Political Scientists Stick With New Orleans, Face Boycott

Association rejects call to move 2012 meeting away from Louisiana due to its ban on gay marriage and civil unions.
June 30, 2008

The American Political Science Association moved its 2006 annual meeting from the original site of San Francisco, where hotels were then in the midst of protracted disagreements with unions, to Philadelphia.

On Friday, the association announced that it was rejecting calls to move its 2012 meeting from New Orleans. Many gay and lesbian political scientists had called for the convention to move because Louisiana has adopted one of the most stringent bans on gay marriage, applying the ban also to any proposed legal relationship such as civil unions that could be seen as resembling marriage. Supporters of moving the meeting said that it is not safe for gay academics or their partners to travel to cities where their relationships have no legal status. A boycott is now being organized of the 2012 meeting.

The association announced that, in a shift, it would in the future consider state-level actions when evaluating sites for meetings. Association policy has been to consider local conditions (such as the labor strife San Francisco had experienced), but not state policies. However, the association stopped short of saying it would stay away from states with anti-gay constitutional amendments.

A letter to political scientists from Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who is president of the association, stressed that state policies need not eliminate a city from contention to host a meeting. "[C]onditions at the local level can mitigate these circumstances and ... communities hosting APSA meetings will be expected to assure the civil rights and safety of all APSA members," she wrote.

In addition, she pledged that the 2012 meeting would feature "scholarship and intellectual engagement" on such issues as "same-sex unions" and "the economic development of meeting cities." Some academics have been encouraging their associations to meet in New Orleans as a way of supporting the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

The statements about considering state policies and scholarship on the issues are nothing more than "a crumb thrown by the association," said Daniel R. Pinello, a professor of government at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of the City University of New York. Pinello, author of America's Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (Cambridge University Press), said he would view it as dangerous to attend a meeting in New Orleans with his partner since, if either were to be hospitalized, the other would have no rights at all.

The issue is not hypothetical, he stressed, but one that gay people and their partners face -- sometimes with tragic results. He noted a lawsuit filed just last week, by a lesbian who was denied access to the hospital room of her dying partner in a Florida hospital where she'd been taken when she suffered a stroke while they were on vacation.

Pinello said that planning has started to organize a boycott of the 2012 meeting, and that at this year's meeting -- next month in Boston -- political scientists who support gay rights would try to encourage a variety of steps to oppose the 2012 meeting. He acknowledged that any boycott would be difficult for groups such as graduate students, who are interviewed by hiring departments at the annual meeting. But Pinello said it was fundamentally unjust for the association to consider some issues (such as labor conditions) but ignore others (such as gay rights).

"Our national association will not protect our safety and security and rights," he said. "If the Louisiana constitution had an amendment that said people of color may not marry, or Jews may not marry, or people with disabilities may not marry, I would guarantee that we would not be going to New Orleans in 2012."

According to the APSA, 850 people sent letters offering views on what to do about the proposal to move the meeting. Pinderhughes said in an interview that the letters represented a wide range of views and that there was no clear majority for one side or the other. She added that while the letters informed the APSA board's review, they were not treated as a referendum.

She acknowledged that the decision of the association's governing board would upset some members, but rejected Pinello's statement that it was a "crumb." Pinderhughes said that for the association to actively engage with local officials about the issue, and to plan related programming, represented a significant shift for the political scientists, who normally don't see their annual meetings as having any political goals. "We're not anthropology and sociology, but we're not economics either," she said, citing disciplines that tend to be seen as more left-leaning, and less so, among the social sciences.

Pinderhughes also said that there were real questions about whether New Orleans deserved to be boycotted. She said that the association consulted with several experts who viewed the city as "gay friendly," despite the state vote. In addition, she questioned whether a boycott strategy could be effective. Pinderhughes said that if only a few states held a particular position, it would be easier to oppose it with a boycott. "It's harder to boycott when you don't have a place to go," she said. "If you don't have a lot of allies, you have to engage."

The political science association has only once apparently moved a meeting because of a state policy -- when the membership (against the advice of the governing board) voted to move the meeting out of Chicago to protest the failure of Illinois to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Pinderhughes said that the association "paid a price" for that shift because it could not get out of a contract requiring large payments to the hotel scheduled for the meeting. Pinderhughes said that the association had to hold meetings for about 10 years in the same hotel chain as part of a deal to settle the claim.

Some political scientists have spoken out against moving the meeting. The blog Marquette Warrior noted that the association says it will not take positions that commit its members on issues of public policy. Gay marriage is such a policy, and so the APSA shouldn't be taking a stand one way or another, the blog said, adding: "This, of course, will be a test case to see whether a bunch of liberal academics can act in even a minimally principled way."

Many of those speaking out on the issue have noted feeling conflicted about how to balance the issues of equal treatment for gay scholars vs. the desire of others to support New Orleans. A blog called Siting APSA Annual Meetings features a number of letters backing a move of the meeting, but noting how complicated the question can be. One letter -- from Julie Novkov, president of the sexuality and politics division of the association -- notes that New Orleans has a rich gay tradition and that "going to New Orleans for our annual meeting could be a political and economic act supporting the rebuilding of a city with a long and proud African American history."

However, she comes out against the idea of staying in New Orleans, saying that the association makes political choices in locating its meeting, and that it is wrong to do so in a city that would be viewed as inherently hostile to many gay scholars. Citing the names of some of those who would stay away, she writes that she couldn't imagine a meeting without "many other well known and not so well known voices that have been vitally important to me as a scholar, a teacher, and a member of the profession for many years. That conference, stripped of so many critical and political voices, would not represent the American Political Science Association for me. I hope that conference does not happen."

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