South Carolina Legislators Punish Colleges for Assigning Gay Books

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Feb. 20 2014 3:55 PM

South Carolina Champions Academic Freedom ... by Punishing Colleges for Assigning Gay Books

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The College of Charleston.

Photo courtesy of the College of Charleston.

Do you understand diversity and academic freedom? If you’re not sure, you might want to check with South Carolina’s Garry Smith, a Republican state representative, who just yesterday demonstrated his considerable expertise on those subjects by proposing punitive reductions to the budgets of two SC colleges that had assigned books that acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people.*

The books in question are Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s highly acclaimed account of her childhood (presided over by her closeted gay dad) and her own eventual coming out as lesbian, and Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a collection of personal narratives that originally appeared on Rainbow Radio, “South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show.” The College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate assigned the texts, respectively, as part of their incoming freshmen orientation programs.

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According to an AP report, Smith submitted the proposal after he learned that students were not given the option of reading other, presumably non-gay, selections. Such a lack of options, he said, amounted to the “promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.” (I can’t imagine what would have happened if a truly propagandistic book like David Halperin’s dangerously seductive How to Be Gay had been assigned—oh wait, I don’t have to.) While even some of Smith’s own Republican colleagues felt the proposal went too far toward academic censorship—one called it “stupid”—the measure has been tentatively approved by the House budget committee.

Smith’s use of “lifestyle” deserves little more than a sigh at this point, but his disturbing vision of the purpose of a university-level education is worth noting. His concern that students aren't being allowed a choice in their assignments not only smacks of the segregationist logic currently being tried out in various state anti-gay "religious liberty" laws; it also reveals a corporate ideal that has become depressingly common in higher education. Students are consumers and universities are there to provide what the customer wants—or better yet, what they are comfortable with. Forget about challenging unexamined prejudices, and don’t worry about promoting critical thinking skills, a wider and richer understanding of the world, and, indeed, actual academic debate: Students (or perhaps parents) should just be able to strike whatever they don’t like from the syllabus.

The trouble is, if your goal is to excise scary gay stuff, that route pretty quickly gets you to a place where Homer’s Iliad (one of the seminal texts of Western literature) would need to be cut—unless you want Achilles and Patroclus promoting their homoerotic lifestyle all over the seminar table. Smith and his ilk most assuredly don’t want that; and, based on their willingness to entertain this kind of embarrassing intellectual prudery, they apparently don’t want South Carolina college students to come out of the state system any wiser or more prepared for work in a diverse world than when they entered it. If students are indeed customers, let’s hope that a bunch of them start asking to see the manager before another semester passes.   

*Correction, Feb 24, 2014: This post originally misspelled Rep. Garry Smith's first name. 

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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