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To Boycott or Not?
Political scientists consider positions they are taking on gay rights by attending or staying away from their discipline's largest gathering.
Charles Anthony Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, is the program chair for the Sexuality and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association this year. In that role, he led the organization of sessions at this year's annual meeting, which starts Thursday in New Orleans.
The section has a full slate of panels, but Smith won't be there, missing a meeting that has been an annual event for him since graduate school. Nor will some still-unknown number of other senior scholars who are boycotting the meeting, which they believe should not take place in Louisiana because of the state's stance to deny marriage and any sort of relationship status to same-sex couples.
Because of the boycott, the APSA meeting that those staying away will miss may have more content and events related to gay rights than any other such gathering of political scientists. There are panels on numerous issues related to sexual orientation and politics, tours of sites in New Orleans related to gay history, and discussions of the decision to meet in New Orleans.
On Friday, the APSA's board sent a letter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and all state legislators, saying that the decision to go ahead with the meeting in New Orleans was "difficult," and that the association would not return to Louisiana as long as the state denies equal rights to gay people.
"Some of our members who are in same-sex relationships believe that attending the conference could potentially place them in peril if a partner were not allowed to make a medical decision in an emergency situation. Other members of our association, even if they are not personally affected by Louisiana's policy on same-sex relationships, have decided to boycott your community altogether in opposition to the policy," the letter says. "Our association is not expecting to return to New Orleans until Louisiana acts to rectify this basic denial of human rights."
The boycott was organized because Louisiana voters in 2004 added a measure to the state's constitution that not only bars gay marriage, but says that state institutions should not recognize any relationships of couples, other than marriages between a man and a woman, that are recognized in other states as married couples or as domestic partners.
By going beyond simply banning same-sex marriage, gay rights supporters say, Louisiana has made it potentially dangerous for gay people to visit. A gay or lesbian political scientist who was hospitalized while attending the meeting, for example, could not assume that the hospital would grant his or her same-sex spouse or partner the rights accorded in Louisiana to spouses whose marriages are recognized by that state. (The APSA is distributing medical power of attorney forms for attendees to fill out if they want to designate someone as health proxy whose out-of-state partner status would not be recognized in Louisiana.)
The APSA, like most disciplinary associations, picks annual meeting locations years in advance. In 2008, critics of the scheduled meeting in New Orleans lobbied the association to switch locations, but the APSA declined to do so. The association's rules at the time required the consideration of "local" conditions in selecting convention locations, and that requirement has resulted in the APSA moving the convention site to avoid hotels with labor strife. At the time, however, there was no stipulation in APSA rules to consider statewide conditions, such as Louisiana's lack of protections for gay couples. (The APSA has added that issue for consideration in future siting decisions.) Those opposing a move from New Orleans cited a variety of reasons, including the view that the association should not take stands on political issues such as gay rights, the potential cost of moving the meeting, the view that New Orleans is a "gay friendly" city regardless of state policies, and the idea that political scientists should not take a position against New Orleans as the city continues to struggle to recover from Katrina.
The Boycott Movement
As soon as the APSA announced it was going ahead with a New Orleans meeting, a boycott movement was launched by Daniel R. Pinello, a professor of government at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of the City University of New York, who is the author of America's Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (Cambridge University Press). More than 1,100 political scientists have signed a statement declaring they will not attend the New Orleans meeting. And the association's own Committee on the Status of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered in the Profession endorsed the boycott.
Boycott supporters admit that many who signed the petition did so in 2008 and 2009, and that some of them might not have been heading to New Orleans this week even without the boycott, given the demands on people's time and the decline in many departments of funds to attend scholarly meetings.
Among scholars who work on issues of sexuality, are gay or lesbian themselves, or who support gay rights, there is not one clear pattern emerging in terms of how people are responding to the boycott.
Shawn Schulenberg, assistant professor of political science at Marshall University and chair of the APSA's LGBT Caucus, said he would be going to New Orleans for caucus meetings, but was not registering for the APSA or staying in a conference hotel. "Many are not boycotting Louisiana, but APSA itself, because of its unresponsiveness to concerns raised by LGBT members," said Schulenberg via e-mail. "The organization’s response the whole time has been that New Orleans is a gay-friendly city so LGBT folks don’t have anything to worry about. This simply is just not true when it comes to legal rights as the state has continued to enforce the state constitution."
He added that "many in this camp were further infuriated when, after being told for many years that it simply was not possible to change the conference to a new city with only a few years notice, the organization quickly moved APSA 2011 from San Francisco to Seattle over labor concerns."
Schulenberg said that many gay and lesbian scholars (particularly those more senior in the field) appear to be planning to stay away. That may not be an option for those starting their careers, he said. "Younger members within the profession cannot stay away without fear that it would adversely affect their career," he said. "The pressure to get your work out there, publish, network, and even interview for jobs is too important, especially when the number of new academic job openings has shrunk so much in the past few years."
