The Rice students and Marching Owl Band show support and solidarity for the Baylor LGBTQ community with a half time program featuring rainbow flags.
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."
The Texas Tribune | Shannon Najmabadi | June 26, 2019
The Baptist university has denied a charter to Gamma Alpha Upsilon for eight years, members say.
Gay and lesbian students were hopeful a 2015 policy change could pave their way to more rights at Baylor University, one of the country’s most prominent Baptist colleges.
But four years later, LGBTQ students at the Waco school say they’re still waiting for that recognition to arrive.
Although Baylor eliminated language from its conduct code that characterized “homosexual acts” as “misuses of God’s gift,” LGBTQ students say they remain marginalized — unable to form student groups and barred from accessing student activity funds or reserving campus space for meetings. Baylor has denied a charter to one LGBTQ organization — now called Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or GAY in Greek letters — for eight years, according to the group’s members.
The rejections have prompted an outcry at Baylor, highlighting the tension between the university’s heritage as a traditional Baptist school and its ambitions to be a major player in the world of college research and athletics. It has also pitted openly gay students and their allies against those who believe revisiting the issue could upend the university’s religious convictions and redefine its identity.
A recent petition, signed by about 110 people, argued the LGBTQ student group should not be chartered because it could threaten Baylor’s religious affiliation and donor relationships. An opposing letter, carrying more than 3,200 signatures, says it’s an issue of “fundamental fairness and equity” and that Baylor has, on other issues, remained “overly rigid in the face of basic social change.”
A Baylor spokeswoman, Lori Fogleman, said the 3,200 signatures represent about 2% of the school’s students, faculty, staff and living alumni.
Tensions could flare next month when the university’s governing board is scheduled to meet. Students in the LGBTQ group have asked the regents, up to a quarter of whom are selected by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, to revise the school’s policies, arguing that Baylor’s “exclusionary” stance sets it apart from leading academic institutions.
Of the country’s elite athletic and research institutions, including Christian universities like Notre Dame and Boston College, Baylor is alone in withholding recognition from LGBTQ groups, according to the letter sent to regents.
Greta Hays, a spokeswoman for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, said all private higher education institutions “have the right and ability to ensure that officially recognized student groups are consistent with” their missions.
“For religious colleges and universities, this includes the institution’s religious convictions and beliefs,” she said.
Similar debates have played out on Christian campuses across the country.
Baylor issued a written statement saying, “There is robust discussion about this topic, which is what universities are about, and we acknowledge and appreciate the feedback.”
“We are focused on how we love and care for all our students so they have a healthy, safe and nurturing learning environment in which to be successful at Baylor,” the statement said. “We believe this can be done both inside and outside of officially recognized student organizations. We will continue to work with students as we make decisions consistent with our mission and existing policies.”
To apply for a charter, students must meet with staff in the Department of Student Activities and provide administrators with a packet of materials, including a constitution laying out their mission. There are multiple opportunities to charter an organization each year, but Fogleman said there is no specific timeframe in which officials render a decision.
The university gives “every request a full review,” seeking “input and feedback throughout the process in a thoughtful and meaningful way,” she said. An administrator overseeing student life serves as the final arbiter in deciding which organizations are approved.
Fogleman declined to answer questions about the LGBTQ group’s charter application, saying the process is ongoing. But members of the group said they have been denied recognition in the past because school officials said they were an advocacy organization or at odds with Baylor’s Christian standards.
One rejection message, obtained by The Texas Tribune, simply said “the proposal was not advanced in the charter process.”
“Please know the university remains committed to being a place of support and connection to resources for all students,” the message said, recommending that the student life division “continue to explore ways of facilitating the aforementioned aims of the group.”
The group submitted a new application to be chartered in February, its members said. They liken their organization to a support network and say they’ve deliberately tried to avoid holding parades or undertaking activities that could be deemed advocacy.
Anna Conner, the group’s vice president, said its members were meeting weekly in a public activities center on campus but might relocate to a nearby church next fall.
LGBTQ students “don’t want to be targeted,” says Anna Conner, vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon. Juan Figueroa for The Texas Tribune
LGBTQ students “don't want to walk around on campus and someone goes, ‘Oh, that's that person that went to that meeting.’ They don’t want to be targeted,” she said. “It became a game for a period of time when we put up the rainbow flag to see how quickly it would get others to leave the room.”
Baylor declined to make the school’s president, Linda Livingstone, or the vice president for student life available for interviews.
Fogleman said Baylor will be looking into alternate ways to support LGBTQ students, separate from chartering their organization, over the summer. The school takes a similar approach with other students unaffiliated with official groups, she said.
“Two worlds together”
Like many religious colleges, Baylor adheres to a conservative policy when it comes to matters of sexuality.
Before 2015, the university’s misconduct policy referenced “homosexual acts” alongside incest and abuse, offenses subject to disciplinary procedures guided by “constructive forgiveness.” The current code cites a doctrinal Baptist document from 1963 and says students, faculty and staff are expected to behave in a manner consistent with the “biblical understanding” that “physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity.”
