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ASLCH 2012 Presentation

I recently returned from the Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities, in Fort Worth, Texas. I had a very successful presentation and conference experience. I received solid academic feedback on my work and made several new friends and colleagues. The primary purpose of this post is sharing a version of my talk and key insights from it. The secondary purpose is sharing reflections on this particular conference.

Above: a youtube video of me reading through a practice of my talk. The video is 22.5 minutes long, a little longer than the actual 20 minute presentation I gave. But it’s fairly close to what I actually said at the conference.

This was my first time presenting any part of my dissertation. As such, the data and analysis are still very preliminary. Eventually, this part of my dissertation will explain divergent legal strategies around AIDS, but this preliminary analysis focuses instead on making sense of how the case law (through 1990) discusses the relationship between AIDS and sexuality. Here’s key takeaways from my presentation:

  • So far, the earliest HIV/AIDS litigation I’ve found is from 1985. This corresponds with when antibody tests became available, so this may make sense. Antibody tests made discrimination easier because they allowed for easier identification of HIV victims.
  • Most of the legal cases focus on HIV/AIDS as a disability. Early on, federal courts largely accepted that AIDS could be a disability under federal disability protection law. Litigation continued over what constituted reasonable accommodations and other related issues.
  • The court opinions largely construct AIDS stigma as independent of the stigma attached to lesbians and gay men. While opinions may have implicitly relied on the idea of AIDS as a gay disease in discussing AIDS stigma, it is surprising how little the opinions explicitly discuss sexuality. Instead, they focus on AIDS stigma as its own thing.
  • Similarly, the opinions construct AIDS as an epidemic largely independent of broader cultural discussions of AIDS as a gay disease and associated anti-gay backlash.
  • The cases that Lambda Legal argued suggest that combating hysteria around AIDS, even when it does not directly impact lesbians and gay men, may be a proper goal of an LGBT movement.

Because I often present my work to more social science oriented audiences, it was helpful to get feedback from a more legally oriented audience. In particular, I got important questions on how much this is just about the courts and the LGBT legal organizations using whatever laws are available. Disability law could fit, so they used it. The most helpful question came from the panel discussant, Noa Ben-Asher. Noa asked if I had thought about comparing the use of disability law in HIV cases with the use of medical narratives in transgender discrimination cases. She suggested that both seemed to deemphasize LGBT identities. I had not considered this comparison yet. But I have also done some preliminary analysis of post 2003 Title VII transgender discrimination cases, and the construction of the meaning of gender and disability in those cases. Noa’s question is worth pursuing, as part of either my current paper or as part of a new one.

This was the first time I attended ASLCH, and I am glad I went. The small atmosphere of the conference made it easy to meet and talk to people. Normally I’m lucky to get 15 minutes to talk to the discussant of the panel I’m on. This time the whole panel got lunch and dinner together, and I really got to know everyone a lot better. This is certainly a conference that I will think about returning to in the future.

So how did this compare to other conferences I attend? Law and Society Association is still in many senses my “home” conference. I love that at LSA, everyone is interested in the social meaning of the law. We need to be able to decenter the courts if we are going to understand how law matters in daily life. But this sometimes has the cost of losing track of formal law itself. At ASLCH, on the other hand, formal law was front and center. While the conferences are similar in considering cultural and social meanings of law, ASLCH was much more focused on formal law. And it was nice to have this alternate way to approach studying cultural meaning of the law.

This raises a more general key takeaway on preparing for conferences. I’m presenting versions of this paper later this summer at Law and Society Association, and then later in the summer at the American Sociological Association. And in some senses, this was just the “warmup” round. This forced me to get a first go at my analysis done. And now I can keep researching, rewriting, and improving. But at LSA and ASA, I’m not planning to just present updated versions of the same paper. I also consciously set out to use the different conferences to explore different angles on the same data. So at ASLCH, I focused on the cultural meaning of the case law itself. At LSA, I’ll focus a little more on the work of cause lawyers and social movements in shaping the law, tying it into the legal mobilization literature. And at ASA, I’ll focus a little more on the role of organizational identity in shaping divergent legal strategies of different LGBT legal organizations. This strategy will let me get feedback from different audiences on different angles on my research. If I talked to legal academics about organizational social movement theory, I might not get far. If I talked to sociologists about the content of case law, I might not get far. So then, I think a key part of my success at this conference was approaching the talk as not only a first run at a dissertation chapter, but more specifically as a chance to present an angle of my analysis to a particular audience.

Hope you enjoy the video. Feel free to leave comments or questions.


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