Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Guest Post From an Activist Historian: The AHA Blew It

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 regular 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.


Anonymous said...

This is a really excellent overview. I appreciate it, because I really didn't understand the issues based on the emails sent out by activists and by the AHA.

This was my first AHA and I confess I was confused enough by getting myself situated and figuring out the job market, and not getting too depressed by my prospects, that I didn't pay a lot of attention to the boycott, even though I find Prop 8 heart wrenching.

I will mention, though, that I did attend two of the mini-conference papers (and I am definitely not one of the 100 on the LGBTQ circuit).

The second, on Sunday morning, had two prominent feminists on the panel. It was a joy to hear about the movement from their point of view. It was particularly inspiring to hear about Yale feminists who chose lesbian relationships because of the joy they got out of them, rather than because they were coerced into it by their biology. As a woman who grew up in conservative Christian circles, got married too young, and is now trying to figure myself out, it was a release to hear that paper. I don't have to read my every instinct with a microscope to figure out who I could/should/will love. And just wanting to be with a woman, no matter my confusion, is a legitimate thing in of itself (legitimate and joyful).

Quite a difference from the one lesbian I talked to about my confusion and she told me I was being too romantic about gay relationships and should stay with my husband. Maybe I am, but still, nice to hear another viewpoint.

TR or guest poster--please keep us posted on what we can do to overturn Prop 8.

Military Prof said...

I sympathize with the GLBTH position regarding Manchester's and Proposition 8, but I object to the notion that a decided minority of any professional organization should have the expectation that all members should bear the burden of their activism.

The OAH moved its St. Louis conference in 2000, and its San Francisco iteration in 2005. Both resulted in tremendous financial losses-the first resulted in a series of lawsuits, which were eventually dropped but cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend, to say nothing of the cost of booking facilities on short notice. Luckily, the 2000 meeting could stay in St. Louis, thus the participants who had already booked flights did not face the financial penalty for the problem. The 2005 meeting was moved from San Francisco to San Jose, and the organization felt the need to provide transportation for all members from the San Francisco airport to San Jose-approximately 40 miles. The e-letters begging for money to eliminate the debt from those years continue to arrive on a monthly basis.

My point is not that the AHA should have sided with Manchester-although the AHA should certainly stand up for his right to exercise free speech. The AHA shouldn't have sided with GLBTH members, either, which would have done irreparable harm to the organization. Imagine the cost of upcoming meetings if the debt load from relocation had been added to the tab-the AHA is already horribly priced. Many history departments are beginning to realize that sending an entire hiring committee to the conference, with a tab of approximately $5,000 for a single position hire, is too much money for too little return.

Like it or not, the AHA as an organization must remain neutral in cases such as this, even though its individual members are under no such obligation. The onus was upon the activists to convince individual members how to approach the situation-not the leadership of the AHA. As for the mini-conference, yes, holding that in Manchester's hotel was a ridiculous, inexcusable decision. Perhaps somebody thought this would be the best way to annoy Manchester-but I doubt he noticed or cared.

The AHA seems to be reflexively militaristic and authoritarian, so I'm not sure why it came as a surprise in this case. The great irony, to me, is the AHA's abject hostility toward military historians is often displayed in such a fashion, as well, when they don't just stick with the standard sneering condescension. While you might have welcomed an activist protestor in your session, the other panelists and audience members might not. I have had activists interrupt panels before-as a prisoner of war historian, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have earned their share of protests at conferences I attend. Despite the fact that I was presenting research highly critical of the treatment of enemy combatants (and, for that matter, foreign non-combatants imprisoned without charges or evidence), protestors still felt the need to burst into the room, screaming at the participants and branding us as "warmongers." It was shockingly unpleasant, and given that the conference hotel had no internal security force, it took quite a while before the local police showed up to remove the individuals. By that time, the panel was ruined, of course, thus I suppose the activists' mission was accomplished, although to what end, I have no idea. To the best of my knowledge, it certainly didn't make even the local news that a few dozen gray-haired historians got yelled at by three antiwar radicals.

With all of the forms of communication available today, it is not that difficult for an organized group, however small or ill-funded, to get the word out about an issue. To expect the AHA to do the work on behalf of any group with a grudge, no matter how righteous their cause, is to allow any minority of the organization to hijack the proceedings of everyone.

I'll now duck and cover as TR's readership opens up with both barrels. Keep the great posts and guest posts coming!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a detailed report. Thank you.

Tenured Radical said...

Military Prof:

Please come back -- some of my readers may disagree with you, but anyone who can write such an eloquent comment defending *any* point of view is more than welcome at Tenured Radical.

Untenured said...

I think the AHA did a very poor job with their quandary -- though I also think the local LBGTQI activists did not take advantage of the situation either. Why wasn't the time and place of the protest made more public beforehand? What strategies might they have suggested to balance the need to meet book editors and attend sessions while not wanting to endorse any support of Prop 8?

The most important lesson, though, is that anyone with any say in conference arrangements should mandate that their organization work with InMex (http://www.inmex.org/) or some other group dedicated to socially responsible convention planning. As I understand it, InMEx guarantees you a labor-conflict/hateful-politics-free meeting space, and if the situation changes, they serve as insurance by booking you somewhere else. Wouldn't that solve this problem once and for all?

