Bioethics Forum Essay

Attention Shoppers: LBGTQ Rights Apparently Not Worth $6.67 to the American Psychological Association

Using the power of one’s wallet to effect social change: that’s got to be one of the best-loved steps in the beautiful dance we call American democracy. And so leaders in the LBGT activist community have called for a boycott of businesses owned by individuals who contributed to California’s Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment that rolled back the right to marriage for same-sex couples in California.

The Manchester Hyatt Hotel, in San Diego, is one of those businesses. Its owner, Doug Manchester, contributed $125,000 in an effort to stop gay and lesbian Californians from being allowed to marry. Nevertheless, executives of the American Psychological Association (APA) have opted to go ahead and use the Manchester Hyatt as a headquarter hotel for the APA’s 2010 meeting, against the vocal objections of many of the APA’s own members.

What’s especially striking is that the APA seems to be violating its own policies in this matter. As Psychologists for Social Responsibility noted on its blog, “the APA’s 2004 policy statement on sexual orientation and marriage includes a specific resolution that the association ‘shall take a leadership role in opposing all discrimination in legal benefits, rights, and privileges against same-sex couples.’” Meanwhile, the APA’s own ethics code specifically states as a principle that “psychologists respect and protect civil and human rights.” So what gives?

Apparently, the APA is just not willing to put its money where its mouth is. A letter from APA President Carol Goodheart indicates that it would cost the APA about a million dollars to reneg on its contract, made years earlier, with the Manchester Hyatt. Sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but that amount comes to only about 1.03% of the APA’s annual budget. This was pointed out to me by James Cantor, a psychologist at the University of Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who is among those now calling for a reactive boycott of the APA’s meeting.

Cantor writes, “That APA would trade its support of civil rights for a (max) 1.03% budgetary interest is unacceptable to me as an APA member.” Moreover, “The APA President wrote recently that $3.5 million in unanticipated funds had been acquired.” Yet the APA still won’t consider pulling out of the Manchester Hyatt? Concludes Cantor, “This isn’t financial stewardship; this is civil rights having lost its place as an APA priority.”

As a consequence, those calling for a boycott of the APA’s meeting are hoping to convince at least 3,700 APA members who would otherwise attend the conference to skip it. (Usually about 14,000 attend.) The cost to the APA would come to about the million dollars they are claiming is at stake.

What’s particularly troubling in this whole controversy is that the APA leadership has refused to provide copies of the contract with the Manchester Hyatt to those members who have wanted to see if there might be a viable “escape” clause in the contract. Where’s the transparency? Writes Cantor, “this blocks any kind of independent review. Moreover, there have been no statements regarding why the APA legal office would have failed to protect APA by using such clauses, nor how APA might review its procedures for handling million dollar contracts.”

Other professional associations have backed out of holding their meetings at the Manchester Hyatt, including the American Association of Law Schools, the American Association of Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America), the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the California Nurses Association, the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations, and the International Foundation of Employee Benefits.

That the APA would choose to put its members’ money in the pockets of Doug Manchester seems especially ironic given that psychological studies suggest sexual minorities’ mental health is negatively affected by discrimination. Imagine if the most prominent association of pulmonologists held their meeting at a hotel owned by a tobacco pusher. Only here we’re talking not just about health, but about civil rights. It’s really hard to imagine the APA knowingly funneling its members’ dollars into the coffers of someone who supported legislation to roll back the civil rights of, say, African-Americans or Jews.

As a member of the American Historical Association (AHA), I’d be remiss if I did not mention that the AHA went through with its contract to use the Manchester Hyatt, but, as Cantor notes, the AHA “allocated $100,000, or $6.67/member, for educational campaigns regarding same-sex marriage. Had the 150,000-member APA also allocated $6.67 per member, it would have covered the costs of a worst-case Hyatt lawsuit.”

Apparently, the APA has decided that civil rights for LBGT people comes at a cost, and that the cost is just too high at $6.67 per member. Talk is cheaper.

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Hastings Bioethics Forum essays are the opinions of the authors, not of The Hastings Center.

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