Monday, January 05, 2009

Hello, American Historical Association: My Name Is The Tenured Radical And I Am Here To Recruit You

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 constitutes, 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.)


Anonymous said...

I agree with your overall critique of the Queer Caucus' strategy. It sounds like those folks wanted to do something in the wake of Prop 8, but this effort seems, at best, misplaced. Your suggestion to occupy the hotel, queering it up, would be much more fun.

That said, I am not sure that I agree that no mainstream gay and lesbian organization has been able to move on a single civil issue since the 1970s. I am not entirely sure what you might mean by a 'civil issue,' though. Wasn't Lambda Legal's success in overturning federal sodomy laws in 2003 a success by a mainstream organization? I don't know all the details of their work, but I do know they have had a string of successes in much smaller cases than that one as well. I suppose that is all legal machinations and not political change, but Lambda always seems like a bunch of smart folks. I am glad they are around.

Moreover, I think it is a stretch to claim that when (and if) Obama is able to overturn DOMA, then he will have sent a withering blow to legal homophobia. The fall of DOMA will not improve the chances of marriage equality directly, in my opinion, because much more on the ground work needs to be done to share queer lives with straight folks. At least, that's what I learned from the Prop 8 debacle. And that's what I always liked about Milk: his willingness to put it out there so as to change others.

Tenured Radical said...

DEH: I agree that overturning the federal sodomy laws was a great success, but this would be one in a series of court victories that lie in the realm of criminal, rather than civil law; and your reference to the gradual elimination of laws that govern homosexual acts, as opposed to the rights available to "homosexuals," is well-taken. But my focus was on civil status, as opposed to criminal status. I suppose I thought the part of "Milk" about the Briggs initiative was particularly poignant in this regard.

I don't think Obama would deal a withering blow to homophobia by voiding DOMA , but it certainly would be a dramatic legal step to actually put some teeth in state level marriage laws, which are currently void in non-marriage states and at the federal level (immigration, welfare, the military, the IRS....) because of DOMA. My point was, rather, that Obama's refusal to do so, and his opposition to gay marriage on principle (although not, confusingly, his opposition to Prop 8) did not stop gays and lesbians from voting for him despite what they acknowledged was a homophobic stance.

I would also add another point: I hold no brief for conservative homophobes, but I think one of the great flaws of the gay and lesbian rights movement at present is its consistent failure to come to terms with the flaws inherent to liberalism. Ergo, we rush to stigmatize our conservative opponents, while trying to persuade ourselves that our so-called liberal allies are only waiting until the time is right to free us of our historic shackles. Here is where I would draw a useful comparison to African-American civil rights: had that been the strategy of SCLC, SNCC, CORE and others, I can easily imagine that we might still live in a country that was racially segregated by law.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment,


CelloShots said...

A few quibbles:

David Paterson is an ally, and a strong one. Practically his first act as governor of New York was to allow gay marriages from other states validity in his own. The hold up in the Empire State is almost entirely the fault of Ruben Diaz Sr., a racist and homophobic state senator from the Bronx who has actually complained (in the NY Times) about there being TOO MANY black people in political leadership! Apparently having a black president and a black governor is unconscionable.

Also, the No on 8 campaign is not the bad guy here. We did not completely ignore communities of color. LA County's field operation was run by a trans woman of color, in fact. I take issue with your assertion that "the No on 8 organizers" are entirely to blame for the passage of Proposition 8; while the state-level campaign leadership certainly made grievous errors and failed to reach out, local organizers were not the ones making those mistakes. In addition, the difficulty of "reaching out" without seeming to attempt to colonize is one of which we are not unaware, and one that often gets ignored in the orgy of blame; opening the movement to organizers of color has already happened, and the next step is tremendously unclear. Further, the activists and organizers who participated in No on 8 are not the ones now proclaiming from the rooftops that black people are to blame; it's the people who never got involved before the election who are doing that. And the LA Times.

Okay, those weren't exactly quibbles. Nevertheless, great post! It finally delurked me.

Anonymous said...