A separate “human sexuality” statement strongly discourages students from participating in “advocacy groups” that promote a contrary understanding of sexuality, including homosexuality.
Livingstone, the school’s president, said the university would uphold its policies in response to a recent request from alumni to recognize the group. The governing board of regents has not yet acted, and it declined to meet with the LGBTQ student group, saying it was not typical for outside organizations to address the regents.
The alumni who made the request, Skye Perryman, Jackie Baugh Moore and Tracy Teaff, said in a joint statement that other Christian universities don’t view granting “full equality” to LGBTQ students as a transgression of religious ideals and that Baylor officials seem afraid of angering a “small but often vocal” subset of stakeholders.
Not everyone at Baylor is in favor of officially recognizing the LGBTQ student group.
The petition against chartering the organization argues doing so could threaten Baylor’s religious affiliation, sour donor relationships and lead to a fundamental redefinition of what the university is.
“Baylor's a religious school. It's affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It claims to be unapologetically Christian, and so it makes absolutely no sense for them to do things that are clearly against” its credo, said Zachary Miller, a Baylor student who signed the petition.
He said freely associating with Baylor means agreeing to abide by its rules. “I don’t quite understand the argument for, ‘Hey, I came to this school that is clearly a Baptist school that says that it is Baptist and I want you to then stop being Baptist for me.'”
But students and alumni in favor of the group say the university has fostered an environment that alienates LGBTQ people, some of whom don’t realize their sexual orientation until college.
It’s a sensitive topic on campus. Some faculty members sympathetic to the LGBTQ students’ plight were afraid to discuss the situation on the record, telling the Tribune privately that they feared reprisal. One former law professor at Baylor, Mark Osler, said he felt compelled to speak out because he thought current faculty “feel constrained from speaking publicly.”
“Being at that intersection of policy and faith is what Baylor is supposed to be — it’s supposed to be the place where those discussions happen, where those conversations, even the dangerous ones, occur,” said Osler, now a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota. “If you're going to be Baptist and a university, you’re going to be bringing those two worlds together.”
A school policy says student organizations cannot use Baylor’s name, resources, facilities or technology services to “engage in activities contrary to or in support of causes that conflict” with its mission and values. Non-Christian groups have also been denied recognition.
“Tough things to navigate”
Attention to the LGBTQ student experience at Baylor heightened in April, when a chartered student group promoted a visit from Matt Walsh, a controversial commentator on the religious right, using a flyer that superimposed a hammer and sickle on a rainbow flag.
Miller, who leads the group Baylor Young Americans for Freedom, said the flyer art was a poor choice and did not convey its intended message. The group — which went through a lengthy application process to receive a charter, he said — removed the flyers to appease the offended students and signify that it had not set out to attack them.
But Christian academic institutions have wrestled for years with the question of how or whether to adapt faith-based conduct codes to changing social mores, including the mainstream acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Just last week, a Jesuit preparatory school in Indiana lost the right to call itself Catholic after refusing to fire a married gay teacher.
Navigating new norms goes beyond reconciling religious beliefs, the dictates of tradition and the wishes of alumni, donors and students. School officials also must contend with legal and financial risks posed by their conduct codes, where the violation of nondiscrimination statutes could mean being excluded from athletic conferences or cut off from federal funds.
Brad Harper, an assistant dean of Multnomah University's School of Biblical and Theological Studies, said that if the federal government stopped recognizing religious exemptions to the gender equity law Title IX, the effect on many Christian colleges could be financially catastrophic.
“It is virtually impossible for colleges to operate if students cannot receive student loans from the government,” Harper said. “Trying to figure out how we navigate being true to our convictions while at the same time realizing that we want to care for all students and … stay in business — those are tough things to navigate, and that's a bunch of what colleges are going through right now.”
Fogleman declined to comment on “hypotheticals” related to federal policy.
Established in 1845, Baylor is among more than 140 campuses across the country that are affiliated with Christian organizations. Its religious identity is strong; the university’s website identifies its “unambiguously Christian educational environment” as a core pillar, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas has provided a small amount of its annual funding.
At the same time, the university has shown a willingness to adapt throughout its history, another school webpage says. The institution is now in “exciting times” as it strives to fulfill the mission laid out by its founding religious leaders and remain “a relevant institution of higher learning for the coming years,” it says.
While the recent petitions about the LGBTQ group have shone a spotlight on the gay student experience at Baylor, some alumni say the topic has long been stigmatized.
John-Paul Hayworth, a Baylor alumnus who is gay, said that when he was student between 1997 and 2001, “homosexuality could be punished by expulsion.”
Although Hayworth made friendships at Baylor that persisted years after he graduated, a sense of isolation pervaded his time there. There was no student group, and he recalls there being only one gay bar in Waco, which patrons heard was patrolled by police officers.
