How State Laws Affect MFA Applications

Dee Richards
7 min readOct 26, 2023

It was the University of South Dakota, forwarded by the person I look to for grad program advice from UCI. Thanks, but I will not be applying. Honestly, I would much prefer not to have an MFA. Getting an MFA is my single most important focus in my life, so I don’t mean I don’t want one. I feel I need to be in a writing program, and hope that one of the nine places I’m applying to see my worth. But, University of South Dakota will not be one. Why? I shouldn’t be picky, right? Wrong.

South Dakota, as a state, has a complete abortion ban with very limited exceptions. Even if those exceptions are met, the person is forced to wait 72 hours to do the actual procedure. The only reason I can think of for this delay is to force you to consider other options — that makes zero sense. If the ban is complete except the most likely of circumstances: rape, incest, or life of the parent, then why ask them to consider other options? What a dystopian nightmare to make people who have been raped think about whether or not they want an abortion! But wait, there’s more.

South Dakota, as a state, bans gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 18. Let’s say I’m an asshole and don’t care about issues that don’t directly pertain to me (I’m definitely not). I have begun perimenopause, and am in a single partner relationship with a person who is effectively sterilized. I do not have many worries about pregnancy. The issue of pregnancy doesn’t precisely pertain to me. I still care, but we’re doing a thought experiment here. I have 2 happy, healthy children. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say I have a transgender child. Jason Lambrese, MD, in association with The American Medical Association says: “Once… children, who are already experiencing considerable distress over their gender incongruence, undergo the pubertal development of the ‘wrong’ sex, their psychological well-being deteriorates significantly, and many develop depression and suicidal ideation.” (click here for full article) If I do have a transgender child, they go from happy and healthy to depressed and suicidal. This is not a condition I would wish on anyone, especially my beloved children.

Depression, I can say as being a person who was first diagnosed at 16, is a lifelong affliction. So, perhaps you have forced your child into a dangerous and expansive mental disorder — for what? Is there a potential that supporting a child’s transition is detrimental to them? The article says no: “Because puberty was arrested before development of secondary sex characteristics (such as height, voice, and body shape), the child will achieve a ‘more normal and satisfactory appearance’ after the transition than if he or she had waited until adulthood, in which case many irreversible features (e.g., height) or solely surgically reversible features (e.g., breast and genital development) would have formed.” A study on transitioning by the National Library of Medicine, titled “Factors Leading to ‘Detransition’ Among Transgender and Gender Diverse People in the United States: A Mixed-Methods Analysis” found that out of a total of 17,151 people, 13.1% (around 2,247) reported detransition. Furthermore, of those, 82.5% (1,854) stated that external factors such as “pressure from family and societal stigma” was a driving force behind their detransition. This can be concluded that about 393 (2.3%) of transitioned individuals out of the 17,151 surveyed felt at least partly, as the study states, that their detransition was due to “fluctuations in or uncertainty regarding gender identity.” (read the full study here) To draw back to my point, has care been refused, possibly causing depression and suicidal ideation among transgender youth, to protect the 2.3% that might have been “uncertain” about their gender identity, or is it to protect the status quo?

The status quo I’m speaking of is, of course, white, cisgender heteronormativity which has been, largely, preserved through threats and violence. As an LGBTQ+ person myself, the image I get of a young cisgender male coming to terms with his sexuality in this frame of “status quo” is being called a “sissy” or “queer” in an offensive way. Sometimes this includes or incites violence. A sensitive young man is told by his father that it is “gay” to cry (in this sense, gay is considered very bad, and undesirable). To be clear: it is only “gay” in the homosexual sense for a male-identifying person to seek out sexual contact with another male-identifying person. That is the only thing that has ever made someone gay. Not how they express emotion, not the toys they play with, the friends they have, or even the clothes they choose. All of those being extensions of gay as bad are the direct result of what is called “toxic masculinity.” This term is self-referential, to a degree. Using the “gay as bad” and “straight as good” model, everything that could be socially considered “gay” or effeminate (ahem, patriarchy) falls into the bad category. Bad behavior, in this context, must be corrected by operant conditioning (a method of learning through rewards and punishments to modify behavior).