TR, thanks for clarifying the civil versus criminal distinction. It is not one that I immediately would conjure up for a variety of reasons. And I wholly agree with your final point too. Like you, I think that liberalism is a problem facing the official queer movement for exactly the reasons you outline. I also enjoyed reading about this 'controversy' at the AHA since it exemplifies the emerging question of where do 'we' go now, after Prop 8 and before we know which direction the new administration will take on gay rights. In my circles, this is a hot topic of conversation. Even though no consensus emerges, I find the current debates about gay right enlivening.

Anonymous said...

Tee-hee! I like the idea of mass same-sex mock weddings at the AHA -- we need more guerilla street theater at these big conferences! I'd like to be a Freak of Honor.

BlogSloth said...

I don't think Obama's heart is this fight. The gay issue. It's one reservation I had about him, really.

Heather White said...

the mock wedding idea is very appropriate for historians of gay history-- a nod to the GAA's wedding "zap" of 1971. Here's the cake:

Powell said...

The New AHA Solution was not even passed with the needed 100 people present to vote on it. Canceling the AHA’s conference would absolutely impact Manchester’s bottom line and send a strong message that his donation is unacceptable to those people of conscience, progressives, academics and other activists for social justice. The assumption that he already has banked a lot of AHA’s money is false. The Convention is a year out. No contract mandates that an association pay substantial funds a year away from the meeting date. This situation is no fault of AHA’s however they need to fight Manchester on this and demand they get out of their contract because of the irresponsible action’s of the hotel that places AHA in a compromising position. By continuing to have the conference here, AHA is perpetuating the injustice and discrimination. Other associations, including other academics, have stood up for justice in San Diego and canceled their contracts as to not violate the lgbt boycott and cross the hotel worker union picket line. This is also a labor dispute. Doug Manchester exploits his workers and then uses his profits to fund anti lgbt ballot measures. And AHA is rationalizing patronizing his hotel! Speaking of MILK, Cleve Jones (founder of Sleep With The Right People and the AIDS memorial quilt) as well as friend of Harvey's is one of the chief organizers of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Boycott. How hypocritical is it to have panels discussing gay/lesbian issues while holding the very conference at hotel owned by a huge contributor to the discriminatory ballot measure.
Please watch this youtube video on what happened when the National Communications Association came to San Diego:

Powell said...

And how is the AHA going assure its members they wont be surrounded by homophobia. When you walk into the lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt, you will be confronted with framed pictures of Doug Manchester arm in arm with George W Bush, Arnold, Donald Rumsfeldt, Cindy McCain and many more. Please go to the Boycott Manchester Facebook page to see the photos. Don't let AHA off the hook, this is inexcusable!

John McKenzie said...

As someone who was at the National Communication Association conference and participated in the boycott of the Manchester Hyatt and the alternate conference thrown together for protesters down the street at the Embassy Suites, I think Powell hits the nail on the head here.

Part of the exigency for boycott of the Manchester Hyatt are the already in place movements against the Hyatt. While those of us in NCA were not successful in our bid to move the conference altogether (we had only about 5 months to do so upon learning of Manchester's Prop 8 contributions and labor dispute with his workers), the movement was successful in gaining the participation of about 1000 of the 5000 attendees of the main conference in the alternate convention and protests outside the Hyatt hotel. Also, the movement built support for an amendment to the NCA constitution providing a clause that would prevent planning a conference at a site in the middle of a labor dispute and that it "prefers" locations that are same-sex marriage friendly. The resolution was approved at the 2008 conference for a vote at the 2009 conference.

(the added clauses are:

(f) NCA requires the following clause be included in its hotel and service provider contracts: “NCA reserves the right of termination of this agreement, without penalty or liability, if the site, hotel owner, chain, service provider, the municipal government, or the state in which the hotel is located establishes or enforces laws or publicly endorses or contributes funds to causes that, in the estimation of NCA, abridge the civil rights or advocate discrimination of any NCA member on the basis of gender, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, physical handicap, disability, or religion. NCA also reserves its right to withdraw from this agreement, without penalty or liability, if a labor dispute or other organized protest would require attendees to cross picket lines or violate a boycott.”

(g) NCA prefers a location where legal rights are afforded to same-sex unions and partnerships.

