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

9260650131_90b0efe99d_b
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Launching a Serious Run at Apple and Samsung

Television

Slim Pickings at the Network TV Bazaar

Three talented actresses in three terrible shows.

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?