On the AHA, the Manchester Hyatt, and Why the Modern LGBT Rights Movement Is Screwed

I read this article in my old wreck of a hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and to me it represents many of the problems of mission and message facing the LGBT rights movement as it enters another decade. Excuse me briefly while I blockquote extensively:

Waving signs reading: “We All Deserve the Freedom to Marry,” more than 200 gay-rights activists and union members representing hotel employees rallied outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt on Saturday in the latest protest over the owner’s support for a ban on gay marriage.

The protesters banged on drums and waved rainbow flags while chanting “Boycott the Hyatt — Check! Out! Now!”

The rally targeted the American Historical Association, which decided to hold its annual conference this week at the Grand Hyatt despite an ongoing boycott.

About 4,000 association members — a tweedy mix of college professors, history teachers and librarians — are attending the conference that organizers decided to hold rather than pay steep cancellation penalties.


Marie McDaniel, 30, from the doctoral program in early-American history at the University of California Davis, said she regretted that moving the conference elsewhere wasn’t an option.

“I think that while many historians are in support of (the boycott), it would hurt them more than the hotel,” she said, “so they decided to do what historians can do, which is increase dialogue.”

McDaniel said she gave a presentation on intermarriage in the 18th century, showing the evolution of attitudes about such unions. For example, she said, German Lutherans used to marry only within the faith, but eventually some married Anglicans and “that was no longer seen as so awful,” she said.


Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups started the boycott. Local unions have their own disputes with Manchester over labor issues at the nonunion hotel, which has 900 employees. The unions object to what they describe as excessive workloads for housekeepers; they also want to ensure job security if the hotel eventually is sold.

Commerford contended that the unions just want money, estimating that the hotel-workers union Unite Here would get $2.2 million a year in dues if the hotel were organized. He said the workers don’t want a union and noted that the housekeepers have a 4.5 percent turnover rate, much lower than the industry average.

Cleve Jones, who works with Unite Here and has been active in gay-rights advocacy, said the boycott won’t end until certain demands are met, including a public apology from Manchester and labor concessions.

“The solution is for Mr. Manchester to sit down with the community,” Jones said. “There is no one single demand to end the boycott.”

There’s a lot going on here, but I’m going to try to keep it simple.

1. It was wrong for Jones, Unite Here, and the California marriage equality groups to target the AHA. The historians have made it perfectly clear that they booked the Hyatt in 2003, which (if you’re keeping track) is quite a long time before either Prop. 8 or Manchester’s record on labor issues became clear. Had the historians cancelled the reservation, they would have had to pay $600,000 to the hotel—more money in Doug Manchester’s pockets, which is obviously the exact opposite of what’s ideal here. The AHA reportedly devoted more sessions this year to anything even tenuously related to marriage equality or LGBT rights than they have in their entire history. That’s a victory of a different kind for queer and family historians, and it’s worth noting.

2. Technically speaking, the historians were not violating any great ethical standard by going ahead with the conference. The San Diego LGBT community boycott on the Hyatt is an unofficial institution that probably very few people outside of the San Diego LGBT community know anything about; what’s more, it became official as of Pride 2008, and so the AHA booking predates the boycott. What’s more, there was no picket line to cross until the Cleve Jones camp decided to put one there. There was some shaming of historians who would choose to cross a picket line to go to interviews in the Hyatt, but that’s a highly unfair and undeserved position in which to put the historians, who have gone out of their way to rectify this situation.

3. Now, let’s think about who on which side of this conflict is doing more to further the cause of LGBT Americans. Is it the likes of Cleve Jones—who became famous again because some folks made a movie about his mentor and he was played by Emile Hirsch—who decided to protest, to be fair, a legitimately evil institution in San Diego on the day that some thousands of historians happened to be there, or is it the historians, who devoted a disproportionately large segment of their annual meeting to discussing the history of marriage, despite the fact that marriage is not the only issue facing LGBT Americans today?

Yes, Doug Manchester is evil. Yes, there are reasons not to book your San Diego vacation there. But instead of hating on the historians, maybe the San Diego LGBT groups should consider what the historians are doing to remember their movement, to contextualize their movement, to keep the knowledge of what they’ve done for the past forty or fifty years alive and to understand how an interconnecting set of factions have worked together. The historians have done the research—they’re going to be the ones telling you just how necessary it is for marriage equality to be the be-all and end-all of LGBT rights. And they’re going to be the ones telling you—as I, proto-historian, am telling you now—that Prop. 8 happened. It sucked. But it’s over, and it’s time to move on. It’s time to get over this petty tug-of-war about state-by-state marriage, and to focus on the things that will actually change people’s lives, actually make them equal in practice.

Listen, SD LGBT groups, I’m from San Diego. I volunteered for the No on 8 campaign, I went to the rallies and protests after it, I’ve stood on University Avenue in Hillcrest and watched the Pride parade go by. And I’m telling you that this is the wrong fight. Maybe you should look to the public schools in your city, where queer kids aren’t safe (and yes, I’ve been there too, and there was a reason why I know so many queer kids who dropped out or went to school across the city or across the country). Maybe you should take an interest in immigration issues, and try to keep together cross-border couples who, while they can’t get married, still would like to stay together. Maybe you should to AIDS work, or work with queer homeless people. Maybe you could even look outside of your city and outside of your country, where being gay carries a death sentence. And if I were Equality California and I were strategizing about whom to pick a fight with, the American Historical Association so wouldn’t be it.

Historians are your allies, San Diego queers! You need them—us!—to remind the kids who didn’t know that there was an LGBT rights movement before Prop. 8 that others have fought for issues besides marriage before them. Frankly, unless this movement sharply reevaluates itself, and decides to try to work on life-and-death situations instead of throwing a hissy fit at the AHA, I don’t know what hope in hell it has of achieving success in the so-called civil rights battle of our generation.

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