(h) NCA prefers meeting facilities and service providers whose staff are represented by a union. NCA will not book conventions at hotels or with service providers that have ongoing labor disputes.)

In addition to the video Powell posted, Charles Morris (author of Queering Public Address) made a moving speech on why the boycott should be honored and why it matters (he cites Harvey Milk as well). That speech can be viewed at this link:

in any case, I would encourage the AHA to consider other options. If AHA as a whole is unable to relocate, individual divisions or interest groups may be able to do so (at NCA the critical cultural studies, women's studies, and environmental communication divisions and gay caucus all endorsed the boycott and encouraged its panelists to relocate to the alternate site).

I think a major component of the decision making process for AHA (and those who would oppose an AHA decision to remain at the hotel) here should also be a consideration of what resources are already in place - Sleep With the Right People, UNITE-HERE, San Diego GLBTQ groups, San Diego ISO, and other organizations have already joined together to operate against Doug Manchester and the hotel; with NCA they were intrinsic to the efforts of those of us who wished to honor the boycott and still participate in our annual convention.

To answer the "well, things are bad everywhere, not just the Manchester Hyatt" issue, along with the "you can't protest everything" response, the difference here is that resistance in this particular locale is already organized, already moving, and AHA patronage of the hotel wouldn't just be the contribution of funds (and prestige) to a bigot's enterprise, but would also mean working against those who have already organized against that enterprise. It would involve crossing picket lines and deliberately ignoring those people who are not just abstractly oppressed in a mass context, but those whose concentrated voices (and dollars) are already making a difference.

Tenured Radical said...

I think these responses are outstanding and compelling. I'm not on board with the boycott model for a variety of reasons -- one being that it is imperfect and cumbersome, and another because I watched the boycotts of Asian markets in my own neighborhood in New York some years back, and believe me, it isn't always a progressive choice. But I think the posters here are making excellent and persuasive arguments, and I want to acknowledge that.

That said, I do have a question as to whether we ought to embellish a model for gay and lesbian activism (gay marriage legislation and litigation) that has been an outstanding failure, has repeatedly marginalized the poor, people of color and trans people, and has cost millions of dollars without markedly improving the legal status of queer people or addressing critical policy issues like health care, education, and workplace justice. Furthermore, Josh, the NCA's model assumes that queer people *have* civil rights as a class, and while that might not be a question that is ethically under dispute among progressive people, it is a question that is a matter of tremendous legal dispute outside of privacy law. The gay marriage people have more or less disregarded questions of economic and racial justice in favor of a gay marriage=civil rights model.

And as a generally pro-labor person I would like to note that because unions have been so beaten down sine PATCO, we often forget that they have not always been on the side of the civil rights angels, nor are they always today. Many unions have taken protectionist positions viz. organizing, and/or protecting the rights of the undocumented, and/or protecting the rights of workers abroad. Many more see those rights as only important in relation to the inevitable degradation of pay for US workers. And frankly, I would like to see all academic professional organizations get themselves together and fund a challenge to Yeshiva.

Now I realize that the language of "preference" allows for addressing specific, local situations. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the courts will uphold a broken contract in relation to an owner or corporation's opinion about the civil rights of an identity group, whether or not those rights are established in the law.


Bear Left said...

Thanks for this post.

Fyi, the new name of the caucus is the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. That won a strong plurality in the voting, and the business meeting ratified that decision after a short discussion (mostly centering on how none of the choices on the ballot involved the Q word).

I'll be cautious in saying too much about my own thoughts on the boycott, given my new role, above & beyond saying that my own opinion was uncertain & is now moot. Likewise, I'll say very little about the processes of the meeting & the two resolutions that were proposed (the original one & the amendment), beyond saying that one group outplanned rather dramatically.

Once I figure out how to send out group emails from my OtherOligarchy University email account, I'll send out (among other announcements) a call for proposals for San Diego, with an emphasis on panels, roundtables, and other actions that specifically address the limits of lgbtq organizing & the relevance of history to modern lgbtq issues. I have my concerns that the substitute resolution's supporters will be successful in offering programming that meaningful political critique & action in regards to Manchester & Prop 8, unless CLGBTH takes the lead in that regard.