Historians and LGBT Rights

(cross-posted from my professional life at Campus Progress)

Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the federal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 led by star attorneys and former rivals Ted Olsen and David Boies, continued today with expert testimony from two historians of marriage, family, and LGBT history. Nancy Cott, a Harvard professor who specializes in the history of marriage and the family, and George Chauncey, a Yale professor who specializes in LGBT history, testified on the historical context of Prop. 8 and what American legal history has to say on the state’s involvement in marriage and in the lives of its LGBT citizens—which is quite a lot. Cott testified predominantly about how marriage is a dynamic institution which has changed over the course of American history, and which thus could change to accommodate same-sex couples as well; Chauncey’s testimony is still continuing since the court is on Pacific time, but so far he’s talked about the discrimination gays and lesbians have historically faced in America, going over some of the info he discusses in his award-winning book Gay New York, about that city in the pre-World War II period. (Full disclosure: I’m a serious Chauncey fan; I go all giggly and fluttery when his scholarship is discussed.)

As a history student, what this all demonstrates to me is the incredible relevance the study of history has to something like a court case—indeed, Chauncey first became famous for organizing the so-called “Historians Brief” in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case which found sodomy laws unconstitutional. When a lasting American institution like marriage or, indeed, homosexuality is under discussion, the court needs historians to contextualize and interpret the present moment’s relevance to the historical narrative. You could even read the Prop. 8 proponents’ cross-examination of Prof. Cott this morning as a way of performing historiography: trying to get Cott to reinterpret what she’d said about the history of marriage to make it seem as if same-sex couples have less of a claim to that institution than her testimony had previously suggested. Of course, that didn’t happen, since the Olsen-Boies side knows what they’re doing, but it was interesting all the same.

What this further reminds me is that courtrooms are an awfully academic environment in comparison to grassroots protesting, ballot-box lobbying, and other forms of activism. For example, whereas these courtroom supporters of LGBT rights are positively relying on the expert testimony of historians, last week’s grassroots LGBT activists saw the expert testimony of historians at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association as a slap in the face of LGBT San Diegans, who have committed to a boycott of the hotel where the annual meeting took place.

Why this divide between the intellectualism of courtroom politics and the seeming anti-intellectualism of grassroots politics? (I read the San Diegan activists’ actions as a basic lack of belief in the relevance of, or perhaps misunderstanding of, what it is exactly that historians do.) I’m not sure—maybe some of you know—but I am interested to see whether the trial, which also includes testimony from a number of non-expert witnesses, will tell us.

In any case, it’s a constant reminder that LGBT rights is by no means a monolithic movement, and that each person who claims to be part of it may have radically different goals and angles for the movement.

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