Letters to the Editor

Reactions to the AHA's Cincinnati Decision

Various Authors, April 1994

Every AHA Member Can Feel Proud

We congratulate the AHA Council for moving the 1995 meeting away from Cincinnati. As a city officially hostile to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, Cincinnati was an inappropriate location for our annual meeting. Every AHA member can feel proud of the Council's decision.

We have urged our members to contribute towards the anticipated costs of this move, and we have already sent the AHA more than $1,300 collected for this purpose at the 1994 meeting.

Principles count when they are transformed into action and when people are willing to pay for them.

Judith M. Bennett
President
Conference Group on Women's History

Mary Elizabeth Perry
President
Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession

A Bitter and Confusing Fight

The reason for this letter is the decision of the organization to cancel the holding of the convention in Cincinnati in 1995. Yes, the voters of Cincinnati voted to amend the charter from enacting or enforcing laws that gave not only equal but special protection to lesbian and gay citizens. The amendment is now before the courts for their decision. It needs to be noted that the fight over this proposition was a confusing and bitter one. It pains me that the Association in its decision did not at least speak about the misuse of history employed by those who favored equal protection for gays and lesbians. I would suggest that the Association take a look at the commercials that saturated the airwaves of the area that accused all those who supported the proposition (and there were many who did so because they felt that the city's charter amendment was unnecessary given state and federal laws) as Nazis who should be destroyed.

Furthermore, how does the Association know that its members would be subject to discrimination based on sexual orientation if the meeting were held in Cincinnati? Have its members on travels to Cincinnati been discriminated against? Will it be the policy now of the Association only to hold its meetings in cities where there are specific ordinances that outlaw discrimination? I believe that these are legitimate questions for the Association to consider. Had I been financially able to attend the meeting in San Francisco I would have voiced them.

I was looking forward to attending the convention in Cincinnati. Erlanger, where I live, is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Now that the Association, in its attempts to be politically correct, has taken that opportunity away from me and many others in the Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky area, I will have to reevaluate whether membership is really worth the price.

Catherine Koch Schildknecht
Erlanger, Kentucky

Democracy, Not Discrimination, the Issue

AHA policy states that annual meetings will not be held "where its members would be subject to discrimination on the basis of ... sexual orientation under state or city laws. ..." The article in Perspectives (February 1994) did not allege a single instance of discrimination. The voters of Cincinnati merely made a democratic decision that the city should not address the issue. Has the AHA formally abandoned democracy?

Hubert P. van Tuyll
Augusta College

Elitism from the Ivory Tower

As a member of the American Historical Association, I am writing to express my extreme displeasure with the AHA's recent decision to move its 1995 annual meeting from Cincinnati. This action was totally without foundation and I, for one, am outraged.

The recent ballot initiative approved by the voters of Cincinnati was nothing more than a symbolic gesture that, in actuality, should be embraced as evidence of the eradication of antihomosexual attitudes from our society. Not the "antigay" referendum that gay-rights activists (and apparently our leadership) believes it to be, this referendum calls for the removal of laws and ordinances in the city charter that grant special rights and privileges to homosexuals. The removal of these ordinances does not deny "equal protection under the law" to homosexuals; in fact, it is because these rights are guaranteed by the federal and state governments that the city laws were deemed redundant and unnecessary.

The recent action by the AHA Council is indefensible! By taking the step, the AHA is exhibiting a haughty attitude that tells the general public that the exercise of their democratic rights, and the decisions that result, are only proper if the inhabitants of the "ivory tower" accept them as such. It is no wonder that the images of closed-mindedness and elitism haunt our members and have led to increased isolation from the very individuals we hope to educate. It should be made clear to the people of Cincinnati that the decision of the AHA Council does not reflect the attitudes and opinions of its entire membership. I offer my heartfelt apologies to the citizens of Cincinnati and I hope that the Council reconsiders this foolish act.

Stephen Dale Cronin
University of Delaware

Adhering to Principle on Human Rights

The AHA Council recognized that its decision to cancel Cincinnati as the 1995 meeting site would be a difficult and controversial one, and we made it only after carefully reviewing an extraordinarily detailed and careful background brief that our staff had compiled on the legal, financial, and political issues involved. That decision is far from being a clear precedent for future action, however, precisely because the action of Cincinnati's voters represented such a flagrant, even arrogant, disregard for human rights that our course of action in this instance was relatively easy to determine. The real difficulty was how to decide future situations that would likely be much harder to sort out. Indeed, this, I believe, was the principal ground for dissents by three Council members, who had no sympathy for Cincinnati but feared the implications of such a precedent. Most Council members, however, were convinced that we could and should adhere to our previously articulated principles in the Cincinnati case—which was clear and required immediate action—while deferring the thornier issues that might be presented by other potential meeting sites.

Thus the Association has been for some time now unequivocally committed to the principle of equal human rights in all of its operations and practices, but we are fully aware that deciding the precise modalities and protocols for enacting those principles will not always be clear or simple. Such difficulties demand careful deliberation and decision, I would argue, rather than the abdication of responsibility and principle represented by a refusal to decide these issues.

Thus we welcome a constructive conversation with our members about these matters, including sharp criticisms as well as positive suggestions, because the diversity of views will be helpful to us in resolving some of the complex issues that still confront us. But I will be quite blunt in stating that there are limits to this invitation to entertain a diversity of views: I do not welcome disingenuous arguments that merely camouflage an actual opposition to the principle of equal rights.

The right-wing sponsors of the Cincinnati referendum propagated the disingenuous campaign cover story that their proposal merely repealed ordinances giving "special" rights to gay and lesbian citizens. The effectiveness of that propaganda may be judged by its resuscitation in two of the letters above. The AHA Council was not convinced by that interpretation of either the intent or the potential effect of a referendum that, on its face, prohibited any legislative initiatives by city government on this subject. In my view this "special rights" position is but a "thin disguise"—as Justice Harlan phrased his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson—"for the wrong this day done."

Disturbing also is the second argument common to each of these letters: The notion that we should acquiesce to the Cincinnati vote in the name of majority rule. This is a curious position for American historians to take, since so much of the original debate about American democracy was concerned precisely with the problem of protecting minorities from tyrannical, self-righteous majorities. We also might reflect on the fact that Hitler came to power via majority rule. Majority rule may be the best system humans have yet devised for governing themselves, but it has never required that we close our eyes to injustice. The majority in Cincinnati has no "democratic" right to impose their bigotry on others. And certainly we have no obligation to support their efforts to do so.

Thomas C. Holt
President, AHA
University of Chicago