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Heck YA, Diversity!: The College of Charleston FUN HOME Saga

Alix is back to catch you up on some of the insanity that's been going down in her home state. South Carolina: where guns don't kill people. Vaginas do.

Heck YA, Diversity!: The College of Charleston FUN HOME Saga
tl;dr: FUN HOME is great. Alison Bechdel is great. The College of Charleston faculty and students are great. The CofC Board of Trustees and the South Carolina legislature (which are, honestly, one in the same) can take their circle jerk elsewhere. Go home, bigotry, nobody wants you here.

Hello my little chickadees. Did you miss me? I missed you. It’s been far too long since I’ve paid a visit to these here parts. But I’m back today to talk about two things very dear to my heart—one of my favorite books, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, and the complete batshittery of my home state, South Carolina.

For those of you who might have missed the recent intersection of my aforementioned interests, there has been a bit of a dustup at The College of Charleston concerning Fun Home. I’ve been following this story because I grew up in Charleston and my father (a fellow Fun Home enthusiast) is on the faculty at CofC. Allow me to summarize for you:

January 2013: A selection committee of faculty at CofC chooses Fun Home for the following school year’s “College Reads” program.[1]

Summer 2013: CofC sends out copies of Fun Home to every incoming freshman to read over the summer. The book is not required reading but is encouraged for every incoming student.[2]

October 2013: CofC brings Alison Bechdel to campus.[3]

February 2014: The South Carolina legislature—specifically the House Ways and Means Committee—gets wind of this news and starts losing their collective shit because CofC is using public money to fund the “promotion of a gay lifestyle.” (Keep it so, so classy, Rep. Garry Smith).[4]

The SC House votes to cut $52,000 from CofC’s budget, the amount of money spent on the 2013 College Reads program. (They also vote to cut $17,142 from USC Upstate for their similarly "gay" curriculum.) The proposed cuts still await Senate approval, but in a rare act of sanity, it looks like it won't go through and ALL SORTS OF CRAZY SHIT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW, INCLUDING COMPARING BECHDEL AND FUN HOME TO HITLER AND SLAVERY. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.[5]

February-March 2014: The Joint Legislative Committee to Screen Candidates for College and University Boards of Trustees conducts a witch-hunt screenings for incumbent and new Board of Trustee positions at CofC. Because yeah, each member of the Board of Trustees for every state academic institution in South Carolina is individually appointed by the SC legislature, so they’re all spouses/friends/family of legislators, like one giant, incestuous, ineffectual circle jerk.[6] Does every state do this? As someone who went to a private school in New England, this policy seems insane. (Excerpts from the screening transcripts to be included throughout the rest of this post, in comic form).[7]

Transcript excerpts featuring Representative Bill Whitmire, Senator Harvey Peeler, Joseph F. Thompson, R. Scott Woods, Donald H. Belk, Daniel Ravenel, and Henrietta U. Golding, aka a clown car spewing forth a seemingly endless stream of homophobia, ignorance, and general stupidity.

This pretty much brings us up to the present,[8] excepting one more thing. On April 21, in response to all this nonsense, Fun Home: The Musical made a stop in Charleston to present a concert production of the Off-Broadway show.[9] The event was hosted by the CofC Theatre Department but held off-campus and paid for entirely without state funds.[10] It was the first performance since the show officially closed in January, but the cast came together to perform twice in one night. The production was followed by a Q&A with Bechdel, Lisa Kron (the librettist), and Jeanine Tesori (the composer). Because it was a concert rather than a stage production, Bechdel, Kron, and Tesori also helped create supplementary segments to intersperse between the play scenes to help provide context that was lost due to staging, set, and other limitations. Pretty cool stuff to come out of something so incredibly stupid.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s get started, shall we?

Joseph F. Thompson College of Charleston Board of Trustees reappointment transcript excerpt

First of all, SC legislators talk about Fun Home like it’s a WWII-era Army recruitment poster. Lesbian recruitment is not a thing. You know how I know it’s not a thing? Well, mostly, because the idea is utterly preposterous. But also because I’m not a lesbian. I’m a dirty feminist hippy who went to a women’s college and thinks that single-sex education is a marvelous invention. I enjoy reading gay comics, and I have never met a cross-dressing story I haven’t liked.[11] Ninety percent of my friends are female, several of them lesbians, and I have serious male trust issues thanks to a personal history with sexual assault. I enjoy playing Dar Williams covers on the ukulele and find Tegan of Tegan & Sara deeply attractive (it’s the hair). On paper, I am the Forrest Fucking Gump of lesbian recruitment. And guess what? I STILL date dudes. Sexual identity is not some kind of intramural sports league where, sometime during O-Week, Johnny Weir skates up to impressionable 18-year-olds and drafts your unsuspecting children to play for the Switch Hitters. Books cannot “promote a homosexual lifestyle” because books don’t make people gay.

