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Humor That Dare Not Speak Its Name
The University of South Carolina Upstate on Monday announced it was calling off a planned appearance by a lesbian humorist that was to have been the lighter side of a scholarly event on lesbian and gay studies.
The move followed demands by legislators that the event be called off. Some of the legislators making such demands have said that they view the humorist's show -- "How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less" -- literally as an event designed to recruit people to become lesbians.
A statement from the university gave this reason for barring the event from taking place: "One aspect of the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium [the larger event] that is garnering negative media attention is, 'How To Be A Lesbian In 10 Days Or Less.' The title of the show, while deliberately provocative, is also part of the comedy. The performance is satirical in nature but has not been received as such. The controversy surrounding this performance has become a distraction to the educational mission of USC Upstate and the overall purpose of the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium. As a result, we have canceled this segment of the symposium."
Organizers of the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Leigh Hendrix, who developed the show. Organizers have noted that nothing in her description of the program, which was developed at Emerson College and has been performed at other colleges, suggests an effort to recruit people to change their sexual orientations. Rather, the description suggests humor.
Here is how the show's website describes the work: "How To Be A Lesbian in 10 Days or Less is a hilarious coming out story for queers and non-queers alike. Motivational speaker and expert lesbian Butchy McDyke deftly guides her captive audience in an exploration of self-discovery and first love, coming out, lesbian sex, queer politics, and a really important Reba McEntire song as they learn to confidently shout, 'I’m a big ‘ol dyke!' Writer and performer Leigh Hendrix weaves a story that is one part instructional seminar, one part personal story, and one part wacky performance art. At turns funny and poignant, silly and earnest, How To Be A Lesbian in 10 Days or Less is the perfect guide to gay for budding lesbians, no matter their sexual orientation!"
Educators in South Carolina have been worried about colleges getting punished for gay content. Lawmakers are already threatening to cut the budgets of the College of Charleston and USC Upstate for using gay-themed books for programs for freshmen. In those cases, however, legislative anger didn't get intense until after the books had been read. The colleges have defended the books, but it was too late for lawmakers to try to block their use. In this case, legislators got angry before the event took place.
State Senator Mike Fair, a Republican who is among those who had been demanding that the event be called off, said he was pleased that the university agreed to do so. He said he has long been concerned about "aberrant behavior" and said that the show, being about "recruiting," contradicted what gay rights advocates have told him about having been "born this way." He said that he rejected such a view. "All of us have predispositions to do wrong."
He said that the planned performance was "recruitment" and thus was not appropriate for a campus. Asked if he believed that the aim of the performance was truly to recruit people to become lesbians, he pointed to the title. "I know what it said. Words have meaning," he said. "And I know what parents read."
He said it was appropriate for parents to be concerned about the performance.
Ryan Wilson, executive director of South Carolina Equality, a gay rights organization, said that he viewed legislative pressure on colleges as a serious threat. "Any efforts by the legislators to suppress academic freedom or programs on campus is wrong," he said. "If they do this on one topic, what is to stop them from doing it with others?"
"Legislators should not be meddling in this way," he added. "I think it is horrible that the university is forced to censor any program."
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