Will the Religious Right Wage a War on “Gay” Books Next?
South Carolina Republicans have modified the state budget to penalize colleges for including books with gay themes and books that are unflattering to conservative historical figures.
Lawmakers responsible for writing the South Carolina House budget voted on Wednesday to withhold a combined $70,000 from the College of Charelston and USC Upstate because they don’t agree with the universities’ book choices.
The books that have raised controversy appear on the freshman orientation plan for subjects like the social sciences and include “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” a text containing personal narratives from gay people, and the graphic novel Fun Home, an acclaimed work by Alison Bechdel which details her life growing up with a closeted gay father and also her experience learning about her own identity as a lesbian.
Ringleader State Rep. Garry Smith (R-Greenville) has been explicit about wanting to punish the schools for including the book, telling the press:
“One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt. I understand academic freedom, but this is not academic freedom. … This was about promoting one side with no academic debate involved.”
Smith and other critics contend that these reading lists are trying to push an agenda by not allowing students to read alternative materials, but universities are technically under no obligation to provide alternative materials.
With that in mind, USC has defended itself with a simple statement: it is committed to academic freedom and therefore will allow teachers to use the materials they feel appropriate for their subject. Should students have questions or alternative views, they are encouraged to raise them in class to foster a healthy debate.
Other concerns — that were not motivating factors here but have since been cited — come over reports that other texts the institutions are using might portray Ronald Reagan’s presidency inaccurately (essentially, that Reagan was sexist) and that they take a rather unflattering view of conservatives as a political class. For instance, one snapshot from a textbook by Karen K. Kirst-Ashma that is making the rounds appears to cast the conservative view of humankind as essentially lazy and welfare as a handout that encourages people to stay that way — which while certainly a blanket statement, does sound fairly close to what Republicans in Congress have been saying for a while now. Apparently, seeing it written down though is just too much.
What is worrying some advocates of LGBT rights is that South Carolina might not be alone in this attempt to pressure educational institutions out of including books with LGBT themes. In fact, the way Rep. Smith has approached this issue seems to marry very well with the swathe of bills introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, passed in Arizona, and fortunately defeated in Kansas and Maine, that create a religious license to discriminate. The bills are intended to give the religious a way to get around nondiscrimination laws that have prevented them from turning away gay customers or refusing LGBTs service.
If you team that with religious conservatives applying pressure by defunding institutions who don’t truck with their party line on things like gay rights, a picture begins to emerge that is familiar. It feels a lot like the war on a woman’s right to choose. Having lost on the gay marriage front, and knowing that a federal Employment Non Discrimination Act will pass when Democratic legislators take control of the House, religious conservatives have decided to no longer attack gay rights head on but instead employ whatever methods they can to get around or undermine progress.
With this in mind, undermining academic freedom to ensure that students from a religious conservative background never face challenging, alternative, or LGBT-affirming views seems like a no-brainer, and that’s precisely what this attack is. It’s an attempt to keep people ignorant and therefore willing to discriminate. The worry is, and as we saw with the religious right to discriminate bills, history shows us more states are likely to follow South Carolina’s example.
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