Guest Post From an Activist Historian: The AHA Blew It

January 19, 2010, 7:28 pm

A report on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in San Diego guest posted by Jennifer Manion of Connecticut College.

To welcome back the start of another semester, let’s start with a multiple choice quiz:

For LGBTQ historians of an activist bent, this year’s AHA was:

a. alienating
b. disappointing
c. energizing
d. all of the above

For this activist historian the answer is “d.” So many things went so wrong in the AHA’s attempt to skirt around the local LGBTQ/labor boycott of the host hotel without appearing to support the politics of the hotel’s owner, Doug Manchester, who financed the initial petition drive to get Proposition 8 onto the ballot in California. For those of you living in a cave, the passage of Prop 8 overturned the legalization of gay marriage in California. The constitutionality of Prop 8 is now being contested by Perry v. Schwarzenager in federal court. Regardless of the ruling, the losing side will surely appeal it to the Supreme Court.

Before I go down that long slippery road listing of all the authoritarian, undermining, and dismissive actions of the AHA leadership, allow me to recognize their good intentions and acknowledge one quite significant positive outcome of this mess – more scholarship on the history of sexuality and LGBTQ people was featured in the conference program than ever before. How can this be a bad thing? Many (but not all) of these panels were featured in a special “Mini-Conference” on same-sex marriage to promote conversations about the history of marriage. It is unclear if any but the usual crowd of (mostly) queer historians who work the “sexuality-themed panel circuit” at the AHA actually went to them. But I like to think that they did. This, my friends, is pretty much where the goodness ends.

The AHA could have tried – or tried harder – to get out of its contract with minimal or no penalty. Other professional groups who had contracts with Manchester managed to do so. But let’s give the AHA the benefit of the doubt here: organizers in San Diego were not very organized when they first requested at the 2009 meeting that the AHA pull out of the Hyatt. Once the AHA decided not to pull out of the Hyatt, local organizers basically refused to collaborate with the LGBTQ historian activist set. I’m guessing the AHA was similarly iced.

One consequence of this is that several (to my knowledge) LGBTQ historians decided, agonizingly, that they could not attend the AHA this year. They would not violate the boycott on principle and could not stand to be outside, protesting, and missing the special historic and timely mini-conference on same-sex marriage inside. As one California-based historian (who is considering not renewing his membership to the AHA) said, “if the AHA would not respect the boycott, I would have to boycott the AHA.” Others decided to attend the AHA but refused to enter the Hyatt out of courage, conviction, and respect for the boycott. Ian Lekus, the chair of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History (an AHA affiliate) took this position. Already on the program myself, I settled on the strategy that I would enter the Hyatt for panels as necessary but not spend any money there. This was before the “official boycott” position was communicated to us by local activists, stating that a person should not “meet, greet, or eat” in the Hyatt. If local organizers were clearer about this in advance, I expect that more historians (myself included) may have adopted this stance.

That said, the rest of this essay will focus on actions the AHA could have taken to substantiate their claim that despite not being able to get out of the contract, they would actively support the effort to inform conference participants about the situation, promote the discussion of the history of sexuality and marriage, and open the special mini-conference to interested people not registered for the conference.

1. The AHA absolutely should have moved the mini-conference out of the Hyatt. This is the single most significant action they could have taken to support LGBTQ historians who were squeezed in the middle of this controversy. The mini-conference was open to the public for free. This gesture (a wonderful one at that) ended up being meaningless because the local LGBTQ activists at whom this invitation was targeted would not violate the boycott to enter the Hyatt. This also forced many LGBTQ historians (disproportionately represented in the mini-conference) INTO the Hyatt.

2. The AHA should have communicated clearly with all meeting registrants via email about the boycott in advance of the meeting rather than only those participants in the mini-conference. All registrants should have received an email stating the situation regarding the boycott: politics, finances, the AHA position, alternative housing options, resources for members who (voluntarily) wanted to support the local organizing effort and/or stand in solidarity with the membership of the AHA’s own Committee on LGBTQ History. I didn’t even realize that everyone was not getting this information until the meeting itself. The separate mode of communication to mini-conference presenters regarding the “problem” of dealing with the boycott was deeply problematic, presuming that only participants in the mini-conference would want or need to know. Did this presume our sexual orientation as well? Our political stance? What of all the LGBTQ historians not involved with the mini-conference? Committed activists of all orientations? Hetero-historians who study the history of marriage?

