Protest at History Meeting

January 11, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- “Boycott the Hyatt. Check Out Now.” With that chant, about 200 protesters shouted their anger Saturday afternoon at the decision of the American Historical Association to have its headquarters and many sessions in the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel here.

In an unusual scene for a scholarly meeting, protesters rallied for an hour outside the hotel, and marched around it twice. While most of the rhetoric was against the hotel’s owner, the organizers carried a sign that said “What will history say about the American Historical Association.”

Gay and labor organizations in San Diego have organized a boycott of the hotel, noting that Doug Manchester, the owner of the hotel, was a major financial donor to the campaign to end gay marriage in California and that union leaders consider him hostile to organized labor. The history association, like most disciplinary associations that have large annual meetings, signs contracts with venues years in advance, in this case well before California’s gay marriage vote.

The AHA argued that it couldn’t cancel its contract with the Hyatt without facing huge fees that would have endangered the association’s finances. In a gesture to those who wanted to cancel the Hyatt events, the AHA added a series of special scholarly sessions on gay marriage and issues related to sexual orientation. But even though the meeting used more than one hotel, most of these sessions were at the Hyatt, forcing gay scholars and other supporters of gay equal rights to enter the hotel (even if many of these attendees made a point of staying elsewhere -- and of buying their coffee or snacks off site).

Some AHA members said that they were staying away from this year’s meeting altogether, as a protest. But while attendance was down, most here said that the drop was largely due to the poor economy, and the resulting drop in the number of job interviews going on (not to mention smaller or non-existent travel budgets). Events at the Hyatt were not visibly less attended than those at the Marriott next door.

The rally attendees were a mix of local labor and gay activists and historians (some of whom are also labor and gay activists). In his opening speech at the rally, Cleve Jones, a long-time organizer for gay rights, said that while the AHA may have been violating the boycott, “history is on our side.” And he closed the rally by saying of the historians’ association: “They did the wrong thing today."

In an interview after the rally, Jones said that the scholarship presented at the meeting on gay issues was “well intentioned” but that it was “a slap in the face” of California gay people to have the sessions in the hotel. Gay groups have been uniform in honoring the boycott, he said. The series of sessions on gay history was the first gay-related event to violate the boycott, he said.

The AHA’s Committee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History endorsed the rally, and endorsed the goals of the boycott, but did not formally endorse the boycott itself. Ian Lekus, chair of the committee and a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, said in an interview at the rally that he and many others intentionally stayed elsewhere and would not spend any money at the Hyatt. Lekus said that holding the gay scholarship sessions in the Hyatt -- which the AHA said was a gesture of challenge to Manchester -- was in fact “adding insult to injury” for those who support gay rights and gay scholarship.

That view was shared by some of those who presented. Among those at the rally were Nicholas L. Syrett of the University of Northern Colorado, who was part of a panel on “Male Couples and the Meaning of Same-Sex Love in Turn-of-the-Century Europe and America,” and Jennifer Manion of Connecticut College, who chaired the session. Both of them said that the AHA could have done a lot more to oppose Manchester, by holding more sessions off site, and by actively encouraging attendees to stay elsewhere, for example.

AHA leaders distributed information to attendees in which they noted the large sum of money -- $800,000 – that they said they would have lost by leaving the Hyatt. And while no one publicly criticized the protest, some at the meeting privately said that they didn’t view hotel choice as a political move, and wanted to focus on other issues. (For a skeptical take on the boycott tactic in this case, from a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights, see this post in Tenured Radical.)

One person at the rally, Jay Driskell, an adjunct at the University of Arizona, argued that the AHA could in fact have avoided the controversy. Three years ago, Driskell organized a vote at the AHA business meeting encouraging the association to join the Informed Meetings Exchange, known as INMEX. That organization works with associations or groups planning meetings to find venues that have good labor relations and aren’t likely to face disruptions from strikes.

The AHA Council (its governing body) agreed to investigate joining INMEX, but eventually declined to do so. Arnita Jones, executive director of AHA, said that the association was willing to join INMEX only if it could be assured that the group was a 501(c)3 organization and independent of the union Unite Here. Jones said that “we never received assurance on either point.”

INMEX acknowledges working closely with Unite Here, but says it is independent. And while INMEX is legally recognized as a nonprofit group, it is not a 501(c)3, but is a 501(c)6, which it says is the correct classification for its mission.

John Stephens, chair of the INMEX board, said that many organizations like the AHA have joined INMEX, including the scholarly association of which he is executive director and which has overlap with some of the AHA membership, the American Studies Association.

Driskell, who is gathering petitions from AHA members to have it revisit the issue, said that he can’t understand why the association won’t join INMEX. He was handing out an information sheet with the headline: “How Do We Get Out of This Mess???”

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