There was a “deep sense of self-hatred and fear that I was forced to maintain because of my sexuality,” said Hayworth, who is now executive director of the District of Columbia State Board of Education. “I was alone, even though surrounded by friends, in large part because of Baylor’s official policies towards the LGBTQ community.”
Justin Davis, who attended Baylor in the 2000s, said the school did not feel like a safe place to be openly gay. He said the conduct policies were rigid and vaguely worded, leaving students to wonder if going on a date or holding hands might lead to punishment.
“For me, at least, the new ambiguous language created a broader scope under which Baylor could discipline students and greatly increased my fear and anxiety,” said Davis, who recalled that one student was disciplined for organizing an off-campus gay rights rally. “The message I internalized was that there wasn't anyone on Baylor's faculty or in the administration that I could or should safely talk to about what I was feeling.”
Fogleman, the Baylor spokeswoman, said she could not confirm or deny the school’s disciplinary actions due to student privacy guidelines. She did not specify what would be a breach of the sexual conduct policies.
Rhiannon Saegert | Waco Tribune| June 22, 2019
Though it is summer and the Baylor University campus is quiet, conversations about inclusion continue.
Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an unaffiliated student group that has applied for a charter as an official Baylor student organization, recently wrote a letter to the Baylor Board of Regents asking it to step in on the group’s behalf. Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said the requests of the regents are still being considered, and the university has no statement at this time.
Hayden Evans, an officer with the group, wrote the letter.
“We ask that the Baylor Board of Regents adopt policies to ensure that LGBTQ+ students can organize and assemble as official student organizations, like the more than 350 other student organizations that are presently recognized on campus,” the letter states. “We also ask that the Regents empower Baylor President Linda Livingstone to ensure that these policies are equally and equitably applied.”
The letter goes on to ask that the regents officially prohibit staff and counselors from endorsing any form of conversion therapy, implicitly or explicitly.
The Baylor University Board of Regents declined to hear from an unofficial LGBT student supp…
Evans said the group, formerly known as the Sexual Identity Forum, has tried multiple times to complete the chartering process. Members are now directly asking the regents to either make a new policy, change the university’s statement on human sexuality or agree to meet with the student group at the regents’ next meeting. The group sent a similar letter asking for a meeting with the regents ahead of the board’s June meeting but was denied because it is considered an outside group by the board.
An open letter penned by Baylor alumni Skye Perryman, Jackie Baugh Moore and Tracy Teaff in April calls for Baylor to start officially recognizing LGBTQ student groups. The letter went on to receive more than 3,200 signatures from supporters with Baylor ties. The authors of the letter subsequently launched a website, bubearsforall.org, as a way to “ensure that no Baylor student, faculty member, staff member, or alumnus is discriminated against or treated unfairly as a result of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“The response and energy behind this movement is inspiring and remarkable,” the three said in a statement. “We will soon be formalizing ways that the more than 3,200 members who have signed the letter and the many others who have contacted us individually can take additional actions to help achieve justice for all Baylor students.”
They also cited multiple instances of student groups seeking chartered status throughout the years, including Baylor Freedom in the early 2000s.
“Although the decision to approve an organization is generally thought to be an operations decision, it is clear that at Baylor the board of regents is the final authority regarding this particular decision,” according to their statement. “So with great hope the students have now reached out to the board of regents.”
Evans said recent events have shaped the way LGBTQ students and allies see the university. Last semester’s visit by Matt Walsh, a blogger critical of the gay rights movement, was met with outcry and a petition to cancel the event. Baylor President Linda Livingstone defended the decision in a campus wide email April 4.
“As I reflect back over the past several weeks, our campus has struggled with demonstrating Christian hospitality while expressing different viewpoints,” Livingstone wrote. “We know that once our students graduate, they will need to be equipped to handle difficult conversations or to face issues they may not agree with or that challenge our Christian beliefs.”
Evans said the university’s response to a more recent incident differed. Baylor’s spring commencement included a benediction delivered by Dan Freemyer, in which he addressed climate change, privilege and race. The benediction caught criticism from some conservative websites, including The Blaze.
Shortly after the commencement, Baylor President Linda Livingstone released a statement on the benediction.
“Like many of the attendees at one of the May 18, 2019, Commencement ceremonies, I was caught off-guard during the Benediction as this prayer is intended to focus on the graduates as they leave Baylor University and make a mark around the world, not to communicate any kind of political statement,” she wrote. “The prayer was not scripted by anyone within the University, and I am disappointed that it has distracted from a special moment for our graduates and families attending Commencement.”
Evans said his group and other students he has discussed the matter with took issue with the variation in the university’s responses to the two events.
“The university was very, very quick in distancing itself from the benediction,” Evans said. “In the very recent past, they’ve taken no steps … in distancing themselves from the Matt Walsh speech and inviting him to campus.”
He said for the members, the university’s response felt deliberate.
“It sends a message of ‘Are we welcome at Baylor?’ ” Evans said. “They have systematically, in the past and now, silenced voices they disagree with and that disagree with their biblical interpretation.”