Shades of McCarthyism: Actions by lawmakers against gay-themed activities threaten American values

South Carolina legislators are debating cutting university funding for books and centers with gay themes (Bruce Smith/ AP).
South Carolina legislators are debating cutting university funding for books and centers with gay themes (Bruce Smith/ AP).

I’m too young to have experienced first-hand the “red-baiting” tactics of the House Un-American Activities Commission and of its offshoot, the Army-McCarthy hearings, but when I learned how a university in South Carolina reacted to the booking of an artistic performance, I responded as attorney Joseph Welch did in 1954 to the cruel, anti-communist hounding by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?”

Sixty years ago, the Republican senator from Wisconsin struck fear in the hearts of many Americans with his allegations that communists in government were putting the nation’s security at risk.

Today, the fear that homosexual-themed programs may have a perverse influence on U.S. college kids has led legislators in some states to condemn these ideas and cut funding for universities that support artistic and academic freedom. In turn, universities are canceling these programs.

For example, the University of South Carolina Upstate has not only canceled a play with the word “lesbian” in its title, it also will close a campus center that simply wished to allow its students to study women’s and gender issues.

The play in question is the one-woman satire “How to be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less,” by Leigh Hendrix. Her onstage character, Butchy McDyke, asks provocative questions, such as: How many of you are here tonight because you want to learn how to be a lesbian? How many of you are here because your daughter wants to learn how to be a lesbian? How many of you are here because your wife wants to learn how to be a lesbian? How many of you are here because you are a frat boy wanting to see some hot lesbian action?

She then says that the audience shouldn’t “believe anything I say.”

Yet, enough people seemed to be afraid of the show’s implications to lead the university to close the play before it had even opened on campus. The university will also close the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies in July.

These actions are due, in part, to pressure from some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers.

Sen. Michael L. Fair (R-Greenville) said that the play was “recruiting lesbians,” while Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) has vowed to protect “traditional family values” by cutting funding for public universities that sponsor events that violate his definition of those values. As The Washington Post reported, Bright has made it clear that as long as he’s in office, he will “stand in the gap for those who feel like traditional family values ought to matter.” Sen. Kevin Bryan (R-Anderson) wrote on his blog that “Our higher education institutions need to focus on one thing: educating our kids for a job. They’ve expanded this role to all kinds of things like economic development and in this case social indoctrination.”

These actions came at a time when much of the rest of the world is celebrating the achievements of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) community.

Over the weekend, Austrian transgender singer Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest. She sang “Rise Like a Phoenix” while dressed as a bearded woman.

In the United States, the St. Louis Rams drafted defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted by a National Football League team. He is in line to become the first to play in the NFL when St. Louis opens its regular season on Sept.  7 against the Minnesota Vikings.

The acceptance of  Sam by the NFL follows closely the acceptance of Jason Collins as the first openly gay male athlete to play a major U.S. professional sport. The veteran professional basketball player, who was with the Washington Wizards before coming out in the off-season of 2013, signed with the Brooklyn Nets in February and took the court on Feb. 23 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Collins made an obvious point about the Rams’ choice of Sam, a unanimous All-American selection and co-defensive player of the year in the Southeast Conference: Players should be judged on how they play, period.

“It takes more and more people just to come forward and show we’re normal people and we’re just trying to make plays to help our respective teams win,” Collins said, as reported by ESPN. “This is a great day for the NFL and for Michael Sam and his family.”

Despite this progress in so many areas, gaining broad acceptance for the LGBTQ community remains a challenge, and eliminating discrimination is a long, slow progress.

The loudest echo from the actions in South Carolina comes from more than half a century ago. In 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education struck down racial segregation in public schools. Then, 10 years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, legislators are cutting funds for universities that support gay-themed books and plays on the grounds that exposure to these themes is a form of “social indoctrination.”

Of course, these actions don’t go near the extreme lengths that McCarthy reached 60 years ago. Yet, they are troubling in how they create a fear that supporting equal rights for the LGBTQ community will somehow undermine the community.

One wishes that government and university leaders would look at their actions and conclude that adding “sexual orientation” to the list of rights guaranteed by law is a long-delayed step toward reaching equality for all. And, that in so doing, they will strengthen, not undermine, the values of the American people.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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