Standoff: Manchester Boycott Leadership vs American Historical Association

Cleve Jones is furious.

This coming January, the American Historical Association (AHA) is holding their 124th Annual Meeting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt here in San Diego, despite their knowledge of the ongoing boycott against that property and repeated appeals for them to move venues.

The Grand Hyatt’s owner not only contributed $125,000 to Proposition 8, he helped get it on the ballot. Prop 8 ended marriage equality for millions of Californians when it was narrowly passed in November 2008.

The AHA, founded in 1884, is a Washington D.C. based organization made up of 15,000 scholars and educators across the country, a large number of which are also in the LGBT community. It is the oldest and largest professional organization in the United States.

“I am profoundly disappointed that gay historians will be the first LGBT people to violate this boycott,” said Jones. “It is a slap in the face of the hard work of the LGBT community in San Diego.

“San Diego’s gay community has come so far after decades of struggle in this conservative city, and to have these out-of-towners come in and thumb their nose up – it’s unconscionable.”

Jones, a long-time gay activist and co-founder of the NAMES Project and AIDS Memorial Quilt, is currently the International Director of LGBT Community Programs for the labor union, UNITE HERE (which includes Hotel and Restaurant Employees). SDGLN.com spoke with Cleve at the union’s Local 30 offices in San Diego.

Although the Manchester property is not unionized, UNITE HERE has taken an official stance behind the boycott for several reasons. Most importantly, Jones pointed out, are the large numbers of gays and lesbians within the hospitality industry. Secondly, the LGBT community is also an important target market for the industry.

“UNITE HERE supports full equality for LGBT rights and fights for protections, ENDA inclusive language and health care benefits for employee partners in all contracts, which we just succeeded with in Hawaii,“ explained Jones. “We also look for any opportunity to further relationships with progressives by getting involved in things such as Proposition 8, local elections, and other contracts to support LGBT workers.”

Doug Manchester, a resident of La Jolla, says he contributed $125,000 to Prop 8 on behalf of ProtectMarriage.com because of his Roman Catholic beliefs, but also said that despite this, gays and lesbians are welcome at his hotel.

Said Jones, “He was the second largest individual contributor to get Proposition 8 on the ballot and he has a history of providing financial support to extreme right-wing, anti-gay, anti-worker organizations. He’s a bad guy.”

The boycott was launched in the spring of 2008 as a result of GLAAD pulling major events that corresponded with San Diego Pride out of the Hyatt. The action came after word got out of Manchester’s contribution. Since then, over $7 million dollars in contracts with the Manchester Grand Hyatt have been thwarted as a result of the boycott. Taking into account figures on individual cancellations and other potential lost revenue not tracked or included- it could be millions more.

Several different organizations are providing leadership for the boycott: Californians Against Hate, Courage Campaign, Equality California, and UNITE HERE. Leaders of the boycott have worked closely with dozens of organizations - many of which had been booked years in advance - encouraging their participation and helping them find loopholes in their contracts, if necessary. These same people have offered their services to the AHA but they have not been responsive.

Citing a contract that they finalized six years ago, the AHA states that if they could get out of their contract without facing bankruptcy or extreme hardship, they would. Their cancellation fee is $750,000.

“We looked at the contract very closely,” said Arnita Jones, Executive Director. “There is an anti-strike clause, and if the workers at the Hyatt were participating, we could have opted out, but there are no workers from the hotel on the picket line, and there is no official strike.”

Cleve feels their explanation for moving forward with the contract falls a dollar short.

“This is a labor sanctioned boycott. An official labor boycott,” he said. “I don’t want to lecture historians, but the AHA is being used by Manchester to violate the boycott.”

After the passing of Proposition 8, LGBT members of the AHA brought forth the issue at a smaller annual conference of the AHA last January. As a result, the AHA adopted a resolution, full of ways they could step into the conversation. Much to the chagrin of the boycott leadership, moving their annual meeting from the grounds of the Manchester Grand Hyatt was not one of them.

One of the first things the resolution did put forth was the creation of a LGBTQ Task Force “to take a careful look at all professional concerns of the community - at Grad school, in employment - what can be done to make it more welcoming, more equal, with less discrimination,” explained Arnita.

In addition, a Working Group was launched to advertise, request a call for papers and structure a series of special sessions on same-sex marriage to take place at the Hyatt during their Annual Meeting. In a press release announcing the resolution, the 2010 annual meeting was identified as “an opportunity to seize a significant teaching moment.”