Alison Bechdel wants YOU for lesbianism (nearest Hardware Store)

Second, lesbian recruitment isn’t entirely the issue here, is it?

R. Scott Woods College of Charleston Board of Trustees appointment transcript excerpt

A family friend and academic (not at CofC) weighed in on the board-screening transcripts, and I love what he wrote:

I'm intrigued by the objection from paternalism: "high school seniors who are not yet in college are not yet ready for 'that'; the faculty and provost used bad judgment in subjecting young students to 'that' material, which they were unprepared to digest, especially in a largely unsupervised setting during the summer before attending college; therefore, the board needs to step in to exercise the good judgment the provost did not."

You can test your intuitions about this form of argument by filling in the "that"-blank in different ways: "Neo-Nazi manifestos," "Marxism," "the greatest speeches by Ronald Reagan," "Satanic Verses," "a how-to manual on bullying." My intuitions about the strength of the argument flip-flop depending on how the blank is filled, which makes me think the basic form of the argument is sensible enough and what we're disagreeing about is the premise about when students of a certain age are prepared to confront material of different kinds. 

Look, I will be the first to admit that 18 year olds are, all too often, fucking idiots. The last time I interacted with college freshmen was a few months ago when my flatmate had a bunch of rowing novices she coaches over to our house. During dinner, one of them announced that her celebrity crush was “the collected members of One Direction.” The collected members of One Direction. But despite her frankly appalling taste in men, I’m also confident that this girl is, at minimum, 80% actualized adult with perfectly sound critical and logical reasoning skills. You had 18 years to indoctrinate your children. Three more months are not going to yield significant gains in the quest to transform your offspring into puppets of your own bigotry.

Of course, I also take umbrage with the way the “that”-blank is filled here. While I don’t have specific intel into what these particular legislators/board members think about their children consuming violent media, I’m going to venture a guess informed by 18 years of anecdotal evidence collected in general proximity to these assclowns that people shooting each other in the face is A-OK. But SEX? SEX IS FILTHY AND NOT A NATURAL FUNCTION OF HUMAN LIFE.

Joseph F. Thompson College of Charleston Board of Trustees reappointment transcript excerpt

South Carolina: where guns don’t kill people. Vaginas do.

The irony of all this concern for “protecting our children” from the evils of books like Fun Home is that at its core, Fun Home is not a book about homosexuality or sexual discovery or any other bullshit reason the South Carolina legislature has concocted to claim that Fun Home is “dangerous.” If anyone had bothered to read the book (which, um, they fucking didn’t, please see pages 58, 60, 68, and 91 of the Trustees screenings transcripts for your reference), they would know that Fun Home is actually about Alison Bechdel’s relationship with her dad and the ever-growing distance between father and daughter. In the end, that distance cannot be breached because of the hang-ups we all carry about the things we percieve to be “different” in us than in everyone else. It’s a tragic, almost cautionary tale of trying to have a stronger bond with your family and ultimately failing by caving to the pressures of society or personality or whatever else separates us from others. If that’s not a "family values" message that the religious right wants to send its kids off to college with, I don’t know what is.

Two weeks ago, I turned twenty-seven. My birthday was, for a lot of reasons, a very important milestone for me. I celebrated by writing a deeply personal account of my 26th year, which was marked by a very difficult battle with depression. Until hitting the publish button, very few people in my life knew the full extent of that struggle, including my immediate family members. My father read this piece just after attending the concert production of Fun Home and sent me a very emotional response in return:

I was so sorry to hear more of the details of what life was like for you from July through December, but glad to hear them nonetheless. I don't ever want to be Bruce Bechdel with my daughters, unable to talk with either of you about what matters in [your] lives. One of the most poignant moments in the play is the next-to-last scene, when Alison is home on spring break, and wants to talk with her father about his gay identity, and hers, but he can't bring himself to do it. It is done very well on stage, but it is also very sad.

Things we’ve learned from this exchange:

1. My dad is the best dad.

2. We can all learn an important lesson from Fun Home about communicating with our loved ones.

It is already so difficult to talk to one another about the things that matter. Language is a shockingly imperfect medium for communication. True meaning can’t be found in a dictionary; every word I type on this page is wrapped up in entire lifespans of unique experiences and understanding, both mine and yours. That chasm of differences seems nearly impossible to cross when we stop to observe it. By further constructing these artifices around sexuality or gender or race or mental health or anything else that’s problematic and taboo in our society, all we ultimately do is put more distance between ourselves and the people we love. Life is way too ephemeral to let the fleeting opportunities to understand one another better pass by.

What troubles me the most about this story isn’t the censorship or the blatant homophobia—unfortunately, those are things I kind of expect after spending 18 years growing up in South Carolina. Rather, what upsets me more than anything else is the complete contempt and disregard for a work of art based on the criteria of “other.” The idea that no intellectual value can be derived from a comic book, or the notion that this book is not worth reading because it is too “offensive”—that’s not just laughable, it’s also heartbreaking. How are we ever supposed to learn empathy if we never put ourselves in another pair of shoes?

