When applying for college, Anna Conner said Baylor University was a top choice for her. She grew up heavily in the church, but as a gay young woman, things proved complicated. The church wasn’t accepting of the LGBTQ community.
“Can I be gay and Christian? Will God love me? Am I going to hell? There’s always those questions,” Conner said.
She began to feel disconnected from her church, she said. But when she saw Baylor’s beautiful campus and the people who worked and attended, she felt hope. “Maybe if I came here, I could find some reconciliation and have my heart there (in the church) again,” she thought.
Conner, from Houston and now a junior at Baylor, joined the club Gamma Alpha Upsilon, formerly known as the “Sexuality Identity Forum,” a LGBTQ student group on campus where she found community and solace. But the same feeling of nonacceptance she felt at her church growing up followed her to Baylor.
The private Baptist university has refused to recognize Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or “GAY” in Greek letters, as an official student group since its inception in 2011.
Baylor’s human sexuality policy states that it is “expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching,” which include “heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior.”
Not being recognized as a student group prevents Gamma Alpha Upsilon from certain privileges, including the opportunity to advertise events on campus, reserve university spaces for meetings, or to receive funding through the student government.
But now Conner, who is vice president of the group, and her counterparts are fighting for recognition with some help.
More than 3,000 Baylor University alumni, students, staff and former faculty signed a growing petition addressed to university officials supporting the group’s fight to be recognized. Some renowned alumni, including Hal Wingo, one of the founding editors of People magazine, and more than 100 ministers have shown their support.
The Rev. Brett Younger, a Baylor alum and minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., who also signed the petition, said “openness and inclusion” are central to being both Baptist and Christian.”
But university President Linda A. Livingstone, said Baylor officials are still debating that idea.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Livingstone said student groups have to go through a process to be considered for approval and adhere to university guidelines.
“The main question for us at Baylor that we’re really focused on is how we can provide a caring community for all of our students and do it so they have a healthy environment, in which they can continue their education and to be successful while ensuring that we see through to our Christian mission and our Baptist heritage,” Livingstone said.
“That’s what we’re focused on and that’s what we’re always thinking to do with our all populations on campus,” she said.
Micki Grimland, a Houston therapist and ’75 Baylor alumna, said the hope is to awaken university officials and regents and to show solidarity with students.
“We are a thorn in [Baylor’s] side,” Grimland, who came out as gay in midlife, said of Baylor’s LGBTQ alumni.
“Please quit pretending that Christian and gay cannot go in the same category,” she said. “There are all sorts of Christians around the world that are gay.”
The alumni petition and outreach to the university was launched after Baylor Young Americans for Freedom, a student group that books conservative speakers on campus, scheduled controversial religious right "Daily Wire" writer Matt Walsh on campus.
The group advertised his appearance with a flyer displaying Walsh’s book title “The Unholy Trinity: Blocking the Left’s Assault on Life, Marriage, and Gender,” a rainbow flag (a popular symbol of the LGBTQ community) and a hammer and sickle, a symbol more recently associated with Marxism, according to Zachary Miller, a sophomore and chairman for Baylor Young Americans for Freedom.
Conner said Gamma Alpha Upsilon members couldn’t fathom how the university approved the official student group’s flyers and speaker.
Miller said the flyers “could have been done better,” and said that the ones that weren’t torn down by offended students, were replaced by new flyers featuring just head shots of Walsh and his book title once the group found out students were offended.
Despite the tension on campus, Livingstone classified the ordeal as a sign that “we’re at a healthy university where people can vigorously discuss issues that they have strong perspective on, particularly in the context of a Christian university.”
But some students say dialogue is happening in spite of Baylor and that many on campus are not as vocal in fear of getting “in trouble” with Baylor.
Alumni have said many current faculty who identify as gay or queer are “closeted” and silent about their sexuality in fear of losing their jobs, and many are scared to speak out.
Mark Osler, a former tenured law professor at Baylor, attested to this.
“I felt ashamed that I hadn’t spoken out when I was working there about this,” Osler said of how Baylor treated its LGBTQ students. “I mean, I should have, but there is a culture of fear of discussing it.”
On May 4, Gamma Alpha Upsilon requested, by letter, to meet with Baylor’s Board of Regents at the board’s May 15-17 meeting to discuss their issues and application. A university spokesperson indicated the letter had been received, but declined to comment further.
In an email obtained by the Houston Chronicle, Joel Allison, chairman of Baylor’s Board of Regents, declined to meet with students, stating that “as a private institution, the board does not allow outside groups to address the Regents in such a manner.”
Allison also said the group’s application is being processed, but advised the students to meet with the Division of Student Life — the same department that has denied them for the past several years and ultimately approved the fliers by the conservative activism group.
Kevin Jackson, the vice president for student life, was unavailable for comment, according to a university spokesperson.
Conner said the university’s response has been discouraging, fearing that it will turn into a vicious cycle that continues to point to the college’s policies.
Clare Kenny, director of youth engagement of GLAAD, a LGBTQ-support organization formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said the type of treatment displayed at Baylor is not uncommon. But “by students advocating for themselves on behalf of community, they’re showing community who they are as leaders and they are really advocating for an accepting campus and university,” she said.
Elizabeth Benton, the president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon at Baylor, said the group wants just one thing.
“We just want equality on campus,” she said. “We just want to be able to exist.”