We're having to fight our asses off to protect academic freedom 

Fight the Power

Alison Bechdel's award-winning book Fun Home has been made into an award-winning musical, one of two nominees for this year's Pulitzer Prize. The Off-Broadway musical, along with its current slate of actors, will be coming to the College of Charleston on Mon. April 21 for two inexpensive performances, both open to the public. To say that this is an unprecedented performance at a state-run college is an understatement.

Our state legislators are furious.

In a recent article, the City Paper's Paul Bowers raised this question about the Fun Home performance: "So, innocent musical performance or giant middle finger to the Statehouse? You be the judge." Well, I'm happy to be the judge: it's a giant middle finger to the Statehouse.

Our legislature has been so nightmarish in their responses to Fun Home that their reactions seem like a parody. If their statements were part of a novel about the South, the editor would say, "This is over the top! No one will believe it."

Yet the open hostility toward Bechdel's illustrated memoir isn't fictional. Fun Home was this year's selection for CofC's College Reads! Program, a program inviting — but not requiring — students to read and discuss a different book every year. Some members of the General Assembly have been relentless in their attacks against the book.

State Rep. Garry Smith called Fun Home "blatantly pro-homosexual and pornographic propaganda" and referred to it as "garbage" or "trash" five times in a recent fundraising letter.

And then there's state Rep. Bill Whitmire (R-Walhalla). Recently, a joint committee of senators and representative interviewed candidates for the CofC Board of Trustees. In a transcript of one such interview, the topic turned to Fun Home, and during that discussion, Whitmire called the book "highly offensive" and "promoting a specific lifestyle." He even suggested that an individual could be arrested if he or she invited a 17-year-old to read it and encouraged every person interviewed for reappointment to the CofC Board of Trustees to keep something like this (meaning a book that addresses issues of non-heterosexual identity) from being a College Reads! selection ever again.

It gets worse. In response to news that the cast and crew of the Off-Broadway musical Fun Home had scheduled a performance at CofC — a performance, mind you, that will use not state funds — state Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Daniel Island) told the P&C that he and his Statehouse friends might retaliate against CofC for welcoming the Off-Broadway show to campus: "If lessons weren't learned over there, the Senate may speak a little bit louder than the House. There would be a number of members in the Senate that would have a great interest in fixing the deficiencies at the College of Charleston."

Morgan Koerner, a CofC professor of German, faculty senator, and a guy who's become an outspoken defender of academic freedom, was talking to me about the Board of Trustees and others who have suggested that it's time for the faculty and students who are upset by the legislature's actions to move on, to accept the legislative efforts to take over CofC and undermine its mission, to accept sexist, neo-Confederate homophobe Glenn McConnell as our next president. To make the best of it.

Koerner told me, "The Fun Home cuts and the obviously flawed and manipulated presidential search process have given me a little taste of what it must be like to live in a totalitarian, oppressive state. And it's made me think about the impossibility of reconciliation without truth. You just can't turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it." 

"I love that metaphor," Koerner said. "The college and the Lowcountry have a lot of reading to do, and I think the reading will likely last during the entire illegitimate presidency of our political appointee. The page should stay open for at least another year, and if we can't stop it from being turned after that, bookmark and crease it so that it always opens to that page whenever we pick it up. We can't forget or repress what's happening here."

The performance of Fun Home is a way of creasing the page. It's a way of demonstrating that some of us at CofC aren't going to forget about the General Assembly's opposition to Fun Home. We're not going to roll over compliantly.

A rally is being held at the Cougar Mall on the CofC campus on Monday afternoon from noon-1 p.m. to celebrate academic freedom and to thank Bechdel and the cast of the musical for their support of tolerance and diversity at CofC. Details of the rally will be posted at FightforCofC.com.


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