TAMPA — David Caton's Florida Family Association has flooded the University of South Florida with more than 2,500 e-mails protesting a spring semester course on "queer theory."
Caton contends the course has no educational value and wastes money as tuition rises, state support for higher education falls and some students can't get the classes they need to graduate.
"The content, I just see that as inappropriate for a tax-funded university to be involved in," Caton said Thursday. "For an allocation of resources, I think this is a very, very bad choice on the part of the University of South Florida."
Because of the sheer volume of letters directed at USF, the e-mail campaign could be the most organized the university has ever seen. Otherwise, administrators say it's similar to past protests from across the political spectrum about instruction in areas as varied as religious studies, military science, evolution and abortion.
"Our response is fairly uniform," USF senior vice provost Dwayne Smith said. "A core value of our university is we respect intellectual diversity.
"The university is a place where ideas are explored, and on occasion that exploration offends and upsets some people," Smith added. "We recognize that. We respect their opinions. I respected the opinion of every one of the 2,500 e-mails that I got, but not to the point that it would cause me in any way to advocate canceling the course, nor do away with our religious studies department, nor forbid the teaching of evolution."
Assistant professor of sociology Sara Crawley has taught the course at USF for four years. It is an elective, senior-level course, and the word theory in the title means students can expect a lot of reading and writing, she said.
While the term is provocative, queer theory has been around on college campuses for about two decades. In general, queer theory takes apart the idea that sexual orientation is innate. It also questions the categories of "male" and "female" along with how society builds those categories up.
"Most importantly, it questions the way in our culture that we tend to understand the world in binary terms," Crawley said. "So it questions male-female as a binary. It questions masculine-feminine. It questions straight-gay and wants us to think about the degree to which it's actually social control in our everyday lives that produces the effect of these categories as binary."
The goal of the course, according to the syllabus, is to introduce students to queer theory and feminist theories of sexuality. The course also investigates "practical questions of living queer in a society that enforces categories."
But it was not anything on the syllabus that riled up Caton and his followers.
Rather, it was something Crawley put on a flier that she distributed to promote the course to students.
Along with a brief description of the course, she included a photo from her book, Gendering Bodies, which she uses in the course.
The photo shows a transgender performer, dressed in white pants, white hat and black suspenders. The caption says, "drag performance of local gender illusionist, 6pak, a physiologically unaltered female-bodied trans guy."
After apparently receiving an e-mail with the flier from a professor, a student forwarded it to Caton.
To Caton, the flier indicates that the course will include a drag show with the performer in the photo. A link on the Florida Family Association's Web site allows visitors to send a prewritten e-mail, complete with the subject line, "Astounded that USF would waste taxpayer dollars on such a course." It also offers the e-mail addresses of seven USF administrators, including president Judy Genshaft.
Crawley said she did not plan to have a drag show as part of the class, which has 31 students enrolled this semester. She included the photo because "my goal was just to get students to read the flier and see if they're interested in taking the course."
"I was simply captioning a picture that came out of my book about things we were going to read and talk about, and that got translated somehow into that USF sponsors drag shows," Crawley said.
"I don't buy it," Caton said, adding that he believed the description of the performer was too detailed and specific to be anything but a promotion for something coming up in class.
Because of the e-mails, a USF dean was on hand outside the classroom the first day of class in case there were any in-person protests, but there weren't any. Caton said the Florida Family Association plans to monitor the situation and see if the course is offered again.
Meanwhile, administrators say most of the e-mails came in a single burst. Smith said about 1,000 of the 2,500 e-mails he received came in on Jan. 6.
In response to the e-mails, the university sent an acknowledgement to the first 500 e-mails it received and received about 15 new e-mails in reply.
"Outside of David Caton and an oiled Web letter-writing machine, is there community reaction?" USF spokesman Michael Hoad said. "The folks in my office have gotten nothing outside of that organization."