Bear Left said...

I'd like to thank Jen for an outstanding column, TR for offering her the guest space, and Military Prof as well for his/her important points, and hopefully I can clarify a point or two. Interestingly, I had a good bear or three (err, beer or three; paging Dr. Freud) in San Diego with a grad school friend who is a military historian, and he described the marginalization and contempt that some military historians experience from official AHA channels, and I must say, it sounded awfully familiar.

Speaking from my role as Chair of the Committee on LGBT History, may I gently note (with both barrels of a small squirt gun, perhaps? Alas, I'm also a peace historian) how MP's objection "to the notion that a decided minority of any professional organization should have the expectation that all members should bear the burden of their activism" grants us a lot of power that we don't have? After all, it's not LGBT historians who passed Prop 8, made a six-figure donation to that cause, signed the AHA's contract, or called for the boycott in the first place? We are negotiating all these currents as much as anyone else, though we and our allies certainly do have especially vested interests in them.

More to the heart of MP's point: although Committee on LGBT History members disagreed on how best to negotiate all these currents, we did agree, at our business meeting at last year's AHA in New York, that we needed to speak up for justice while not financially endangering the AHA. We get the same pleas to help out the OAH (indeed, my own advisor, an OAH president from a couple years back, has been a major figure in fundraising to recoup the losses the organization incurred when the St. Louis and San Francisco meetings were relocated), and we fully understand that the AHA could not afford to assume ~$800G in penalties by breaking the contract. This is why, when I spoke with InsideHigherEd (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/01/11/rally), I describe our position as supporting the goals of the boycott, without actually endorsing the boycott itself.

Jen raises an important question: did the AHA seriously investigate finding ways to escape the contract without incurring those penalties? All available evidence says no to that question -- despite the fact that various other professional organizations were able to do so, again not at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous
Glad you got something out of the mini-conference. Up to date reports and trial analysis on Prop 8 are http://www.pamshouseblend.com/ Of course being with women is awesome.

@ Military Prof
You actually make some points that are interesting, particularly your experience with anti-war protestors at academic panels, which I have to admit I have never seen or experienced, so I personally had a really hard time accepting the guards at the door.

As far as queer activists wanting the AHA leadership or membership to do our bidding, that's not really the point of my post. The Committee on LGBT History is an AHA affiliate, full of dues paying members. We speak for part of the membership and certainly deserve more respect and consideration than activists or protestors of any stripe. We were also particularly situated to help the AHA effectively mediate the situation but as an organization, we were brushed aside.

As the Committee on LGBT History, we actually don't have the communications capacity which you suggest we might. The AHA was selectively working with us all along but deployed a duplicitous strategy: Detailing all of the ways the spirit of the boycott could be honored by conference attendees without actually requiring the AHA to pull out of the hyatt - and then actively undermining that strategy. If we understood this earlier, we may have tried to do the massive outreach suggested.

@ TR - thanks for the space!

@ Untenured
I agree with your critique of the local activists. I expected a strong showing outside of the hotel everyday that we might have joined and then educated other historians from that position. And yes, we need to get the AHA to use IMEX. That is one of the suggestions the CLGBTQ made earlier which the AHA dismissed in their official "talking points."

@ Bear Left
Thanks for the clarifications -and your work!

Military Prof said...

Very interesting commentary, as always, about a vitally important subject. As a professor of history working for the military, I get plenty of exposure to the anti-GLBTHQ viewpoint on a regular basis, which I find eternally frustrating. However, I'm pleased to report that most of the officers that I work with (who serve as educators, for the most part, or as educational administrators) foresee a major milestone in the gay rights movement. They predict, with a great deal of evidence to back said predictions, that the dreaded "don't ask, don't tell" policy will quietly disappear in the near future. It will be unlikely to spark significant protests, from within the military or without. Most suggest that the only reason it is still in place is fear of upsetting any aspect of military service during wartime-but even that argument has started to crumble.

The military was one of the first American institutions to completely desegregate, courtesy of Harry S. Truman's executive order in 1947. It met with far less resistance than expected, and when put to the test in Korea just 3 years later, integrated units performed admirably, eliminating any discussion of reversing the situation. In Vietnam, racism and de facto segregation arose again, but it was in large part due to the practice of conscripting military service in an unpopular war. Our transition to the all-volunteer force in 1973 also had its setbacks, but has proven an excellent decision. Here's hoping we see another landmark decision-allowing the service of any American volunteer, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.


Digger said...

Thanks for posting this; It should be required reading for any conference planners. It troubles me that the AHA chose to communicate only with mini-conference attendees about the boycott; I hope this was not out of an assumption that anyone not attending doesn't give a crap about Prop 8 or the boycott.

Tenured Radical said...

Military Prof:

That Canada, Holland and S. Africa have successfully integrated openly gay soldiers into their militaries might not shock people -- although each has a vial role in international peace keeping missions, they play virtually no role in a "national" defense. But that Israel, whose army is critical not just to national defense but to the idea of what the nation *is* -- has done so as well makes the US particularly anachronistic.

Thanks for this comment -- any interest in a guest post?

Military Prof said...


I'd love to do a guest post, though it might have to wait a week or two. I'm a bit swamped with the teaching schedule right now. I'll shoot you an e-mail with my contact info.