Graduate Students

Protests Over Gay Rights Greet Historians' Meeting

January 10, 2010

Tension over gay-rights protests and a depressed job market set a dismal tone at the American Historical Association's annual conference, held here last week. You didn't have to look very hard to spot either drumming protesters or glum-looking graduate students milling outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

What's more, attendance was down sharply. The official number for this year's meeting was 4,158, compared with 5,800 at last year's meeting in New York and 5,400 the year before in Washington, D.C.

The "Manchester" in the hotel's name belongs to Douglas F. Manchester, a prominent supporter of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. That support earned him and his property the ire of gay-rights activists, many of whom were unhappy that the association decided to hold its meeting here despite their calls for a boycott of his hotels. The association argued that breaking its contract with the hotel would cost nearly $800,000—enough, perhaps, to bankrupt the association—and instead chose to send a message by holding a "miniconference" on topics related to same-sex marriage.

Protesters at a Saturday-afternoon demonstration weren't buying it. About 75 activists chanted "boycott" and cheered when Cleve Jones, the well-known gay-rights activist, said his message for the association was that "history is on our side." In an interview, Mr. Jones said the association's decision to hold a session on gay and lesbian history only "added insult to injury." As for the scholars of gay and lesbian history, Mr. Jones said that he was sure they were "well-meaning" but that history would record only that they chose not to honor the boycott.

On Friday the doors to at least two of the miniconference sessions were guarded by well-muscled security guards. A spokesman for the association wouldn't confirm that the guards had been stationed at particular locations, but one of the guards said they were there in case protesters tried to disrupt the meetings. There were no reports of disruptions.

The association apparently was concerned, however, about such a possibility. According to Jennifer Manion, an assistant professor of history and director of the LGBTQ Resource Center at Connecticut College, she and others who led panels on gay marriage were given instructions from the association on how to deal with protesters, including exactly what to say should meetings be interrupted. If interrupted three times, the head of the panel was to tell the person causing the disruption, "If you are not willing to allow us to continue, we will have to call security." The document was titled "Talking Point for Chairs" and marked "Not for Distribution."

Ms. Manion spoke at a session specifically on Proposition 8, and she mentioned the boycott in her remarks. She said she had mixed feelings about entering the hotel, though she noted that those organizing the protest had been fuzzy on what specifically constituted a violation of the boycott in the weeks leading up to the conference. Ms. Manion said that while she was pleased that more attention than ever was being paid to gay and lesbian history, that feeling was tempered by the protests and by the security measures taken by the association. "It's ended up dividing" scholars of gay and lesbian history, she said.

Limited Job Prospects

The association's job center was set up at the Marriott next door so job seekers supporting the boycott wouldn't have to set foot in the Hyatt. There the talk was about the scarcity of openings. The statistics were indeed grim, with the number of jobs advertised in the association's newsmagazine at 806 in 2008-9, down 23.8 percent from a year earlier. Ryan A. Kashanipour, a graduate student at the University of Arizona specializing in Latin American history, was also on the market last year. This year, he said, seemed much worse. "The level of despair is quite disheartening," he said. Mr. Kashanipour had four interviews, though he noted that some of his friends had none.

Lawrence Bowdish was among those who had no interviews, despite applying to about two dozen institutions. Mr. Bowdish, a graduate student at Ohio State University, shrugged off the lack of leads. "It's probably my fault," he said.

Travis Bruce tried to look at the bright side. Mr. Bruce, a medievalist at Université Lyon 2, in France, also attended the recent Modern Language Association meeting, and he said graduate students at the history meeting "don't have the same desperate look in their eyes." Mr. Bruce had two interviews. "It could be worse," he said.

Despite the bad news, the conference had more sessions than ever before, on topics that included the broadly political ("What Has Obama Learned From History?") and the quirkily specialized ("New Research in the Global History of Pearl Diving"). The association's executive director, Arnita A. Jones, deemed it a success and said the response to the miniconference on gay and lesbian history had been very positive. Or, as one historian on Twitter wrote: "awesome conf."