Historians’ Convention Embroiled in Contemporary Controversy: Prop. 8
A major convention of historians is scheduled to begin Jan. 7 at San Diego’s Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel--an establishment that had been the subject of a boycott by pro-marriage group Californians Against Hate for over a year.
The boycott is the result of a $125,000 contribution to anti-marriage equality activists made by Doug Manchester, a Roman Catholic and developer, who owns the hotel. That early seed money enabled Proposition 8 to get on the ballot; in November of 2008, voters in California narrowly approved the ballot initiative, rescinding the then-existing right of gay and lesbian families to enter matrimony.
Long before the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state’s gay residents to be denied marriage, and long before Proposition 8 roiled the state and the country, the American Historical Association had reserved space at the hotel for this year’s convention. Indeed, the reservations were made in 2003, when no one could have foreseen the controversy, reported a Jan. 7 article at Sign On San Diego.com.
Once the rights of gay and lesbian families were put up to a vote--and the voters stripped them away--some of the association’s members suggested simply canceling the reservations, but that would have been a prohibitively expensive option--to the tune of $800,000, according to the organization’s executive director, Arnita Jones. "We’ve been around a long time, but our members are college professors, history teachers and librarians, and we aren’t a wealthy organization," Jones told the media.
So the association chose instead to turn the awkward situation into a teaching moment, putting together a "mini-conference" within the conference to explore the long and varied history of marriage. The institution has not been as static as some anti-gay activists like to claim; indeed, marriage has been constantly evolving, as the 15 free-of-charge and open-to-the-pubic sessions that comprise the mini-convention demonstrate.
"Historians aren’t policymakers and they don’t tell people what to do," noted Harvard University historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the association’s president, "but they can provide context, give us depth and help people see that they aren’t the first generation to be troubled by this issue."
While the association’s members are inside, offering that historical perspective, pro-marriage activists will be demonstrating outside, drawing attention to their cause--and to the boycott, which the hotel’s marketing director says has had only a minor effect on bookings. Californians against Hate claimed in a press release that cancellations had cost the Manchester Hyatt a whopping $7 million.
"I love the fact that they are reaching out and discussing the issue," the head of Californians Against Hate, Fred Karger, said of the American Historical Association’s solution to the dilemma. "I just wish they would do it anywhere else but at the Manchester. It’s a real slap in the face to the gay community." Karger said that the association could have resolved the problem of the pre-existing reservations by simply changing to a number of other venues where they have booked additional rooms.
But that possibility, too, had been thought of by the association, and discarded, Jones said, explaining that, "the leadership didn’t want to divide the meeting or isolate the work on marriage as something that’s not mainstream history." While some members will be honoring the boycott by not attending the convention, Jones said, others have offered their plaudits for the mini-convention solution.