Photo Credit: Susanne Pommer/Shutterstock.com
After enacting some of the country’s most regressive anti-trans legislation in April 2021, Arkansas is likely to become the thirteenth state subject to California’s ban on publicly-funded travel to states with anti-LGBT laws. AB1887, enacted in 2016 and effective as of 2017, currently applies to eight southern states (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas), three in the Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota), and one in the West (Idaho).
I am a queer historian and support many boycotts, but AB1887, proposed and promoted by California’s LGBTQ Legislative Caucus, is a major threat to research on the queer past. It paradoxically hinders the production of knowledge that might serve as an effective counterweight to bigotry.
Recent debates about boycotting Israel, France, and the state of Georgia remind us that the history and politics of boycotts are complicated: interested readers may wish to explore a 2019 special issue of Radical History Review to see how and why. Two important questions are when and whether intellectual work should be exempt from boycotts. Given the importance of historical and other scholarship to legal cases that have overturned discriminatory laws, should California amend its statute to permit state-funded travel for research and educational activities that support LGBT and other struggles for social justice?
My first encounter with AB1887 occurred just after it was implemented in 2017. I was planning to return to North Carolina to continue work on a research project inspired by that state’s adoption of a controversial anti-trans bathroom law, one of the main catalysts for California’s adoption of AB1887. As a historian of gender and sexuality, I was doing my job: asking questions about the historical contexts for North Carolina’s contemporary political struggles.
While contemplating how I could make my historical expertise useful, I remembered Maxine Doyle Perkins, a trans woman and sex worker from Charlotte who had been sentenced to 20-30 years in prison in 1962 for a “crime against nature.” Perkins appealed her sentence and in 1964 won an unlikely victory in federal district court. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1932 Scottsboro Boys ruling, the judge determined that Perkins had not received a fair trial because her lawyer did not have sufficient time to interview witnesses or prepare for litigation.
This was a big deal at the time. The decision was covered by the Charlotte Observer, the Carolina Israelite, the New Republic, TIME, and other national publications. I learned about it from an editorial in Drum, the most widely-circulating gay movement magazine in the United States in the mid-1960s.
But to follow up on my initial research, I had to visit a state that California was now boycotting. Some of the periodicals I needed were accessible to me in California, but much of the local media coverage was only available on microfilm in North Carolina libraries and archives.
Many people presume that historical research of this nature can be done on the internet, but that is far from true. The newspapers I needed to review had not been digitized and they had not been indexed. I could not order the articles through interlibrary loan, since I did not have citations for them. I just had a series of key dates (for arrests, trials, appeals, and decisions) and needed to read through several hundred microfilmed newspapers to find additional media stories.
I also knew that this research might be helpful for people damaged by anti-trans laws. In 2016, I published a short article based on my preliminary research on the Perkins case. Almost immediately, it was cited and discussed by trans studies scholars in a legal brief in Carcaño v. McCrory (2016), a Fourth Circuit case challenging the North Carolina law.
So I made plans to build on that work by travelling to North Carolina in 2017.
This is when AB1887 became a problem. Because I work at a state university in California, my initial reimbursement request for my upcoming travel to North Carolina was rejected based on the state law. It did not matter that my research could not be conducted elsewhere; it did not matter that my work had already been used in litigation challenging North Carolina’s law; it did not matter that additional research in North Carolina might prove useful for LGBT struggles in California, North Carolina, and elsewhere.
At this point I could have given up, but I persisted in trying to get an exemption and eventually succeeded. University administrators found two reasons to reverse their decision. First, I had purchased my plane ticket before the law went into effect, which meant I was eligible under one of the law’s seven exceptions. Second, I had submitted my request not to the university itself but to a separate, university-affiliated corporation that manages the endowment that supports my named chair and its research funding. Thus, technically, my research funding does not come from the state.
This solved the immediate problem for me, but not the larger problem for other scholars. Almost everyone else in the University of California and California State University systems—a group that includes more than 750,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 250,000 faculty and staff —has effectively lost public funding for research in the states covered by the boycott. The research and educational activities of California’s faculty and students might very well support LGBT and other struggles in some of the country’s most conservative states, but California LGBT legislators apparently believe that this is an acceptable sacrifice to make in service of a greater good.
I think they are wrong: not because of academic freedom, but because the greater good in this case includes supporting research that could help to reverse these and other oppressive laws. In an effort to initiate a conversation about this, in 2017 I wrote to several state legislators, including State Senator Scott Wiener, an openly gay man who represents my San Francisco district. I have voted for Wiener and will likely vote for him again. I expressed support for the boycott, but asked whether the legislators would consider supporting an amendment to AB1887 that would permit exceptions for LGBT-affirmative research and education. Over the next few years, I occasionally followed up with additional messages to Wiener and other state legislators, but did not receive a reply until 2020, when one of Wiener’s aides encouraged me to contact State Assembly Member Evan Low, the author of AB1887 and currently the chair of the state’s eight-member LGBTQ Legislative Caucus.
Last year, I wrote repeatedly to Wiener’s and Low’s legislative aides. When they finally replied they put me in touch with a group of legislative staff who seemed quite sympathetic. It seemed that the elected representatives may not have understood the impact that AB1887 would have on LGBT-affirmative research and education.
