S.C. College Forced to Close Gender-Studies Center After Lesbian Play

Amid political pressure over its decisions to put on a "lesbian" play and offer incoming freshmen pro-LGBT readings, an embattled college in the South Carolina public university system has suddenly announced it's closing its gender-studies center.

Charleston City Paper's Alison Piepmeier has the disturbing story about how moralitarian state legislators have targeted the University of South Carolina Upstate, and how the school will now shut down its Center for Women's and Gender Studies in July:

Given the fact that USC Upstate has faced homophobic threats and retaliation from the General Assembly, both for its reading program that offered the book "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio" (a decision the Center for Women's and Gender Studies had nothing to do with) and its decision to book the satirical play "How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less," some faculty do not believe the elimination of the center is simply coincidental, especially since their budget for programming is $500 a year. "In my personal opinion it's an act of retribution," one faculty member told me.

In the book controversy, which we covered here in February, conservative legislators cut Upstate's budget for assigning "Out Loud" to incoming freshmen. They also slashed the budget of the College of Charleston for assigning a coming-of-age graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, the award-winning artist and writer whose work deals frankly with her own lesbianism.

But the most recent flap at Upstate seems to have arisen after a recent "Bodies of Knowledge Symposium" that the gender center has put on annually since 2007:

This year when the conference offered a satirical one-woman play called How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less, Rep. Mike Fair (R-Greenville) called them out. Rep. Fair, a Christian fundamentalist who leads the legislative fight for creationism, has been very open about his homophobia. "It's just not normal and then you glorify … same-sex orientation," he told Greenville TV station WYFF. "That's not an explanation of 'I was born this way.' That's recruiting."

State Sen. Kevin Bryant got even more specific, telling The State, "If they've got extra money sitting around to promote perversion, obviously they've got more money than they really need."

The university's administration called the controversy "a distraction to the educational mission of USC Upstate" and canceled the play, presumably because it had no power to cancel the fuddy-duddy Legislature.

Piepmeier spoke to a number of faculty members who called the university atmosphere "a hostile environment":

"To say I'm disgusted is an understatement," a faculty member told me. "The center was a sign of a positive and progressive workplace for faculty and staff and a safe haven for students, gone now with no input from the faculty, staff, and students it served." Indeed, almost every faculty member I spoke with referred to the center as a safe space.

It was a laudable goal, but the educators should have known: There is no such thing as a safe space in South Carolina.