In 2014, we saw one of the most blatant attacks ever perpetrated on free expression and academic freedom when the South Carolina legislature passed a questionable budget “compromise” that effectively functioned as punitive budget cuts for two universities that utilized LGBTQ-themed books in voluntary reading programs.
The budget cuts were aimed at two schools: College of Charleston, which had used Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in a voluntary summer reading program for incoming freshman, and the University of South Carolina Upstate, which had used Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio for a similar program. If passed as originally intended, the schools would have lost the exact amount of money used for the programs, which was $52,000 at College of Charleston.
College of Charleston refused to back down, and the book gained support both locally and abroad. In a statement to Publishers Weekly, Bechdel praised the college for standing firm:
I’m very grateful to the people who taught my book at the College of Charleston. It was brave of them to do that given the conservative pressures they’re apparently under. I made a visit to the school last fall for which they also took some flak, but to their great credit they didn’t back down. 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.
In March, CBLDF joined a coalition led by NCAC to urge the South Carolina Senate to reject the budget cuts, and the Senate Finance Committee rightly did so. However, the full Senate continued to debate the budget, coming up with a “compromise”: Instead of cutting the funds, the legislature proposed a budget provision that doesn’t cut funding but — in a an act of irony so classic that it should be included in the dictionary — the provision reallocated the funds to books that teach about the Constitution.
In response, CBLDF joined the National Coalition Against Censorship, American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, American Association of University Professors , American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, Association of American Publishers, Dramatists Guild, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Modern Language Association and National Council of Teachers of English in condemning the “compromise.” From the statement:
The version enacted poses exactly the same concerns as the initially proposed cuts: it represents unwarranted political interference with academic freedom and undermines the integrity of the higher education system in South Carolina. The history of the legislative debate makes it 100% clear that the legislature’s primary concern is to force schools to eliminate educational content that some legislators dislike, or risk financial penalties.
Such leveraging of public funds with the goal of micromanaging curriculum and excluding disfavored ideas is a destructive assault on academic freedom. It violates the right of faculty to develop curriculum and assign books based on their disciplinary and pedagogical expertise and free of outside political interference by legislators who lack such expertise.
Penalizing state educational institutions financially simply because members of the legislature disapprove of specific elements of the educational program is not only educationally unsound, it is constitutionally suspect. The Supreme Court has sent a clear message over decades: lawmakers may not prohibit the expression of ideas simply because they find them to be offensive.
Ultimately, the South Carolina legislature’s attack on Fun Home did little to dampen the popularity of the book. In fact, an analysis of Goodreads statistics shows increased interest in the graphic novel. It’s also finding popularity in other formats: The musical version was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. And Bechdel herself has been recognized for her work: She was one of 21 recipients of a 2014 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. In a profile on its website, the Foundation praised Bechdel for “changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.”
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The attack on Fun Home is part of a greater trend that targets LGBTQ literature. We saw several attempts to ban LGBTQ books during 2014: A Delaware school system eliminated an entire summer reading list rather than include emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which features a lesbian central character. David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing was challenged in the Fauquier High School library in Warrenton, Virginia, after parent Jessica Wilson launched a campaign against it because she judged the book by its cover, which features, well, two boys kissing. Wilson used the school’s own policy against public displays of affection to demand the book’s removal, but a review committee decided in favor of keeping the book available.
CBLDF also joined coalition efforts protesting the cancellation of two plays: Almost, Maine and Monty Python’s Spamalot. Both were canceled when a handful of individuals challenged homosexual content in each. Almost, Maine drew the ire of local churches because it features a same-sex couple. Principal Rob Bliss cancelled the play, claiming that he did so because of “sexually-explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendos that are not aligned with our mission and educational objectives.” In the case of Spamalot, the play was cancelled and instructor Dawn Burch was dismissed for poor job performance, but it’s more likely she was let go in retaliation for speaking out against the ban of the play.
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Private companies and even nations joined the attack on LGBTQ literature in 2014. Queer comics publisher Northwest Press fell afoul of Apple’s ill-defined and inconsistently enforced content policies. Singapore banned three children’s books and the third volume of Archie: The Married Life over homosexual content. But even Singapore was inconsistent in their policies: Northstar’s wedding in Astonishing X-Men, remained on shelves because a character protested the act, making the book “a balanced treatment on the issue of gay marriage” in the eyes of Singapore’s censors.
In a column for Comics Alliance, Kate Leth of the webcomic Kate or Die examined the perception that LGBTQ themes are not acceptable for younger readers and question why LGBTQ relationships were considered “inherently too sexual.” She wrote:
As a cartoonist I hear stories all the time of production companies, book editors and other media gatekeepers filtering out queer characters and content in all-ages entertainment. The reasoning behind it is usually the same; ‘we don’t want to offend people’, ‘we don’t want to lose money’, ‘LGBT content is too adult for the kids’.
I understand not wanting to lose out on the money spent by customers from the religious right or other large groups who may have a problem with LGBT content … sort of. It wouldn’t be my choice to worry about them, but that’s another story. What I can’t wrap my head around is the idea that non-straight romance is inherently too sexual for young audiences.
Whether 2015 holds anything new for LGBTQ literature remains to be seen. If the passionate defense of Fun Home, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and other literature featuring LGBTQ themes is any indication, it does appear to be gaining greater acceptance. Hopefully, 2015 will bring us closer to the sea change needed to prevent future challenges to these books!