Newsweek | Jenni Fink | June 26, 2019
Students and alumni at Baylor University are fighting for recognition of a student-run LGBTQ+ organization, which they argue would provide opportunities to challenge world views in an academic space and therefore strengthen students' individual beliefs.
Located in Waco, Texas, the private Christian college aims to provide students with an elite academic and religious education. In 2011, students founded the "official unofficial gay club," now called Gamma Alpha Upsilon, and for years, their charter requests were denied. The rejections haven't squelched the group's mission, though. Now, students, alumni and faculty are once again pursuing official status with vigor.
Baylor isn't the only campus to see students forming united fronts to enact changes to the status quo of their institutions. Students at Brigham Young University, a private school in Utah founded by the Mormon Church, spoke out earlier this year about their negative experiences with the institution's Honor Code Office and advocated for reforms.
"There's been a big change, in that people aren't just gonna blindly follow whatever they learned growing up, or whatever their pastor says in sermon, these days," Anna Conner, vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, told Newsweek.
Instead, Conner said college students are looking at what they've been taught through the lens of historical critiques, and are mindful of discrepancies between scriptures. In her view, taking a deeper dive into the historical and social circumstances surrounding traditional views on LGBTQ+ issues is crucial to a more thorough understanding of the issue.
"We're not abandoning our faith, we're just trying to make sense of something that's very big, very convoluted and has a very long history," she said.
Conner, a senior at Baylor, said she chose the university due to her desire for a quality education coupled with a Christian ethos. She joined Gamma during her freshman year and explained that without official recognition, the group can't pass out fliers or hold events on campus.
If their charter request was approved, she said the group could hold discussions about sexuality and the Bible, which could be beneficial to all students, regardless of the opinion they hold.
"When you're faced with something like being gay and coming from a Christian background, you really have to take a step back and learn about the actual religion you grew up in," Conner explained. "I learned so much about Christianity that I never would have known if I hadn't had to do all this research. It's important to have your world views challenged, so you can learn more about the things you believe in."
Paige Hardy, who graduated from Baylor in May, wasn't a member of Gamma, but sponsored two bills last year advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ students on campus as a student senator. She agreed with Conner, noting the value of intellectual debate. Without someone on campus to challenge an opinion that being gay is wrong, Hardy said students holding that belief won't be equipped to defend their views when they enter the real world.
"At Baylor, we're really doing an injustice both to those who have opinions contrary to supporting the LGBT+ community and those who are in that community," Hardy told Newsweek.
Not everyone on campus sees the inclusion of Gamma as a positive, though, and a recent petition to keep Gamma unrecognized gathered more than 100 signatures.
Stefan Fitting, the chairman of Baylor's chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, told Newsweek official status wasn't necessary for these kinds of discussion to occur. He said it's a conversation that's already being conducted in classrooms and political clubs.
"Baylor has an obligation to provide a quality education and an authentic Christian atmosphere," Fitting said. "This does include exposing their students to different viewpoints, but that doesn't mean Baylor is required to delegate student [organization] funding to clubs with views counter to the University's principles."
Baylor's statement on human sexuality affirms the "biblical norm" of "purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman." However, a group of more 3,000 alumni, faculty members, donors, ministers and other members of the Baylor community claimed the statement espoused viewpoints that are "hotly contested within Christian and Baptist traditions."
The letter was first sent in April to Linda Livingstone, Baylor's president, and Kevin Jackson, Baylor's vice president for student life, and advocated for official recognition for Gamma. Baylor alumni Skye Perryman, Jackie Baugh Moore and Tracy Teaff, who penned the letter, explained that it tapped into a "grave need" and "put a voice to a movement."
"Alumni are Baylor's footprint in the larger world," they told Newsweek. "Alumni have historically played a critical role in pressing the university to move forward on issues of civil rights and to ensure that all are treated with equal dignity and respect."
Hardy said alumni have "really helped this entire process beyond words" and Conner noted change will likely come only when alumni withhold donations that affect the bottom line. While Hardy's time at the school has ended and Conner only has one year left, both women said other students will pick up the torch to continue the fight.
"Baylor thinks if they ignore the problem, that it's going to go away. But that's not the generation that we live in anymore," Hardy said.
A Baylor spokesperson told Newsweek the university appreciated feedback on the topic and valued the "robust discussion" surrounding it. They said the school's focus was on loving and caring for all students, thereby enabling them to be successful at Baylor.
"We believe this can be done both inside and outside of officially recognized student organizations," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to work with students as we make decisions consistent with our mission and existing policies."
Decisions about charter applications, Hardy said, generally take 200 days. Gamma has about 100 days left to receive a response. But recognition goes beyond just being an official university organization, Conner pointed out. It's to increase Gamma's ability to connect with students who are struggling with their identity and may be at risk of hurting themselves.
"I'm advocating because I'm trying desperately to reach out to these people that I can't get to," Conner said. "I do this with a sense of urgency, because I'm worried about the people that we haven't gotten to yet."