Questions About Tactics
Michael Bosia, associate professor of political science at Saint Michael's College and head of the Sexuality and Politics Section of the APSA, is going to the meeting, but he said other leaders of the section are not. While Bosia said that the APSA could have been more sensitive to the concerns of gay scholars, he said he was troubled by having a boycott when gay leaders in New Orleans are not calling for one.
In fact, he said gay people in New Orleans regularly invite others to the city, most notably for an annual event called Southern Decadence, five days of dances, parties and parades that attract many thousands of gay men. Southern Decadence will overlap with the APSA, Bosia noted, asking how it can be possible to declare the city inhospitable to gay people when it is holding one of the largest gay gatherings in the South.
Bosia said, however, that his views did not mean the boycott wasn't having influence. The section, which had 250 members a year ago, has since lost about 70 members (although it has gained some new ones). Bosia recently surveyed members who are not coming to New Orleans and the top reason given (by about 30 percent) was the lack of funds. But the second-highest reason (23 percent) was concerns about the meeting being in New Orleans and the third (18 percent) was the view that people should skip the APSA this year (but with plans to rejoin in the future).
Smith, the program organizer for the section, said that he was pleased with the quality of sessions on the program, but that more work by graduate students would be featured because more senior scholars are staying away.
Complicating the decision-making for some scholars engaged in issues of sexuality and gender is a sense that their voices are badly needed at APSA. A boycott of many leading scholars of sexuality and gender at the annual gatherings of anthropologists or sociologists would be dramatic, given the centrality of those issues to those disciplines. That is not the case in political science. (A special task force created by the APSA released a report last year saying that the discipline was endangered in part because far too few scholars focus on issues of inequality.)
Jyl Josephson, associate professor of political science and director of women's studies at Rutgers University at Newark, is the chair of the APSA Committee on the Status of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered in the Profession. In that role, she said she feels she needs to attend the meeting. If she didn't have that role, she said, she would have honored the boycott.
"I considered it part of my duty to be at the meeting," she said, even though many others on her committee won't be there. "We need to continue to engage the association."
The boycott has already had an impact, Josephson said, regardless of who attends the meeting. In the last year, as APSA leaders have worried about people skipping the meeting, she has seen a notable increase in discussion about equity issues and about gay issues within the APSA.
"I think the fact that there is a boycott has meant that the association has tried harder," she said.
Some of the discussion has drawn attention to the way many gay political scientists feel marginalized by the profession -- in some cases as the boycott discussion has played out. Writing in January in PS (one of the journals of the APSA), Irvine's Smith described the experiences of gay political scientists.
He noted that the boycott debate has included many "reasonable people who simply disagreed." But he also wrote that "the flashes of homophobia, sneering or dismissive disregard for the LGBT community, and even, on occasion, bold hostility frequently dominated the debates.... The tone and nuance of the private debates were perhaps the most shocking. One LGBT member of the APSA who served on a special committee about the siting issue related to me that a straight member suggested that the LGBT member should not serve on the committee because of his or her 'stake in the outcome.' That is, the argument was that an LGBT member of the APSA should not be involved in resolving a controversial issue involving LGBT members. Another member of the APSA who is often assumed to be 'straight' relayed that he was astonished and disappointed by the frequent gay slurs that were used in discussions of the controversy with him, uttered under an assumption of shared heterosexuality."
Michael Brintnall, executive director of the APSA, said in an e-mail interview from New Orleans that he agreed that the boycott has had an impact. "Certainly the boycott has contributed to focusing our thinking on these issues and changing the way in which we engage with local communities and states where we meet, and contributed to our commitment to make the statement we've made," he said.
In terms of numbers, he said that while final registration figures are not in yet, the association is "on track" with numbers for meetings held in cities that are not major travel hubs. "We know of course of individuals who are not attending because of the siting in Louisiana," he said. "But all of our panels are fully subscribed." (Attendance may also be affected by the hurricane currently headed to the Gulf region, which has already led the APSA to call off Wednesday's pre-conference events.)
While he said he knew some political scientists were angry over the association's decision to go ahead with the New Orleans meeting, Brintnall said that "by and large however, we are seeing diverse APSA groups working together to change how the association engages with important issues in the future, rather than disconnecting altogether."
Boycott organizers, however, are not impressed with what the APSA has done, given that the association hasn't budged on the site of the meeting.
John Jay's Pinello said via e-mail of the message that the APSA sent to Louisiana leaders on Friday: "The APSA is saying to Governor Jindal and other local leaders in effect, 'In light of Louisiana's oppressive, constitutionally based policies against the relationship rights of same-sex couples and their families, we're going to meet in your state ONLY ONE MORE TIME -- and then that's it.'"
Given that Louisiana amended its constitution eight years ago, "it doesn't require a tremendous amount of speculation by Jindal or anyone else to know that, if the APSA sincerely believed in the policy position that its e-mail avers, there was plenty of time and opportunity for the association to relocate the New Orleans conference to a different venue. In short, the [letter] is an empty threat. Too little, too late."
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