Dilemma Over Meeting in Uganda

Political science association, already facing criticism for decision to hold a meeting in Louisiana, has summer event scheduled for country considering bill that would in some cases call for execution of gay people.
February 15, 2010

The American Political Science Association is among several disciplinary associations that have found themselves caught in debates over whether to hold meetings in locales that some want to boycott. In 2008, the association rejected calls by some to move the 2012 meeting out of New Orleans because Louisiana has adopted one of the most stringent bans on gay marriage, applying the ban also to any proposed legal relationships, such as civil unions, that could be seen as resembling marriage. The decision led to a call by some political scientists to boycott the meeting.

Now the association is facing yet more criticism from boycott organizers. It is holding a workshop this summer in Uganda, where the government is supporting some of the most anti-gay legislation in the world, which would carry terms of life imprisonment for gay acts and execution in some cases. The APSA's president said in an interview Sunday that the association is deeply concerned about the situation and has started talking to gay members and others about what to do if the bill passes.

The legislation in Uganda is "against the principles of humanity in a most fundamental way," said Henry Brady, president of the association, and dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Brady said it was important to remember that the bill has not been enacted, and "people who know political science know that all kinds of unusual, bizarre proposals are put forth in legislatures" all the time. "If we reacted to every single one of those, we'd be pretty crazy," he said. "Most of those will never see the light of day," he said. However Brady added that he knew this bill "might," and said that would be "very worrisome" for the association.

He said that consultations have started on what to do -- even as association leaders hope that the bill will never become law.

The program in Uganda -- plans for which started well before the legislation surfaced -- is part of a three-year effort to help build political science in Africa.

"There really is a good purpose for this program -- to improve the quality and character of political science in Africa," Brady said. Asked if the association would stay away if the law passed, Brady said he wasn't sure. "We'd have to sit and think about what's the best thing to do."

He noted that "during the civil rights era," many people opposed to segregation "went down to the South and confronted the people of the South." And the APSA's leaders made a similar argument with regard to the meeting in New Orleans, pledging that there would be sessions on gay marriage issues and gay civil rights. (Indeed, that has become a common approach to dealing with calls for boycotts, with the American Historical Association adding many such sessions during its recent meeting at a hotel owned by a man who was a major contributor to the campaign against gay marriage in California.)

Some academics have questioned the tactic of using disciplinary association meetings to take political stands. Brady said he wasn't making such a judgment. "I think people have to decide for themselves whether a boycott is a good or bad idea," he said.

Michael Brintnall, executive director of the APSA, said that he has been consulting on the issues with gay political scientists, and also those who study Africa and who are working to help political scientists there. He said that one goal of working in Africa would be to promote the kind of scholarship that might raise questions about anti-gay laws.

So far, Brintnall said he is hearing "a real mix of views," with some saying "this is just the time we need to be working with African scholars" and others "raising questions about safety." Brintnall said that if the legislation passed, gay political scientists could be "at risk" if they attended the meeting.

Daniel R. Pinello, professor of government at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, is one of the organizers of the New Orleans boycott. He said he was stunned and outraged that the association is planning to meet in Uganda, and he sent an e-mail to leaders of the APSA this weekend.

In the e-mail, he said that the decision to go ahead with a program in Uganda will make his boycott organizing "so much easier." Wrote Pinello: "Not only may I argue to prospective New Orleans boycott endorsers that the APSA holds meetings in jurisdictions that deny all forms of relationship recognition to lesbian and gay couples and their families, the association now sponsors events in a country that criminalizes homosexuality, actively persecutes and prosecutes same-gender sexual activity, and is debating the death penalty in such cases, as well as provisions that punish the failure to turn in suspected homosexuals and that prohibit advocacy for the rights of sexual minorities."

Pinello predicted that the boycott -- he has 507 political scientists already pledged to stay away from New Orleans -- "should quickly swell to many, many more."


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