News Sexuality

South Carolina Lawmakers Consider Cutting Colleges’ Funding Over LGBT Books

Martha Kempner

A South Carolina house committee has passed a budget that includes fiscal punishment for two state-funded schools that assigned "gay-themed" books to students.

Last month, amid all the discussions involved in passing a $7 billion state budget, South Carolina lawmakers took a few minutes to punish state schools for assigning “gay-themed” books as part of required reading lists. If the budget, which was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee, is passed, the University of South Carolina (USC) Upstate will lose some $17,550 in state funds for asking students to read Outloud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, while the College of Charleston will lose $52,000 for having assigned the graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Outloud is a 2010 collection of essays and poems from members of the LGBT community living in the South. Based on a radio show that began in 2005, the book focuses “on how [the authors’] sexuality affected their life experiences in the traditionally conservative Bible Belt.”

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is about the author’s childhood growing up above a funeral home with an angry and depressed father who ultimately committed suicide. Bechdel, who is a lesbian, later learns that her father was a closeted homosexual. Published in 2006, the book spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has won numerous awards from gay and lesbian groups; it has now also been adapted as a musical.

The College of Charleston chose Fun Home as part of a program called “The College Reads,” through which the entire campus reads one book each year. According to the school’s website, the program is “designed to connect students, faculty, and staff around a single book to promote the idea that liberally educated people read broadly and discuss with one another ideas arising from the books they share.” The controversy over its choice of this year’s book actually began last summer, when Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, said he was concerned with the “coarseness” of the book and, to a lesser extent, the fact that the author was a lesbian. “I’m not sure that would be our leading concern, but it is part of our concern because it’s promoting that lifestyle,” he told the Charleston City Paper. The Palmetto Family Council, which was started in association with both Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, says its mission is to “transform the culture in South Carolina by reclaiming the values and virtues of marriage, the traditional family model, and sexual purity.”

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It is unclear whether the group’s criticism is what spurred action on the house committee or if members of the committee learned of the book another way. Regardless, Rep. Garry Smith (R-Simpsonville) argued during the budget hearing that these books represent a “promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate” and said he was upset that the schools did not provide students who didn’t want to read these particular books with alternatives. On Twitter, he wrote, “[C]ritical thinking allows for both sides to be freely debated, not pushing a social agenda [of] a few.”

Smith suggested cutting the school’s budget for the coming year as a financial punishment. He told the The State, “One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt.” The College of Charleston’s penalty was calculated based on the school having spent $39,000 to buy 4,000 copies of the book for the students and another $13,000 to bring Bechdel to campus in October. Similarly, the cut to the USC Upstate’s budget reflects how much that school spent on copies of Outloud.

Many of Smith’s committee colleagues thought his measure went too far. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) said it wasn’t up to lawmakers to push their own agendas on college campuses; she said the move gives the state a bad name. Rep. Joe Neal (D-Hopkins) called the measure akin to killing a gnat with a sledgehammer. Harsher criticism came from Rep. Jim Merrill (R-Charleston), who said, “This might make us feel better, but it’s kind of stupid.”

Fellow Republican Rep. B.R. Skelton (Six Mile), a retired Clemson University professor, went so far as to propose an amendment to strike the punishment from the budget, saying that the retributions were not appropriate. When his amendment failed, Skelton proposed a second one that would have required the committee to approve every college reading list in the state. That amendment, which appeared to have been designed to make a point, was pulled before the budget vote.

College of Charleston President P. George Benson noted in a statement, “Any university education must include the opportunity for students to engage controversial ideas. Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such at the College of Charleston. … Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught.”

Bechdel also responded to the controversy, telling Publishers Weekly, “It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book—a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.”

Students at USC Upstate protested the decision as well. Sophomore Kaitlyn Ward, who participated in an online protest over the proposed cuts, told the Spartanburg Herald Journal, “I think it’s ridiculous to punish a school for a book that is supposed to open eyes. … Everyone’s story should be told. I feel like we should be mature enough in college to realize that some people may live differently than others.”

The full house is set to take up the budget on March 10.

News Law and Policy

South Carolina GOP Launches Discriminatory ‘Bathroom Bill’ Attack

Teddy Wilson

“We have this more conservative legislature that really understands the power of using fear as a tactic to drive political wedges to further divide communities and further divide votes,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “This gives them an open door to move their agenda forward.”

The South Carolina legislature failed to pass a North Carolina-style anti-transgender bathroom discrimination law, but GOP legislators in the state introduced a bill this week targeting a school district that implemented a transgender-inclusive policy.

