Administrators at the University of South Carolina Upstate announced earlier this month that they were closing the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, described by some students and faculty as “the only safe space on campus” for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) students, faculty, staff, and community members.
The move came after months of criticism and what can only be described as harassment by several members of the South Carolina legislature toward schools that had offered books or staged performances that explored LGBTQ issues.
In February, South Carolina representatives began a successful campaign to slash funds from the budgets of two state schools — the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate — for offering books to their incoming students. Their specific complaint was that the books “Fun Home” and “Outloud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” humanized LGBTQ people and were therefore inappropriate for college students. Rep. Garry Smith tweeted a College of Charleston undergraduate and called the books “pornographic.”
In March, Rep. Stephen Goldfinch e-mailed a College of Charleston undergraduate student and suggested that the Student Government Association make the college private so that it “can require obscene pornographic mandatory [sic].”
In April, Senators Mike Fair and Kevin Bryant attacked USC Upstate’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies because they brought a comedian to campus to perform How to be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less. “It’s recruiting,” Fair said. “It’s perversion,” Bryant said. The administration immediately shut down the production. Meanwhile, Smith wrote a fundraising letter in which he called “Fun Home” “blatantly pro-homosexual and pornographic propaganda” and referred to it as “garbage” or “trash” five times.
It’s easy to dismiss what’s been happening in South Carolina as some sort of freakish parody of a homophobic Southern Gothic novel. But these events are true, and they’re incredibly troubling, not just for South Carolina but for the nation.
South Carolina state legislators are vocal and unapologetic in their homophobia, and this bigotry threatens academic freedom. Both the College of Charleston and USC Upstate have offered their students any number of books addressing “controversial” issues — from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in which Rosalind cross-dresses to Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” in which Gatsby and Daisy have an affair. In addition, the schools have offered books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s emphatically vegetarian “Eating Meat” and Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem (Being Young and Arab in America)” to all incoming students in recent years. The legislature didn’t pay attention until the colleges offered books that humanized LGBTQ people; then they wanted those books removed, budgets cut, performances canceled. They wanted to intervene in the college curriculum.
These legislators are having success. The administration at USC Upstate stopped a comedic performance as soon as legislators spoke out. A month later they closed the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies in a suspiciously secretive way, doing so after commencement, and not announcing it until media attention was focused on them. There’s no evidence the state legislature explicitly asked USC Upstate to close the center, but Sen. Kevin Bryant did say of the university, “If they’ve got extra money sitting around to promote perversion, obviously they’ve got more money than they really need.”
The Women’s and Gender Studies program at USC Upstate still exists — meaning they’re still able to offer minors — but the administration has gutted it by cutting the space and the entity that supported the program and made a huge difference in the school. The center had been openly supportive of LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and community members, and many faculty and students have told me that it was “a safe space for folks regardless of their sexual orientation” and “one of the few resources … that faculty women had on campus.”
The interim Senior Vice Chancellor John Masterson, who made the decision to cut the Center for WGS, told me that “much of that work is done” — meaning that there is no longer a need for a safe space and a campus organization supporting gender and sexuality equity and challenging homophobia, sexism, and racism.
The closure of the center establishes a dangerous precedent for South Carolina and for other states. In the wake of all the national attention to the decision to close the center, Chancellor Tom Moore announced last week that he is considering combining Women’s and Gender Studies, African American Studies, and International Studies into one “center.” This is a sad effort to stand by their decision while calming the media as well as the students who have created petitions, Facebook pages, and television presentations.
When state colleges are experiencing financial difficulties and their budgets are threatened, they often bow to the demands of the legislature. This isn’t merely true for South Carolina, or for the south; colleges nationwide face this challenge. And when the legislature has an effect on a college’s programming or curriculum, that’s a threat to academic freedom. Legislative control of what students are reading invalidates a college education.
South Carolina’s controversy represents a backlash. We’re in a cultural moment when gay marriage is becoming more and more the law of the land. Seventeen states now recognize gay marriage, and I suspect this will be true nationwide during my students’ lifetimes. Much of the viciousness of South Carolina legislators represents their effort to fight these inevitable cultural changes. These men (all men, all white) are scrambling as they slide away into history.
That’s a hopeful interpretation, and colleagues have assured me, “Just let these old folks die off.”
I agree — this fight has a limited lifespan. The times are changing. But simply waiting for Sen. Mike Fair and Rep. Garry Smith to become irrelevant isn’t a solution. First of all, I’m unwilling to be a college professor in a culture where I have to make decisions based on legislators’ homophobia. And second — and more importantly — I have students, colleagues, babysitters, members of my church, and friends who are LGBTQ. Their lives are being ridiculed, presented as offensive, and threatened.
Those of us who don’t want to be complicit must keep fighting.
Alison Piepmeier is professor of women’s and gender studies at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. She’s the author of the column “Feminism, Y’all” at the Charleston City Paper. Follow her on Twitter @alisonpiepmeier and at alisonpiepmeier.blogspot.com.