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At the AHA in San Diego

Greetings from sunny San Diego! My view of San Diego Bay from the 17th floor of the Hilton gives some idea of just how lovely and temperate it is here right now (see the photo on the right, by Claude himself.) And the Hilton conveniently provides running maps to cover various distances along the promenade. Historiann, you would love it!

I have no actual idea of the numbers at this year’s AHA, but I can’t help but think that it’s down from recent years. Not one of the panels I have attended so far, for instance, has had its full component of scheduled speakers. Reasons for these absences are manifold. First, the abysmal job market: if there are fewer interviewers and interviewees (the main purpose here for most), then fewer attendees. Second, getting to San Diego is expensive for most North Americans. Combine that with the fact that many colleges and universities have slashed travel budgets and it becomes prohibitively expensive for many. Third, there are the Midwestern storms that certainly have delayed some people’s arrival and may well have stranded them altogether. And fourth, the gay and labor boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt (led by UNITE HERE and Equality California, but with many other organizational supporters) seems to have led some gay would-be attendees to cancel as well.

As many of Historiann’s readers know, before the 2009 meeting it came to the attention of some AHA members that the owner of the Hyatt, Doug Manchester, had given about 100K to the successful Proposition 8 campaign (to ban same-sex marriage in California). Rather than pull out of the contract with Manchester, which would have cost the AHA about 800K and only benefited him financially, the attendees at 2009’s business meeting voted instead to hold a themed mini-conference on the history of same-sex marriage, couplehood, and queer history generally. The mini-conference would be embedded within the AHA and most of its sessions would be held at the Hyatt itself as a form of protest. There are sixteen sessions affiliated with this mini-conference and a number of others sponsored by the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, the AHA’s queer historians’ affiliate.

The sticky part is this: the consumer boycott of the Hyatt remains. And this puts queer historians and their allies in a tricky position. The AHA is actually paying the Hyatt very little money upfront. The meeting rooms are gratis and the Hyatt will profit (surely is profiting) primarily from attendees staying with them and patronizing the restaurants and businesses in their lobbies. So many have chosen to stay at the other conference hotels, primarily the Hilton or Marriott, or another offsite hotel. But many other attendees (at least those I’ve spoken with) had no idea about the consumer boycott, about Manchester’s role in Prop 8, or indeed that the preponderance of panels on gender and sexuality (seriously: it must be the most coverage of sexuality and queer issues ever at an AHA) had anything to do with Manchester. In other words, the AHA has not necessarily done the best job of publicizing all of what’s occurred and advising members of what their hotel options might be if they wanted to honor the consumer boycott. And there is also an actual protest outside the Hyatt itself. It appears only to be in the front (no sign at the back harbor entrances) and it is small. Yesterday, for instance, I saw about four or five protesters handing out leaflets. But today at 2:00 a larger demonstration is planned. I’ll provide some details tomorrow…

As for the conference itself: I have now been to a few mini-conference panels and attendance is sizable and discussion lively. While these panels were to be made open to the public (no AHA badge necessary) it seems to be largely historians, especially as many local queer people seem committed to the boycott of the hotel and won’t enter it. (There is also a security detail assigned to each mini-conference session. Those gays–dangerous!!) First session of the conference yesterday was a panel on “misbehaving women” in the nineteenth century, a nod to AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous aphorism about well-behaved women seldom making history. Gail Bederman, Patricia Cline Cohen, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz gave papers on Frances Wright, Mary Gove Nichols, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, respectively. As one attendee noted, “it was like the early Berks” in its focus on biography, but with the advantage of a couple decades worth of stellar scholarship on gender and sexuality to make our understanding of these three women’s lives that much more contextualized. I also attended a SHEAR (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic)/McNeil Center reception last night at a restaurant on the harbor within walking distance of all the hotels. Free beer and wine and a great selection of appetizers. I like those early Americanists!

Off to my own panel now but will keep my eye out for more to report on tomorrow, including the anti-Manchester protest.
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