Garry Smith is not what you would call a scholar. In fact, it appears that the Upstate Republican doesn’t even understand that one of the fundamentals of a college education is to have your points of view challenged and your worldview expanded. Sadly, Smith is a member of the state Legislature, which determines how much state funding goes to South Carolina’s public universities. They discuss. They debate. They vote. And in Smith’s case, he apparently thinks it’s acceptable to make these funding decisions based on his own personal prejudices. In case you didn’t know it, Garry Smith is a homophobe.
On Wednesday, the state House budget committee approved Smith’s plan to cut $52,000 from the budget of the College of Charleston. That $52,000 is what it costs CofC to offer College Reads, a program that gives a book to all first-year students for the purpose of promoting conversations across campus. And every year the author of the book visits campus and gives a public talk. Previously, College Reads has selected Longitude by Dava Sobel, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Jewel by Bret Lott — all good reads.
This year, College Reads chose Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, an award-winning autobiographical graphic novel in which Bechdel examines her relationship with her late father. Bechdel also happens to be a lesbian, her father a closeted gay man.
But the book is about more than the sexual orientation of its two principal subjects. It’s about the struggle of growing up in a dysfunctional family and the difficult process of discovering who you are.
All of that was lost on Rep. Smith. He couldn’t get past the fact that two characters in Bechdel’s book were gay. Because of this, the Upstate Republican introduced a bill depriving CofC of $52,000. At the committee hearing, Smith was particularly upset, he said, because Fun Home was required reading. “I understand diversity and academic freedom,” Smith said, according to an AP report. “This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.”
He then added, “It graphically shows lesbian acts.” Oh, the horror.
First of all, Rep. Smith was wrong about a key point: CofC didn’t require students to read the book. All first-year students received Fun Home, but they only had to read it if they were enrolled in a course in which the book was assigned. And if they didn’t want to be enrolled a course where Bechdel’s book was being taught, they could drop the class and enroll in another one. This is a regular practice in college. Students do it all the time, and they’re allowed to. That’s why we have a drop/add period that lasts for almost a week at the beginning of every semester.
Second, although Smith assures us that he understands academic freedom, it’s clear that he doesn’t. This is college. We read all kinds of things. We discuss them. We’re constantly engaging with things that we don’t necessarily agree with. For instance, when I was an undergraduate I had to read The Double Helix, a book by James Watson about his discovery of DNA. It just so happens that Watson is a sexist asshole who wants to eradicate people with disabilities, which, of course, pisses me off. But even though I despise his opinions, I read the book and engaged in thoughtful discussions with my classmates. The whole experience was interesting and useful. That’s what college is about.
Third, Smith sees the book as a “promotion of a lifestyle.” This is a strange argument to make. After all, The Double Helix didn’t turn me into molecular biologist, and reading Shakespeare didn’t make me a cross-dresser. After all, the Bard delighted in gender-swapping characters and sexual tension, not all of it of the heterosexual variety. Scholars are even pretty sure that his love sonnets were all written to a man.
Fourth, several legislators on both sides of the aisle have recognized how shameful Smith’s proposal was and how ridiculous it makes the state of South Carolina look. Rep. Jim Merrill, one of the Republicans who opposed the bill, said, “This might make us feel better, but it’s kind of stupid.” I think stupid is the kindest descriptor we can offer.
And finally, Rep. Smith’s proposal is blatantly, fiercely, unapologetically homophobic. When it comes to the more sexually graphic elements in a novel, let’s just remember Shakespeare, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller — all white dudes who wrote about sex, but in mostly heterosexual ways. Apparently, Smith is OK with that since he isn’t targeting schools that teach the above four authors, something that happens at nearly every school in the state.
If there was one thing I could tell Garry Smith, it would be this: We are all human beings, and we’re all deserving of respect — even you. Please don’t make hate a requirement at the College of Charleston.
Alison Piepmeier is part of the CofC Women’s and Gender Studies program.