On March 10, the S.C. House of Representatives voted nearly 2-to-1 in favor of cutting $52,000 in funds to the College of Charleston for offering Alison Bechdel's award-winning graphic novel Fun Home to incoming freshmen. In doing so, they've revealed that they are opposed to not only an entire segment of the student population — the LGBT community — but some of the central tenets of a college education.
Each year CofC's College Reads committee — made up of faculty, staff, and students — decides on a book to give students after reviewing suggestions made by folks across campus. This school year the College Reads selection was Fun Home, Bechdel's autobiographical tale of growing up with a closeted gay father and her own realization that she was a lesbian.
The controversy over the book first reared its head publicly in late February when state Rep. Garry Smith used blatantly homophobic arguments to convince the House budget-writing committee to cut $52,000, the amount that College Reads costs, from CofC's budget. According to Smith, Fun Home is "promot[es] the gay and lesbian lifestyle" because "it graphically shows lesbian acts." In a Twitter conversation with a CofC student, he said the book "could be considered pornography" and told her "if I were to give this book to a 17-year-old, I would be arrested."
In response to the committee's decision, CofC's Student Government Association passed a resolution condemning the move. They argued that because of academic freedom, the promotion of critical thinking, and the college's efforts to provide a "diverse and welcoming campus for all people," the legislature should restore the $52,000 it cut from CofC's budget. There were no objections to this resolution.
SGA Vice President Chris Piedmont then sent the resolution to all state House members on March 11, along with an email in which he explained, "Higher education is meant to challenge students to think critically, which often means coming into contact with ideas and beliefs that are different than one's own. This sparks discussion and ultimately enhances the educational experience of creating well-rounded students who can prosper in a diverse and fast-changing global economy." His email was thoughtful and polite and did a damned good job of explaining why people go to college.
However, at least one member of the House of Representatives decided that Piedmont didn't deserve the same amount of respect that the student showed legislators. In an email to Piedmont, state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch wrote, "Out of one side of your mouth you demand that we fund your school and many of your educations, yet, out of another side of your mouth, you demand we stay out of your school and your education." He suggested that the SGA make CofC private so that they "can require obscene pornographic mandatory."
He continued, "I have multiple families in my district that were horrified when their 17-year-old daughter was required to read this book. President Pastides testified that students would be tested on the book. If that's not required, I don't know what is." (Of course, it's worth noting that Goldfinch's wife, Renee is a member of CofC's Board of Trustees. She is also a member of the Board's Academic Affairs Committee, the group which initially took issue with the selection of Fun Home. Make of that what you will.)
First of all, this email — sent to a student who wrote a respectful and informative email to the state's House — is mean and dismissive. Furthermore, most of Goldfinch's facts are wrong. For instance, George Benson is the current president of CofC, not Harris Pastides; he's the head of the University of South Carolina. Benson never said that students would be tested on the book, and for a good reason: only students in a class where the book was assigned would be tested.
And let's talk about pornography. Goldfinch and Smith have both called the book pornographic. At a very basic level, they don't seem to understand that pornography is meant to turn you on, and that's not what's happening in Fun Home. The scenes depicting lesbian sexuality are part of a story about the character's growth into adulthood. They might have realized this if they'd read the book.
Plus, pornography isn't illegal. And these are college students, not children. The book isn't obscene, pornographic, or mandatory. So, again, what's the problem here?
The saga that continues to unfold in South Carolina regarding Fun Home is ultimately about homophobia and hostility toward the kind of engaged critical thinking that defines the college experience — an experience that far too many of our legislators apparently never received.
Alison Piepmeier wants you to go check out gayfacesgayplaces.tumblr.com and see one way you can get involved.