3. The AHA should have worked more sensitively and collaboratively with the longstanding Committee on LGBT History. CLGBTH issued a very informative and thoughtful press release in early November – this could and should have been sent out to AHA meeting registrants and prominently placed on the conference webpage. The suggestions could have been honored by the AHA rather than ripped apart and discounted in the official “talking points” bulletin they issued at the meeting. Nice one.

4. The AHA should have dropped the militarism, authoritarianism, and the divisive anti-gay activist position. I don’t care if the purpose of the security guards outside the door of my panel (and seemingly all of the panels in the mini-conference) were there to protect me. They made me nervous. Chairs of panels in the mini-conference received a “special” email in the days leading up to the conference. The tone of the message was bizarre (to put it nicely) or condescending, dictatorial, and ignorant (to be real). I heard (through the gay grapevine) that these documents were drafted by hired consultants to help the AHA deal with the situation. GET YOUR MONEY BACK. I would have helped the AHA devise its strategy for free. The documents listed the “official” AHA position regarding the boycott to share with audience members should questions arise (presuming I did not find these positions objectionable). They offered advice on how to regain control of the room should some hostile protestor storm the session to contest our presence in the Hyatt (presuming I would not welcome the perspective and presence of a gay activist). There was, apparently, a potential war on the horizon, between mini-conference panelists and local gay activists (this was the first I heard of it). The AHA was there to mediate and protect, I suppose, but all they did was generate anxiety, frustration, and anger for many of us. I thought to distribute the documents to some CLGBTH members for feedback, only to notice the “NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION” line running down the side of the documents, further signifying that I unknowingly was in the midst of a battle. Then, clarity. The angst of this situation was caused by the feeling that I was being enlisted for a side I was not on. I may be a historian, but the violence, harassment, and discrimination I face on a r
egular basis stems from my gender identity and sexual orientation. Those angry gay protestors are the people who fight for my dignity and humanity everyday. They – not other historians – have my back. Except for the few historians who are also angry gay protestors and I already know all 10 of them.

I actually understand why the AHA did not cancel its contract with the Hyatt. But a series of misguided, insensitive, and just plain bad decisions on the part of the AHA leading up to the meeting made it worse than it needed to be. We LGBTQ historians with an activist bent were experiencing an alternate reality from most other conference attendees who were generally oblivious to all of this. I educated friends and colleagues who were outside of my circle. They were shocked and appalled by what I told them – and wished the AHA communicated more directly with everyone registered about the boycott and the work of the CLGBTH. Lots of them stayed in the Hyatt, unaware of the politics involved. They simply jumped onto the AHA website and scooped up available hotel rooms at the host hotel, the way people do. The AHA did nothing to promote or supports its position that we could effectively prevent Manchester from profiting from our use of his hotel if we got people to not book rooms, eat, or shop in there.

At the Saturday afternoon protest, organizer Cleve Jones railed against LGBTQ historians who attended the conference as the lowest of the low, the first LGBTQ people to violate the boycott since its inception nearly two years ago. Admittedly, I shirked, wondering if I belonged there, if he was right. To some extent he was – AHA participants surely funneled tens of thousands of dollars right into Manchester’s pockets that weekend. As righteous, dogmatic, and uncompromising as he is, however, Jones is not the gatekeeper for the movement. Onward I marched – stung by the passive complicity of my liberal colleagues and well-meaning professional association – annoyed by the sloppy organizing efforts of the locals – moved by the integrity of my queer historian colleagues who honored the boycott – and energized by the company of those historians who, with passion and conviction, are dedicated to the political project of doing LGBTQ history. And we danced hard.

Note: Guest posts are welcome at Tenured Radical. They may be posted anonymously, but you must make yourself known to me.

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