Censoring Art or Protecting Workers?

Center for gay students at U. of Michigan at Flint is ordered to remove hermaphrodite artwork.
October 21, 2005

The charcoal drawing called "Hermaphrodite," which hangs in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center at the University of Michigan at Flint, is accurately named.

It portrays a naked female body, with wings, and also with a penis. The drawing has been on display for more than two years, but if you go to see it now, you'll find it covered with black paper and the word "censored" written over the paper. University officials ordered the drawing removed, saying that it was creating a hostile work environment for an employee who complained about it. Students at Flint have thus far complied only by covering up the drawing, and many are furious at the university for seeking to have it removed.

"This art represents a person's identity, and the university is now trying to censor that identity," said Greg Storms, a senior at Flint who is a volunteer in the center with the drawing and president of the gay rights group on campus. He said that a transgendered artist gave the center the drawing a few years, after it was part of an art show organized on the Flint campus.

"This is just plain scary to us. It is saying on an institutional level that we are not accepted," Storms said.

While there are not complete images of the artwork online, The Michigan Times, the student newspaper at Flint, ran the image, with the penis blacked out.

Student groups have responded to the controversy by chalking various phrases on campus walkways. Phrases have included "A if for Art, B is for Body, and C is for Censorship" and "UM censored us."

Storms said that it's not just a question of body parts, but of an idea being conveyed by the drawing. "To me, this represents the fluidity of gender to its fullest," he said. He scoffed at the idea that the drawing hurt any employees, and said that he believed the complaint came not from a permanent worker in the office, but someone who had just needed to stop by one day. "This center serves transgendered students, so why should there be any surprise about transgender art?" he asked.

Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan, said that the issue was more complicated than that.

She said that when an employee complained, university lawyers reviewed the artwork and the situation and determined that the drawing needed to be removed. Peterson said it wasn't clear whether covering up the drawing was sufficient. (Storms said that the cover-up was done in a way that allows someone who wants to look at the drawing to pull up the paper and do so.)

"We have a long tradition at Michigan of freedom of expression, but there is a difference between what you might show in an exhibit and what might be in the workplace," she said. "As an employer, there are federal obligations to create a comfortable workplace."


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