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.