“The AHA has a rich body of research on (the institution of) marriage throughout history, and it’s always been evolving,” she continued. “We think it is very important to take these sessions into the Hyatt and have a scholarly conference, with no specific point of view in mind.” On the AHA website, the Executive Committee refers to the sessions as "scholarly findings that should increase public understanding of the complexity and fluidity of marriage practices."

The 15 special sessions, according to the AHA website, fall under a special event titled, “Events of the AHA Working Group for Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage.” The sessions span each day of the four day conference, with Paper and Panel Topics on a wide range of related subjects, such as: Gay Marriage and Proposition 8, Reflections; Access Denied: Comparative Biopolitics of Marriage Restriction; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Marry; and, Male Couples and the Meanings of Same-Sex Love in Turn-of-the-Century Europe and America.

Arnita said the focus of these sessions will be on marriage over time and place, equality in other countries, and changes to marriage in the US. “Just in the last half century, things such as social security and health benefits have been added to marriage. In the early 19th century, women even didn’t have the same rights in a marriage. Marriage has never been static.”

Cleve Jones and others behind the boycott, including Californians Against Hate founder Fred Karger, already upset that the AHA will continue with their conference at the Hyatt, are offended that the AHA would consider holding any session with a LGBT focus inside the hotel that is in the midst of a boycott for LGBT reasons.

“This adds insult to injury – it is outrageous,” said Jones. “It is arrogant of the AHA and not helpful in any way. I recognize it is inconvenient, but standing up for one’s principles is often inconvenient.”

Karger agrees. “If they really want to make a statement, they’d take those sessions outside of the hotel.”

Both men stated they’d be happy to help the AHA find alternative spaces to conduct the special sessions, so people involved do not have to cross the picket line or violate the boycott.

Although the location of the conference remains a touchy subject- the AHA isn’t backing down.

Said Arnita Jones, “It has never been our intention to offend any member of the LGBTQ community. On the contrary, this mini-conference on historical perspectives of same-sex marriage is designed to make a serious and lasting contribution to the conversation on marriage equality. The 15-session event is a major focus of our annual meeting.

“The mini-conference will address the diversity of approaches to marriage and family over time and place,” she continued. “It is a direct response to arguments used by proponents of Proposition 8, that marriage has been the same through the ages and is now changing for the first time. By voting to hold these sessions in the Hyatt, the AHA members wanted to take this information to where we felt it was needed most.”

The AHA also states they are not paying for the meeting spaces, meaning Doug Manchester will not make any money from the meetings specifically. In keeping with their desire to make the sessions as public and as accessible as possible, they’ve even extended an invitation to Manchester, himself.

In addition, alternative hotels in the area have been offered up to the 5,000-6,000 expected attendees, and many are taking advantage of those alternatives. The AHA leadership is also encouraging membership dialogue and debate regarding their decisions, and promises to keep attendees informed of developments.

None of these concessions matter one bit to Cleve Jones, who feels the boycott still needs to be honored.

“Boycotts are a very important weapon and an effective tool," said Jones. “They give people of conscience who are not directly affected by an issue or struggle the opportunity to support that struggle.”

Now a union employee himself, Jones referenced Cesar Chavez’ 1965 nation-wide boycott of grapes in support of the farm workers union, which lasted five years and ended in agreements suitable to both parties. The whole nation participated in the boycott while the previously unsuitable conditions the boycott was bringing attention to, affected only a specific group of individuals.

“Manchester did real damage to our community. One would think that historians of all people…..” his voice trailed off. Jones has started SleepWithTheRightPeople.com which focuses on gay friendly hotel properties so travelers can plan accordingly. The website also highlights individual LGBT hospitality employees.

Karger, who has been directly involved in assisting organizations out of their contracts; is a little more sympathetic, he understands the predicament of rigid contracts, how binding they can be, and the difficult situation they can put organizations in.

“I appreciate their position, but I hope they will never go back to the Manchester Hyatt again.”

The leaders of the boycott repeatedly stated throughout each interview that the AHA is not considered the enemy to the LGBT community; they just don’t want the AHA supporting the enemy by following through with their conference at the property in question. The AHA, on the other hand, truly wants to educate the masses, including Manchester, with their focus on topics related to the challenges that have always surrounded marriage, as well as the LGBT community.

Both the boycott leadership and the AHA have such strong opinions, and both sides feel they are pushing for the right outcomes. In the end, it appears they will need to agree to disagree, but there may be bruised egos left behind on both sides.

Only one thing is for sure, Cleve Jones will be on the picket line come January, to personally welcome the gay and straight historians of the AHA upon their arrival to Doug Manchester's Grand Hyatt hotel.