'Fun Home' drama spurs S.C. Senate to shift book funds to history studies

"Fun Home," an acclaimed illustrated memoir, deals with author Alison Bechdel's struggle with her homosexuality and her childhood with a closeted gay father.

COLUMBIA - The S.C. Senate voted Tuesday to punish the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate for assigning books some senators viewed as "pornography" by telling the schools to use the reading program money to teach the U.S. Constitution and other key historical documents.

Democrats had previously prevented a vote to cut $52,000 and around $17,000 from C of C and USC-Upstate, respectively, for books the schools had assigned. So Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, offered a compromise that would redirect those funds to reading programs "related to instruction in the provisions and principles of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals," according to the amendment. The amendment also ensures that students who object to assigned reading cannot suffer negative consequences.

"I don't agree that taxpayer-funded pornography equates to free speech," Grooms said on the Senate floor, referring to the criticism. "Our rights that come from God . they are secured by what governments do."

The College of Charleston had assigned "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," a critically acclaimed illustrated memoir. It deals with author Alison Bechdel's struggle with her homosexuality and her childhood with a closeted gay father. A illustrated depiction of two women having sex led to heated debate over whether the book was appropriate for college freshmen.

USC-Upstate had also assigned a book with homosexual themes.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said that the debate reflected senators' obsession with homosexuality.

"Y'all can wish away homosexuality all you want," Hutto said on the Senate floor. "That's all I think you think about. I've never heard all this squawking until it comes to homosexuality."

The Senate voted for Grooms' amendment on a voice vote, meaning that specific members did not have to cast an on-the-record vote. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who was presiding over the Senate, made the call that more people had said "aye" than "no."

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell stepped away from presiding over the Senate twice on Tuesday; once for a press conference, the second time for an appointment. The latter took place during the voting of the amendments.

His presence, however, wouldn't have mattered, because he couldn't vote unless there was a tie - in which case he would have recused himself, he said. Had he been able to vote, however, McConnell said he would have voted against the amendments.

"It singles those two out and treats them differently because there's disagreement with the choice they made," McConnell said. "I think it chills academic freedom."

Hutto staged a four-hour filibuster last week to prevent the cuts. He said in an interview that votes had started to slip the other way and senators wanted to move on. "A filibuster only works if you maintain your votes," Hutto said. "We've made our point."

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Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said the compromise appealed to senators since it accomplishes little. The colleges already teach the U.S. Constitution and other material. "It basically doesn't really do that much. Both sides ... we're ready to move on," he said.

USC-Upstate also announced Tuesday that it is closing its Center for Women's and Gender Studies beginning July 1.

Tammy Whaley, a spokeswoman for the college, said the decision to close the center has "nothing to do with recent controversies." The center came under fire for assigning of the book "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio" as part of its reading program and the scheduling of the play "How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less."

The center's director will be returned to full-time faculty status. Whaley said the school will continue to offer a minor in women's and gender studies.

The S.C. House already has voted to cut the reading program funds to the two schools completely. That means the House and Senate must negotiate over what version of the cuts to adopt.

Staff writers Amanda Kerr and Cynthia Roldan contributed to this report. Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.