prevails in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, something Barack Obama has not announced any intention to change. All state and local gay marriage laws are effectively trumped by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed and signed (by Bill Clinton, with one eye on the upcoming election) in September of 1996, that pretends to enshrine Biblical law in federal law. So why don’t we protest this by moving the AHA central offices to Canada, where gay marriage is legal? And by the way — the number of professional settings I have been in lately where white people ignorantly blame black voters for the outcome of Prop 8 (rather than the No on 8 organizers who bypassed communities of color almost entirely) is deeply disturbing. I think the current failures of mainstream gay and lesbian organizing, that routinely marginalizes queer of color, economic justice and trans issues to solidify the privileges of white and/or middle class folks deserves the attention of at least one panel in San Diego.
It’s not that I don’t share the outrage. Even though I oppose the regulation of intimacy and family formation by church and state, and the inequitable distribution of resources and privilege, that marriage consti
tutes, I would also agree that “the people,” in all their bigotry and ignorance, do not get to decide what is and is not a civil and/or constitutional right. So I would like to propose an alternative for next year’s AHA: I think we should go. I think queer folk and their allies should go to San Diego in unprecedented numbers. I think we should occupy Doug Manchester’s hotel, and I think we should hold mock weddings in the lobby. I think we should pass out literature to his guests educating them on civil rights issues and their connections to queer citizenship. I think we should move our queer programming out of the meeting rooms and into the public spaces of the hotel — the lobby, the restaurants, the shops.
In closing, I would like to reflect upon what I think was the most disturbing, and unnoticed, subtheme of Van Sant’s film biography of Harvey Milk. The movie, that ends with Milk’s assassination and the great long shot of peaceful, silent protesters in a candlelit march on City Hall (not the riots that followed the march), should move us to ask a question about what queers have achieved by moving into the political system. The answer is, I think, comparatively little, when it comes to altering the basic institutions that represent the ways all citizens’ lives are shaped by the state. How we turn the attacks on citizenship — which go far beyond limiting the rights of queer folk, my friends — is not clear to me. But a good start for queer historians might be to go to San Diego in vast numbers and queer the convention, and queer that hotel, big time.
How about that, you big old homos?
*I say this because it just changed its name, but because I wasn’t at the meeting, I can’t tell you what it is. I can tell you that lifetime memberships in this organization are still available for the low, low price of $150.
(Cross posted at Cliopatria.)