Daniel Ravenel College of Charleston Board of Trustees reappointment transcript excerpt

A few years ago, I saw a video from one of my Wellesley siblings concerning cisgendered, heterosexual, white male privilege in the consumption of media, and it really stuck with me:

(Now I’m just sad for all these jowly old white dudes. You will never know the love of Jerusha Abbott because you only like to read books about yourself!)

Henrietta U. Golding College of Charleston Board of Trustees reappointment transcript excerpt

Back when I wrote reviews for FYA, whenever book pitches came in, I generally had dibs on books in the following three categories: comic books, books set in Ireland, and LGBTQ books. If there was a gay protagonist and an absence of vampires, I was totally there.

This isn’t because I have some sort of weird, fetish love for gay characters. Rather, I feel a bit of a moral imperative as a cisgendered, heterosexual, white person to read books about people who don’t tick the same demographic boxes as me. "LGBTQ" is not a genre of literature. I actually loathe that tag—I don’t think we should be creating this false dichotomy of “books with normal people” and “books with LGBTQ people” because LGBTQ people are inherently normal. It’s this horrible little paradox where I go out of my way to read books with LGBTQ characters because I want that imaginary genre to go away, but the very act of my doing so reinforces the distinction. Unfortunately, as long as jowly bigots run the show, it’s a distinction we’re going to have.

So I implore you—go out and find a book today that you might not otherwise read. Maybe it’s a different genre than you would normally choose. Maybe it’s written by a foreign author. Maybe the main character is a different race than you, or a different gender, or sexuality. Maybe it’s Fun Home.

Just put on someone else’s shoes for a few hours. I promise you'll be better for it.

 


[1] Announcement of Fun Home as the College Reads pick for 2013 [return]

[2] College Reads Program [return]

[3] I searched my gmail inbox and found a chat message to one Miss Megan Crane, dated October 24, 2013 that reads: “CAN WE TALK ABOUT HOW MY DAD IS HANGING OUT WITH ALISON BECHDEL?” I’ll take that as sufficient proof that this is when Alison Bechdel was speaking at CofC. [return]

[4] "South Carolina tries to punish colleges for assigning "gay" books" [return]

[5] Well, I thought we were in the clear, but then this morning, my mom sent me this article. Sigh, I knew it was too good to be true (like, seriously, what the fuck is happening)[return]

[6] Correctionthe governor also has a couple of board apointees. BECAUSE THAT MAKES IT SO MUCH BETTER. [return]

[7] The transcripts from these screenings are bananas. If you told me that someone went to Père-la-chaise, cracked open Oscar Wilde’s tarted-up tomb, and forced reanimated Zombie Wilde to write a satirical piece of theater concerning the legislative response to CofC’s Fun Home curriculum, I would 100% believe you. The complete transcripts can be found here, but I’ve also uploaded an abridged version here. Reading them provides a truly horrifying peek into South Carolina's political system. I mean seriously revolting. It should also be noted that Daniel Ravenel, whose comments are featured later in this post, was subsequently kicked off the board, presumably for opposing Glenn McConnell's nomination for college president (see footnote 8). [return]

[8] There’s also an entire convoluted B-Plot to this story, which is the trustees’ appointment of South Carolina Lieutenant Governor and Confederate Flag Enthusiast Glenn McConnell as the new College of Charleston President, despite his complete lack of academic experience of any kind. Not actually being a member of the CofC community, I don’t feel like my opinion on this matter is either valid or important, so I’ll just leave these things here for you. [return]

[9] Almost certainly going to Broadway next season. [return] 

[10] Per my father: the event was "sponsored and organized by the CofC Theatre Department, funded in part by CofC Foundation money, by many individual private donations, and in large part by the Sam and Regina Greene Family Foundation, a Charleston family." The cast and creators also did the performance for free, so the production costs as far as they were concerned only included travel and lodging. [return]

[11] Ok so confession: I watched Just One of the Guys this weekend thanks to Megan’s Netflix recommendation, and I kind of didn’t like it at all. I think my distaste is mostly a side effect of the time—I just really couldn’t stomach Terry at the end of the movie being like, “It’s alright that you were a total misogynistic dickhead to me, because it helped motivate me to work HARDER. So thank you, sexist asshole. Without you, none of my journalistic dreams would come to fruition. All my base are belong to you!” Um, chunder. Good try, 1980s, but women have been working hard to prove themselves to their male overlords for ANOTHER THIRTY FUCKING YEARS, and where are we? Oh right, I’m sitting in my living room, trying to figure out how to draw a bunch of jowly, bigoted white men differently enough that you can tell that it’s actually six distinct jowly, bigoted white men (and a token lady! with sensibilities too ladylike and delicate to read this book!) working hard to uphold patriarchal, heteronormative bullshit. I need a drink. [return]

Alix West's photo About the Author: Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.
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