The S.C. House Committee on Ways and Means recently voted to reduce state support for the College of Charleston by $52,000 as punishment for selecting "Fun Home," a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, as the featured text in the 2013 College Reads! program. Ignoring the many literary awards and accolades "Fun Home" has received, certain legislators are offended by the book because it charts the experience of a lesbian coming to terms with the perplexities and joys of her sexual orientation. Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, who sponsored the budget measure, condemns "Fun Home" for "promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle."
The Post and Courier deserves praise for publishing an eloquent opinion piece by Chris Korey, director of First-Year Experience at the College of Charleston, as well as for its own editorial of Feb. 26. Both articulated strong opposition to political censorship of academic decisions.
As professors of literature at the College of Charleston, we object to all such misguided efforts by those in power to dictate which texts we assign. "Fun Home" explores many compelling subjects, including grief, family dynamics, forgiveness and the tragic mystery of suicide.
Books we assign every semester bear scars of similar efforts to suppress them in whole or in part. In the 19th century, Shakespeare's bawdy jokes were trimmed from his plays.
Thomas Hardy, who refused to scold female characters for extramarital sex, saw his novels condemned by religious authorities and rejected by libraries. James Joyce's "Ulysses," now acknowledged a modernist masterpiece, was at first denounced as obscene and pornographic, banned in Britain and the United States for over a decade.
Rep. Smith's proposal represents the latest effort in a long history of narrow-minded censorship that can't see beyond the sexual content of a literary work to appreciate its moral, psychological, political and aesthetic complexity. As faculty committed to higher education in the liberal arts and sciences, we believe that students grow by encountering, considering and questioning a range of ideas and perspectives, especially those that challenge popular biases. This is - in part at least - why we teach texts that subvert restricted understanding of sexual normality: the love sonnets that Shakespeare addressed to a man, for example, or Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" and other works by LGBT authors such as W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, Rita Mae Brown, E.M. Forster, Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich.
We value the works of these authors not because they promote the "gay and lesbian lifestyle" - a phrase revealing the absurd fear that a book might convince a reader to whimsically exchange one sexual identity for another - but because they are fascinating and sophisticated works of art, because they capture the intricacies of their cultural moments, because they illuminate interesting theoretical and aesthetic questions, and because they document the beauty and sadness, the failures and triumphs, experienced by LGBT authors and characters.
Such works thereby confront and repudiate the fear and loathing of alternative sexual identities and give our students what they deserve: the opportunity to broaden their understanding of literature and social experience, expand their sympathies, and appreciate the diversity and complexity of human lives and loves.
TIM CARENS, Ph.D.
College of Charleston
This letter also was signed by 25 other Department of English faculty members.