Historians’ Convention Embroiled in Contemporary Controversy: Prop. 8

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 7, 2010

A major convention of historians is scheduled to begin Jan. 7 at San Diego's Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel--an establishment that had been the subject of a boycott by pro-marriage group Californians Against Hate for over a year.

The boycott is the result of a $125,000 contribution to anti-marriage equality activists made by Doug Manchester, a Roman Catholic and developer, who owns the hotel. That early seed money enabled Proposition 8 to get on the ballot; in November of 2008, voters in California narrowly approved the ballot initiative, rescinding the then-existing right of gay and lesbian families to enter matrimony.

Long before the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state's gay residents to be denied marriage, and long before Proposition 8 roiled the state and the country, the American Historical Association had reserved space at the hotel for this year's convention. Indeed, the reservations were made in 2003, when no one could have foreseen the controversy, reported a Jan. 7 article at Sign On San Diego.com.

Once the rights of gay and lesbian families were put up to a vote--and the voters stripped them away--some of the association's members suggested simply canceling the reservations, but that would have been a prohibitively expensive option--to the tune of $800,000, according to the organization's executive director, Arnita Jones. "We've been around a long time, but our members are college professors, history teachers and librarians, and we aren't a wealthy organization," Jones told the media.

So the association chose instead to turn the awkward situation into a teaching moment, putting together a "mini-conference" within the conference to explore the long and varied history of marriage. The institution has not been as static as some anti-gay activists like to claim; indeed, marriage has been constantly evolving, as the 15 free-of-charge and open-to-the-pubic sessions that comprise the mini-convention demonstrate.

"Historians aren't policymakers and they don't tell people what to do," noted Harvard University historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the association's president, "but they can provide context, give us depth and help people see that they aren't the first generation to be troubled by this issue."

While the association's members are inside, offering that historical perspective, pro-marriage activists will be demonstrating outside, drawing attention to their cause--and to the boycott, which the hotel's marketing director says has had only a minor effect on bookings. Californians against Hate claimed in a press release that cancellations had cost the Manchester Hyatt a whopping $7 million.

"I love the fact that they are reaching out and discussing the issue," the head of Californians Against Hate, Fred Karger, said of the American Historical Association's solution to the dilemma. "I just wish they would do it anywhere else but at the Manchester. It's a real slap in the face to the gay community." Karger said that the association could have resolved the problem of the pre-existing reservations by simply changing to a number of other venues where they have booked additional rooms.

But that possibility, too, had been thought of by the association, and discarded, Jones said, explaining that, "the leadership didn't want to divide the meeting or isolate the work on marriage as something that's not mainstream history." While some members will be honoring the boycott by not attending the convention, Jones said, others have offered their plaudits for the mini-convention solution.

GLBT equality advocate Cleve Jones says that another opition existed: the association could have gotten out of its convention contract woithout paying expensive penalties if it had cited support for the boycott from organized labor, said a Nov. 27 San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.com article.

"I am profoundly disappointed that gay historians will be the first LGBT people to violate this boycott," Jones told SDGLN.com. "San Diego's gay community has come so far after decades of struggle in this conservative city, and to have these out-of-towners come in and thumb their nose up--it's unconscionable."

Jones serves labor union UNITE HERE as International Director of LGBT Community Programs,the article said, and the union includes many unionized hospitality industry workers. The Manchester Grand Hyatt is not unionized, but Jones said that the union's support of the boycott could still have carried clout. "UNITE HERE supports full equality for LGBT rights and fights for protections, ENDA inclusive language and health care benefits for employee partners in all contracts," he said. Of Prop 8 contributor Doug Manchester, Jones said, "He was the second largest individual contributor to get Proposition 8 on the ballot and he has a history of providing financial support to extreme right-wing, anti-gay, anti-worker organizations. He's a bad guy."

The article noted that despite his support for the anti-gay measure, Manchester said that his hotel does not discriminate against gays and lesbians who wish to spend their money there as guests.

Anita Jones said that the association had scrutinized the contract and found no indication that they could have broken their reservation on the basis of union support for the boycott. "We looked at the contract very closely. There is an anti-strike clause, and if the workers at the Hyatt were participating, we could have opted out, but there are no workers from the hotel on the picket line, and there is no official strike."

Moreover, the association began to look at ideas that went beyond a simple yes or no in terms of going forward with the convention at the controversial venue. "The leadership wanted to do more than just say 'no' to the boycott," said Jones. "They began thinking that the conversation in California could benefit from some historical research that's been done on the family in general and marriage in particular over the last couple decades." Papers written for the event are set to include examinations of how church and state have acted to place limitations of marriage rights in the past, what marriage looked like in mediaeval times and in America's early years, and the issue of marriages that cross racial or other demographics.

Said Arnita, "The AHA has a rich body of research on (the institution of) marriage throughout history, and it's always been evolving... Just in the last half century, things such as social security and health benefits have been added to marriage. In the early 19th century, women even didn't have the same rights in a marriage. Marriage has never been static."

So much focus on the changing face of marriage has demonstrated that marriage is much more than simply a matter on one man and one woman; for that matter, the argument of "tradition" itself is inadequate before the historical complexities of marriage. Ulrich summed this up by saying, "Which tradition? Whose tradition?" For example: Ulrich noted that it was the Puritans who changed the definition of marriage hundreds of years ago--from a religious covenant to a legal agreement. "Because it was a contract, it could be broken," said Ulrich about the transformation. "It wasn't common, and it wasn't easy, but it was now possible in a way it hadn't been before. That's something that amazes people with certain stereotypes about the Puritans."

More recent re-definitions of marriage include court decisions that struck down laws forbidding marriages between people of different races. "We can argue about what marriage should be today," Ulrich told the press. "But we cannot argue that marriage has always been the same."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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