Friday, January 8, 2010

The Journal of the Sexuality of History

Here's the top reason why history ranks number five on the list of best jobs. It's because we know how to have fun in the stacks and in the sack. That might seem counterintutive, given how fast the AHA hotel bars thinned out tonight (I cruised both, in hopes of gossip and, perhaps, a little more). But the real fun, as it turns out, was happening upstairs. It kept me up late. Way too late.

Next door to my room here in San Diego, two American historians, a fairly well-known middle-aged man and a rather younger woman, separated from my headboard by just a few inches of plaster, enacted a cliche and had a raucous, horizontal party of two.

Ha! I bet that if they knew that "History's Louella Parsons" shared a wall with them, an unwilling witness to their enthusiastic bi-coastuality, they would have kept it quiet.

Unlike those two, I'll keep it quiet, though I am tempted, sorely tempted to repeat that name whose shrill syllables penetrated my space at 1am. But hey, wouldn't want to tarnish my sterling reputation or tick off any department chairs.

As for my amorous neighbors, good for them that there are direct flights between the two cities where their universities are based...I'm just sayin'.

I'm sure there was a lot more extramarital activity going among my fellow historians here last night (though I was glad not to overhear it). Unfortunately, for many of these late-night partiers, unlike my heterosexual neighbors, the extramarital part was mandatory, not optional.

And that's what's really at stake here at the American Historical Association annual meeting.

Every AHA has a theme (this year's is "Oceans, Islands, and Continents"). No one other than the overworked members of the program committee and desperate graduate students hoping to get their first paper accepted ever pays attention to it. Even less so this year.

That's because the real theme at this year's conference has everything to do with what's martial and what's extramarital. It's not (despite my snarky comments about my randy neighbors) ultimately a story of who's boffing whom, but rather who's boffing whom with the approbation of the state and who isn't.

The main conference hotel this year is the Manchester Grand Hyatt, an over-the-top luxury resort on the San Diego waterfront. Its owner, magnate Douglas Manchester, gave $125,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8 that overturned Californians' hard-fought right to marriage equality. Local LGBTQ activists, joined by labor activists and queer historians, have launched a boycott of the hotel and they are asking all of us to refuse to cross their picket line. (A major protest is planned for 2pm on Saturday, the busiest day of the AHA convention). The AHA leadership responded by scheduling a conference-within-a-conference on the historical contingency of marriage.

Neither strategy will make much of a difference. The AHA sessions are meant to be transgressive, by raising the taboo of marriage as a historically-contingent reality right in the midst of the staid Manchester Hyatt--and inviting the public to join the event. Epic fail. The place is still a sea of badges--there's just not much of a public audience for history panels in conservative San Diego. And anyone who knows even the slightest bit about the history of marriage won't be surprised by what they hear.

But the boycott hasn't worked either. Manchester is a douchebag, but the picket line is just going to make a bunch of liberal historians uneasy ("Should I cross the picket line? should I not?" "What about my interview with Straight State? It's the only job in my field this year") while the hotelier laughs his way to the bank.

I might just be too polite, but I respect the AHA's good faith effort to turn the conference into a teachable moment, and I respect the boycotters' justifiable anger. Whatever happens on Saturday afternoon, I'll be outside the Hyatt, notebook in hand, reporting on what happens. It's bound to be a performance worth watching.


  1. You stay classy, San Diego.

  2. We who have ever lived in a glass hotel room will not be tossing bricks, but you have certainly set this Radical mind to thinking about something more interesting than a boycott. Forge on, C. Vann, forge on!

  3. Any chance you'd consider a dark-on-light theme? This fucking white on black shit is fucking impossible to read.

  4. Huh, I could not get laid at the last two AHAs to save my life.

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