Prof: 'Cadre of militant LBGT students' drove me to resign

A Chicago art professor has resigned, saying a “small cadre of militant LBGT students with an authoritarian agenda” created a “toxic environment” for him.

Michael Bonesteel—a renowned expert on comic books and outsider art who taught popular classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for the past 14 years—explained in an exclusive interview with The Chicago Reader that he resigned after students repeatedly filed complaints accusing him of racism and homophobia because he failed to provide “trigger warnings” before introducing controversial subject matter.

Citing a "toxic environment" that "feels more like a police state,” Bonesteel alleged that student complaints to administrators resulted in him being told he wasn’t allowed to teach future classes on comic books, causing his teaching-load to be reduced to a level that would have rendered him ineligible for health insurance benefits.

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The first complaint, Bonesteel said, arose during a discussion of Henry Darger, a Chicago artist known for depicting representations of young girls with penises in his comic books, whose work Bonesteel has studied extensively.

Bonesteel recounted presenting a theory—which he claims is considered plausible by many scholars—that the shocking images might be related to possible childhood sexual abuse.

According to Bonesteel, a transgender student objected to the discussion, arguing that “there was no proof that Darger was sexually abused, and therefore I was wrong in proposing the theory.”

When Bonesteel defended the theory, he claims that the transgender student filed a complaint with the administration, resulting in Bonesteel needing to meet with a diversity counselor and post an apology on the school’s website.

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Two days after the first incident, a different student launched into what Bonesteel describes as "a long diatribe about perceived anti-Semitic attitudes" of the author of a book the class had been assigned to read (Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones).

The exchange “heated up,” according to Bonesteel, as the student proceeded to launch into a diatribe against the school’s “policies toward minorities and transgender students” while “leveling accusations of racism and homophobia” directly at Bonesteel, whose failure to use “trigger warnings” in class apparently aggravated the student, as well.

That student, too, made a complaint to the administration.

The resulting letter from the dean informed Bonesteel that the school had “determined that it is more likely than not that your conduct in relation to this student constituted harassment based on gender-identity in violation of the School's Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation.”

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The very same incident would come back to haunt Bonesteel again several months later, when another student filed a complaint saying they were “troubled by the incident,” after which Bonesteel was informed that he would no longer be teaching courses about comic books in the future.

While the SAIC did not respond to requests from Campus Reform to confirm the professor’s account of the events, Bonesteel told the Reader that he was also told on May 30 to significantly revamp his other courses by replacing materials by Outsider art scholars with “new readings from academic journals.”

Moreover, without the comic books courses, he no longer taught enough hours to qualify for health insurance benefits.

Bonesteel said he "could have lived with" making changes to his courses, but that "to be labeled discriminatory and charged with sexual harassment because I got into a heated debate with a hostile student who happened to be transgender, and for that student's accusations of sexual harassment to be credited—and for my account and those of several other student witnesses to be discredited—seems entirely unfair."

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"Then, to be punished by refusing to let me teach three comics courses in which I had invested twelve years of time and effort and love, and in the process take away my insurance benefits, these were the conditions that I found unacceptable."

In his resignation letter, dated June 12, Bonesteel protested what he called "abuse of Title IX protections,” explaining that "it is my contention that I have been unfairly vilified and demonized by [a] small cadre of militant LBGT students with an authoritarian agenda.”

Neither Bonesteel nor SAIC responded to multiple requests for comment from Campus Reform.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen