This story has not gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves, so I’m going to highlight it in this space. The South Carolina legislature has taken upon itself to yank funding for public colleges that have assigned books by LGBT authors. The most prominent case involves the College of South Carolina, which had $52,000 slashed from its budget for assigning Alison Bechdel’s (great) graphic memoir, Fun Home, to incoming students. It’s possible, though far from certain, that the funds will be restored when the full South Carolina House reviews the budget later this month.
Bechdel is the cartoonist behind the long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the genius who created the Bechdel test for movies. In the event you’re unfamiliar with Bechdel’s book — a state of affairs which I strongly urge that you rectify immediately — it’s a graphic autobiography about Bechdel’s coming of age as a young lesbian, in the context of the tragic story of her father, a closeted gay man. It’s a moving and brilliant book, been critically acclaimed to the skies, won/been nominated for major awards, and is even the basis of a hit Broadway musical.
Yet South Carolina wants to stop people from reading it — so much so that it’s enacting payback against schools that teach it.
There are a couple of reasons why I think this case is potentially important. First, I think progressives sometimes have a tendency to be far too sanguine about the progress of LGBT rights in this country. Yes, we’ve come very far, very fast. But there are still vast stretches of the country where LGBT still have no rights, and where change, when it does come, will get there slowly. Let’s not forget: fully 33 out of 50 states still ban same sex marriage. Given our federalist system, it may take this country much longer than anyone realizes to reach full equality for LGBT folk.
Secondly, this case sets a dangerous precedent. Even if the legislature ends up reversing itself (which is by no means certain), you better believe that public institutions of higher learning in South Carolina — and elsewhere — have learned their lesson. Budgets are already lean, and administrators tend to be excessively controversy-averse even in the best of times. I’d be surprised if future assigned reading lists for South Carolina students include anything more cutting edge than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.