South Carolina House Ways and Means Committee recently voted to cut close to $70,000 in funding to the University of South Carolina Upstate (USCU) in Spartanburg, and the College of Charleston. The move was retribution for the fact that both schools assigned books as part of freshman-level courses and campus reads deemed inappropriate by the legislators because the titles feature gay and lesbian characters. USCU assigned Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio edited by Ed Madden and Candace Chellew-Hodge, and the College of Charleston assigned Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Booksellers and publishers in the South expressed shock over the move, as well as fear that this type of book ban might spread to other colleges.
Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, cautions that this type of government-imposed censorship is not new. “It’s unconstitutional, it’s bad policy, and it’s bad for students,” she said. “What kind of message does this send to students in the state, regardless of their sexual orientation? [It sends the message that they] should keep their mouths shut and their minds closed.”
Betsy Teter, executive director of Hub City, which is the publisher of Out Loud, had mixed feelings about the publicity, noted it was bad for South Carolina but good for the book.
“This is a book we published four years ago. It had a nice run when it was released, and then, suddenly, whamo!” she said. Teter added that the press now receives daily orders for the book and said she thinks this kind of legislation spreads like a virus from state to state. She also defended Out Loud and its messages. “It’s a beautiful book. I’ve read people talking about it in the newspaper, saying it’s sex and erotica. It’s neither of those things; it is a book about human beings trying to make their way in the world. It’s the voices of not only gay and lesbian Southerners, but also their parents and others—it’s about how we deal with this issue in our homes and in this time.”
Dealing with the issue, and calling for the funds to be returned, is top of mind for Decatur (Ga.) Book Festival program director (and former owner of Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse) Philip Rafshoon. “It should be no surprise that book banning and antigay activity go hand in glove. The attempt to ban books is something that has a long history. With LGBT acceptance at an all-time high and many victories in the fight for marriage equality, there is bound to be a backlash, as evidenced by recent attempts to create ‘religious freedom’ bills in many states. South Carolina’s attempt to pull funding from schools that assign texts with positive portrayals of LGBT people is more of the same. It should be challenged tooth and nail so that it does not become a precedent.”
Bestselling author Dorothea Benton Frank, who received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the College of Charleston, strongly cautioned that a little power in the wrong hands was a dangerous thing. “Censorship is wrong, and it is not the responsibility of the state to mandate curriculum. Beyond that? Reading a book about a lesbian coming of age will no more turn you into a lesbian than reading a cookbook will transform you into a pot roast,” she said, bluntly. “The whole point of a liberal arts university education is to open the minds of the students to the whole world, all its possibilities and all its wonders. By imposing this funding cut on two fine universities, [the legislators] jeopardize the reputation of the state of South Carolina.”
To some in the publishing sphere, the action of the S.C. legislation feels, ironically, like something out of a work of fiction. “State Representative Gary Smith and the other members of South Carolina House of Representatives appear to be writing their own dystopic novel where literature, art, academic freedom, and diversity are eradicated, or, at least, financially punished,” said Craig Popelars, director of marketing & sales at Algonquin Books.
“All campus reads programs were created to foster dialogue and encourage conversations on issues beyond the classroom,” Popelars continued. “They’re not about promoting one agenda or another, but rather [they aim] to engage students in critical thinking, in understanding other points of view, and expanding the geography of the world.”
Bookstore owners hope the defunding isn’t a trend in the making. Avid Bookshop in Georgia is only a few hours from South Carolina, and owner Janet Geddis is worried about a potential ripple effect. “I’d like to think this isn’t going to become a pattern. I know from one state to another there can’t be a precedent, but I’m a little concerned other states will see S.C. as example.”
For publishers like NewSouth Books, continuing to get these works out into the world is the best response to a situation like this one. “I believe it’s important to publish on these topics,” said publisher Suzanne La Rosa, who is releasing a book of LGBT coming-out stories, tentatively titled "Crooked Letter I," next year. “This is shameful, hurtful, punitive behavior on the part of the state of South Carolina. Sadly, it’s also curiously revealing about the role the state believes it has to play in the life of its academic community.”
When it comes to concern over seeing the wave of legislative interference with books taught at universities, Popelars said, ultimately, this is nothing new. Recalling the fact that the North Carolina state government had an “up-in-arms” reaction in 2002 when UNC–Chapel Hill selected the Koran as its summer reading selection, Popelars said, “Literature will continue to ignite people in every way imaginable. And that’s what makes it exciting, relevant, unpredictable, and lasting.”