Simplypsychology.org breaks down operant conditioning in terms of punishment for undesirable behavior. This page shows all basic understanding of Skinner’s definition of operant conditioning. It states that “Punished behavior is not forgotten, it’s suppressed — behavior returns when punishment is no longer present” illustrating that threats do little to resolve the “gay” behavior, but to suppress it alone. As stated above, suppression of one’s identity as transgender can lead to depression and suicidal ideation, and is still repeated once removed from the punishing environment. In my case, the state of South Dakota is the punishing environment (also with transgender care bans: Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, with Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas in contest). In that sense, these states have removed my rights as a parent to decide whether or not to support my child in transition, and refusal to support them can lead to their death or lack of self-esteem.

Combining these laws against transgender youth healthcare with removal or limitation of abortion rights, as a female-adjacent person and a parent, I am refused ability to parent my children the way I feel is appropriate in favor of the populace of a state. I am also banned from having an abortion if I engage in consensual sexual contact with my spouse if the sterilization technique was not performed effectively (thankfully, it was), thereby forcing me into producing another child that is at the mercy of the state. These conditions are not only deplorable for myself and my own children, it is my job as a citizen of a community AND a decent person to transfer these beliefs to others, whether or not they pertain to me and my situation. As such, I cannot (in good conscience) support any state with my taxes, rental payments, purchases, medical care costs, etc. that enforces social rule over personal freedoms in America.

This being concluded, I wish to state that I want an MFA as much as I want to protect my children. However, if one is sacrificed, both are lesser for it. As such, I cannot apply at University of South Dakota even for a fully funded MFA because my tax dollars in that state, despite the school’s particular views or aims, will go to supporting an oppressive, and, frankly, ineffective mode of operant conditioning on the state level. This principle also extends to the following fully funded MFA programs: University of Alabama, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, University of Arkansas, Boise State University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida State University, Georgia College & State University, University of Houston, University of Idaho, Indiana University, Iowa State University, University of Iowa (and the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop), University of Miami, University of Mississippi, University of Notre Dame, North Carolina State University, University of Pittsburgh, University of South Florida, University of Tennessee — Knoxville, University of Texas in Austin, University of Texas James Michener Center, Vanderbilt University, Washinton University in St. Louis, Western Kentucky University, West Virginia University, Wichita State University, and University of Wisconsin — Madison. That is a huge list with 28 schools of 53 in a state that bans youth transgender care and/or abortion access. Not to mention limited abortion access in states with another 13 possible programs (I have elected not to apply in any state with access lower than my home state of California). That leaves me with about 12 possible schools in which I could apply without losing rights on the state level. That is a tragedy.

Mentioning that it would be a tragedy for me personally is obvious. I’ve made my intentions clear. I mean it is a tragedy for young people, particularly young women (and female-adjacent) writers. It is a tragedy for the schools. Young women and other uterus-having people must make a choice between following their dream in all possible avenues, or keeping themselves safe and their rights protected. For other writers like myself who cannot in good conscience support these states, it is a tragedy that our options are so limited. Furthermore, it is a major tragedy for the programs, since they could be losing out on VERY promising writers. If even half of the MFA-seeking applicant pool pulls out of the schools mentioned, interest drops by hundreds. The schools lose money, and many of the programs lose their potential for the next great writer. All of this only to perpetuate an echo chamber of writers who do not “believe” in abortion access and/or transgender health care, or don’t care because it (supposedly) doesn’t affect them. The individual schools might actually believe otherwise, but it wouldn’t matter. Literature needs MORE diverse voices, not less. However, no one should have to choose between following their dream and upholding their principles, but that is where I’m at right now. It’s not the freshest.

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Dee Richards

Dee is a writer, parent & educator. Dee has a BA in English, with honors, from UC Irvine. Dee has 8 anthology pubs & 3 awards in CNF.