Republican lawmakers throughout the South have introduced legislation that targets the transgender community and attempts to limit transgender people’s access to bathrooms and other facilities.

Several of the proposals have used similar language to a North Carolina GOP-backed law passed in March. When a South Carolina lawmaker introduced a similar bill in April, it was met with fierce opposition.

State Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) introduced S 1203, which would have prohibited local municipalities from creating “local laws, ordinances, orders, or other regulations” that would “allow a person to use a multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility regardless of the person’s biological sex.”

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The measure would have prohibited government buildings and public schools from implementing a transgender-inclusive bathroom policy.

Bright said that he’s against “men who claim to be women” using the same restrooms as children, reported the Associated Press. “I don’t believe transgender people are pedophiles,” Bright said. “I think grown adult men would use this as protection to violate women in the restroom.”

Many of those who testified opposed the bill during a committee hearing.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the bill was an attack on transgender people that could come with negative economic consequences, reported Reuters. “This bill is an undisguised attack on some of our most talented and most vulnerable citizens,” Benjamin said.

The anti-transgender bill died in committee.

Lawmakers on the committee said they didn’t “need to make the mistakes” made by North Carolina Republicans, and Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said the law wasn’t necessary

“When I look at South Carolina, we look at our situations, we’re not hearing of anybody’s religious liberties that are being violated, and we’re again not hearing any citizens that feel like they’re being violated in terms of freedoms,” Haley said, reported the Washington Post.

Despite the failure of Bright’s bill, lawmakers still seem intent on creating discriminatory bathroom policy.

S 1306, sponsored by Sen. Lawrence Grooms (R-Charleston) and Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Goose Creek), would prohibit “a person of one sex” from using the restrooms, locker rooms, showers or any other facility “designated for use by the opposite sex.”

The law would apply to Berkeley County school facilities, located in the Charleston metropolitan area. Berkeley County this spring became South Carolina’s first public school district to implement a case-by-case transgender-inclusive bathroom policy.

Grooms told the Associated Press that his bill is intended to require the Berkeley County School District (BCSD) to follow the same policies as other school districts in the state. “What I’ve done for the children of Berkeley County and their parents is to give them some degree of stability about what the policies will be,” Grooms said.

BCSD spokesperson Katie Orvin told the Post and Courier that the school district does not have a written policy addressing bathroom usage.

“BCSD implements current anti-discrimination policies under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Education and in accordance with Title IX,” Orvin said.

The Berkeley County School Board held the BCSD decision after a public hearing and a closed-door meeting with the district’s legal counsel.

Board Chair Jim Hayes read a statement after the hearing, saying the school district would “maintain and respect the privacy rights of all its students” while permitting transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

“School administrators will continue to manage requests made by, or on behalf of, transgender students in reference to the use of restroom facilities for the remainder of the 2015-2016 school year in hopes of receiving a clearly defined direction from the Courts prior to the start of the upcoming school year,” the statement said.

Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, a national grassroots organization, told Rewire that the legislative movement targeting transgender people is “rooted in fear.”

“We have this more conservative legislature that really understands the power of using fear as a tactic to drive political wedges to further divide communities and further divide votes,” Simpson said. “This gives them an open door to move their agenda forward.”

Simpson said that attempts to target the transgender community is part of a larger strategy of targeting marginalized people.

“How can we believe our legislators have our best interests at heart, if you are going to publicly and intentionally do something that is attacking the vulnerable of our society?” Simpson said.

News Abortion

This Democratic-Dominated Legislature Won’t Stop Attacking Abortion Access

Teddy Wilson

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others.

You might not expect anti-choice measures to churn through a legislature in which Republicans hold 15 percent of the seats.

But it’s in Rhode Island that Democrats, not GOP lawmakers, have introduced every anti-choice measure in 2016.

Reproductive rights are under threat in states dominated by GOP legislators as well as states with Democratic legislative majorities, and laws attacking abortion access that have been passed in recent years have received at least some Democratic support.

While there are a variety of factors that contribute to the prevalence of anti-choice Democrats in Rhode Island, the lawmakers who are proponents of these bills look very much like the proponents of these bills in red states.

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Rewire analysis of legislation introduced in state legislatures during the first three months of 2016 found that 60 percent of the 311 anti-choice bills introduced were sponsored by white male Republicans. Male lawmakers introduced about seven out of every ten anti-choice bills during that time. 

White male Democrats sponsored nine of the 14 anti-choice bills this year in the Rhode Island state legislature. 

Rhode Island’s Democratic legislators hold a 63-11 majority in the house and a 32-6 state senate majority. But that doesn’t translate to a legislative body supportive of maintaining and expanding abortion access and reproductive health services. 

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others. 

Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, told the Providence Journal that there is a “big information gap” between the perception and reality of abortion politics in Rhode Island.

“People assume Rhode Island is going in the right direction when it comes to rights—it’s a blue state,” Yolen said.

Amy Retsinas Romero, president of Women’s Health and Education Fund, spoke during a March conference on reproductive rights at Rhode Island College about the challenges people face when seeking reproductive health care in the state.

“In Rhode Island we are an F. We are not that far from Texas,” Romero said, reported the Brown Daily Herald. “We should all be ashamed of ourselves.”

Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) told Rewire that Rhode Island is in “pretty good shape” in ensuring access to abortion care and reproductive health care. She said there remain legislative issues that need to be addressed.

“We have laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional. For instance, the spousal notice regarding abortion,” Ajello said, referring to the state’s requirement of notice to an abortion patient’s husband before the procedure. “It would be good to get rid of those and we have legislation in place to do that, but it has yet to pass.”

Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) sponsored legislation this year that would repeal the so-called spousal notice law. HB 7612 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee.

Ajello sponsored HB 7444, which would prohibit the state from interfering with a person’s decision to prevent, commence, continue, or terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability. Ajello said that the bill would codify into law protections for reproductive rights.

There have, however, been far more bills introduced to restrict reproductive rights, all of which have been introduced by Ajello’s fellow Democrats.

There have been 14 anti-choice bills introduced this year in the Rhode Island legislation. This collection of bills would restrict reproductive rights in a number of ways, including restricting funding for abortion care for low-income people in the state. It’s an issue that has been debated in the state for the last few years.

It’s not only Rhode Island Democrats in the house and state senate that back measures designed to chip away at abortion access.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) last year signed a budget that left nearly 9,000 residents without comprehensive abortion coverage through their insurance plans. The budget included a requirement that health insurers who offer plans on Rhode Island’s health insurance exchange to also offer plans that exclude coverage for elective abortion care.

The contingent of anti-choice Democrats and the few Republicans lawmakers does not appear to have enough political power to move most anti-choice bills through the legislature. Since the legislature is and has been dominated by one party for so long, policy disagreements have developed along ideological rather than partisan lines, political observers told Rewire

Ajello said in an interview with Rewire that there are members of the legislature who are anti-choice but are also “quite progressive” on other issues, such as marriage equality. 

“In the way that I see social conservatives in Texas, I don’t see those differences [in Rhode Island lawmakers],” Ajello. “We work together, cooperating on issues that we agree about and being respectful on issues that we don’t.”

H 7760, sponsored by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly), would prohibit health plan coverage purchased in whole or in part with any state or federal funds through the Rhode Island health benefits exchange from providing coverage for induced abortions, unless it was to save the life of the pregnant person or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

Azzinaro has long advocated prohibiting health-care coverage of abortion care. Azzinaro said during a debate in 2013 about the state’s health-care exchange that tax dollars should not be used to fund abortion care.

“You want choice?” Azzinaro said, reported the Providence Journal. “We talk about choice, what choice do you have if you only have a plan that says we’re going to fund abortions.”

The house judiciary committee recommended in March that H 7760 be held for further study. State Sen. Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket) sponsored a companion bill pending in the senate judiciary committee.

A number of other bills designed to restrict abortion and reproductive health care have been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature. Many of the proposed measures create the same rhetoric surrounding anti-choice bills in state legislatures held by GOP majorities. 

H 7764, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Fellela (D-Johnston), would prohibit a person from performing or attempting to perform an abortion with the knowledge that the pregnant person is seeking the abortion solely on account of the sex of the fetus. 

The bill charges that any physician who intentionally violates this provision would be considered to have engaged in unprofessional conduct, and their license would be subject to suspension or revocation by the State Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline.

There is no documentation that so-called sex-selective abortions are widespread in the United States. Proponents of the bans often justify the anti-choice measure by using cultural stereotypes that target immigrant people of color.

Bills to ban sex-selection abortion care have been introduced in several states this year. Fellela sponsored a similar bill in 2014.

H 7764 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee; the companion bill S 2612, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Crowley (D-Central Falls), is pending in the senate judiciary committee.

H 7282 and S 2216, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) and Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), would prohibit a person from performing, or attempting to perform a “dismemberment abortion” on a fetus unless it is necessary to save the life of the patient or if the continued pregnancy would cause irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant patient.

State courts have blocked such measures passed by Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and Kansas. West Virginia’s GOP-held legislature in March voted to override the veto of a similar bill.

H 7282 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee, and S 2216 is pending in the senate judiciary committee.