Frankly I think they were embarrassed. Wiener and Low are at the forefront of LGBT struggles in California, but state legislators often pass laws without considering their impact on state colleges and universities. Staff members who communicated with me, presumably acting on behalf of the legislators, seemed open to persuasion and encouraged me to seek broader and organizational support for reform, which I did.
In the spring, summer, and fall of 2020, I reached out to approximately fifty LGBTQ studies scholars in California, along with the California Faculty Association, the Committee on LGBT History (a membership organization that represents more than 300 historians, primarily in the United States), and the LGBTQ standing committees of the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians.
I received no major expressions of concern about my recommendations and multiple expressions of support: the only hesitation related to timing because of the COVID pandemic. The Committee on LGBT History’s co-chairs submitted a letter of support to the legislative aides who had recommended that I seek broader and organizational support, as did several individual scholars. The AHA’s executive director, James Grossman, indicated that the AHA’s leadership would consult with the Committee on LGBTQ Status in the Profession. In January 2021, AHA President Jacqueline Jones sent a letter on behalf of the AHA Council to Wiener, Low, and the California LGBTQ Legislative Caucus. The letter stated, in part:
While we support the principles underlying AB1887 in promoting equitable LGBTQ-related policies in other states, the law has limited the ability of faculty, students, and others who work or study at state higher education institutions in California and historians in other state agencies to conduct research, deliver presentations, or participate in conferences and workshops that would also support social change on LGBTQ or other equity issues in some of the very places where that work is most needed. We are especially concerned that this boycott restricts the work of graduate students and early career scholars, preventing them from completing research that would actually showcase the significance of LGBTQ life, among other pressing subjects, in targeted states.
The AHA letter correctly noted that AB1887 affects more than just historians and other researchers in LGBTQ studies. California faculty and students are also currently blocked from funded travel to twelve states for research and education on “other equity issues” and “other pressing subjects.” California currently denies funding, for example, to faculty and graduate students who research slavery in Mississippi, lynching in Alabama, segregation in South Carolina, and race riots in Oklahoma. The state blocks funded travel for work on abolitionism in Kansas, populism in Iowa, suffragism in Tennessee, and progressivism in Idaho. California researchers cannot apply for state-funded reimbursement when they study Latinx people in Texas, Asian Americans in Kentucky, Native Americans in South Dakota, and LGBT people in North Carolina.
Not making exceptions for research that supports social justice is counter-productive. I do not consider myself an expert on boycotts, but I have done a little research, especially on the history of international campaigns against South Africa and Israel and queer campaigns against Coors Beer and Florida orange juice. From what I have learned, boycott advocates often debate both the scope of the boycotts and the exceptions that might be justified. The contemporary Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, for example, is quite specific about targeting Israeli state institutions and does not reject travel to Israel for Palestinian solidarity work or academic research. The South African anti-apartheid movement called for a sweeping economic and cultural boycott of that country, but made exceptions for academic researchers whose work would contribute to the struggle against apartheid. In both cases, there was a well-developed sense of deference to local assessments of strategies and goals. The opposite seemingly occurred recently, when African American leaders in Georgia were put in awkward positions by Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta. I recently asked LGBT legislators in California if they had consulted with LGBT communities in states likely to be covered by AB1887. They did not respond.
Many boycotts include exceptions, and these often exempt individuals and projects whose activities might further the underlying political goals. In fact in 2019 the university-affiliated corporation that supports my research passed a resolution supporting AB1887 in general, but indicating that funding would be provided on a case-by-case basis when there is a “compelling justification.” Even AB1887 has seven exceptions, one of which references projects to protect public health, welfare, or safety. Why these exceptions and not one that would cover research and education on LGBT and other social justice issues?
Some critics of my position have argued that there should be alternative funding sources to support travel and research by California faculty and students to the twelve states currently covered by AB1887. After all, that is how I have managed to continue engaging in funded research travel to North Carolina. I certainly would not oppose that. But it is not clear what the sources of those funds would be and it seems like a misguided solution. California should take pride in the queer studies and social justice work of its faculty and students. Legislators should affirmatively support such work, and not just for faculty and students who need to travel to LGBT-friendly states such as Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont.
A boycott can proceed at the same time as researchers mobilize for social justice. But AB1887, badly worded and poorly conceptualized, prevents that. Its authors failed to consult with faculty and students who work in LGBTQ studies or LGBTQ people who live in the targeted states. Undoubtedly well-intentioned, AB1887 has become yet another chapter in the long and sorry story of limiting public spending on humanities, social science, and social justice research.
California also has exacerbated existing inequities. Senior scholars like me can get around AB1887, most obviously by paying for research travel ourselves, hiring local research assistants, or tapping into well-developed research networks. In contrast, graduate students and junior faculty do not typically have named chairs or salaries that can be stretched to pay for research.
Most importantly, research-based knowledge can help us fight the kinds of bias that produce anti-LGBT laws–in courts and in the court of public opinion. We need more funded research and education in the worst U.S. states for LGBT rights, not less. This is precisely the time to fight back with everything we have against all efforts to constrain and limit support for social justice research and education.
For sharing their knowledge about boycotts against Israel and South Africa, I thank Catherine Besteman, Timothy Burke, Trevor Getz, and Sarah Schulman. Thanks also to Jorge Olivares and Claire Potter for their comments and suggestions.
Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University. His next book, Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism, will be published by the University of California Press in 2022.
14 thoughts on “When a Boycott Blocks Queer Research”