Houston Chronicle | Brittany Britto | September 5, 2019
It may be the start of a new semester, but frustrations largely remain the same for many LGBTQ students at Baylor University.
After months of putting pressure on Baylor administration and its Board of Regents to meet with and formally recognize its LGBTQ student group, Gamma Alpha Upsilon, the students finally received a response from University President Linda Livingstone, but it wasn’t the one that they had hoped for, according to Hayden Evans, a second-year graduate student, outreach chair and treasurer for the group.
In a letter addressed to the university community on Aug. 27, Livingstone stated that “Baylor is committed to providing a loving and caring community for all students — including our LGBTQ students.”
But Livingstone pointed to the university’s newly launched webpage, which includes its human sexuality statement and sexual conduct policy in the hope of conveying the “university’s values and expectations.”
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The statement notes that “the university affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God” and that “Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.” Its sexual conduct policy also 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.”
Livingstone further emphasized that the university is in compliance with Title IX as well as state and federal regulations in terms of the services and support it provides for LGBTQ students.
She also pointed to multiple resources provided for LGBTQ students through school organizations, including the Title IX office, the Chaplain’s Office and Spiritual Life, and its Counseling Center, which Livingstone noted does not practice or condone conversion therapy. The president also noted that students are not disciplined or expelled for same-sex attraction.
“With this said, we understand that we must do more to demonstrate love and support for our students who identify as LGBTQ,” Livingstone wrote, adding that it has been suggested that the university provide “more robust and more specific training” for students, faculty and staff in regard to LGBTQ students, and more opportunities for civil dialogue.
“And, perhaps most importantly,” she wrote, “we need to establish trust with our LGBTQ students so that, among other things, they might seek out the resources provided by Baylor — all of which must be done as a faithful expression of our Christian mission.”
Despite the lengthy letter, many LGBTQ students and alumni said they found Livingstone’s statement disingenuous.
“I’m appreciative of her that she made the statement at all and so publicly,” Evans said. Livingstone’s letter, he said, has allowed people to see some of the fight Gamma Alpha Upsilon has gone through to be recognized and included as a group on campus since its inception in 2011 as the Sexuality Identity Forum.
“But,” Evans added, “I also think it’s a hollow response.”
Justin Davis from Washington state graduated from Baylor in 2009 and agreed with Evans. He said little has changed from his time at the university a decade ago.
“To me, it indicates when these policies become more targeted, but less specific, they’re basically meant to discourage dissent, protest or advocacy,” Davis said.
“I think they’re soft-pedaling this ‘loving and caring community’ thing without taking actual steps.”
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The private Baptist university’s refusal to recognize Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or “GAY” in Greek letters, as an official student group has prevented them from receiving certain privileges, including the opportunity to advertise events on campus, reserve university spaces for meetings, and to receive funding through the student government.
In May, more than 3,000 Baylor University alumni, students, staff and former faculty signed a petition addressed to university officials supporting the group’s fight to be recognized. Since then, Gamma Alpha Upsilon has requested to meet with the university’s Board of Regents — the entity that Livingstone said established its human sexuality policy. That request was declined.
Rumors of the school’s alleged loose ties to conversion therapy — treatments that are supposed to turn gay people straight — have also floated around among Baylor’s LGBTQ community. They involve links between Dennis Wiles, a member of the university’s Board of Regents, vice chair of the student life committee, and pastor of First Baptist Church in Arlington, and his partner church Living Hope Ministries.
Living Hope Ministries, described on its website as “a Christ-centered, Biblical world-view of sexual expression rooted in one man and one woman in a committed, monogamous, heterosexual marriage for life.” hosts a 20-week “intensive, discipleship program” designed to “assist those who have sexual and relational struggles of any kind in their life.”
Late last year, Apple pulled a Living Hope Ministries app from its online store, NBC News reported at the time. And in March, Google shut down a Living Hope Ministries app that promoted conversion therapy, according to reports by Business Insider.
But Jason Cook, a spokesman at Baylor, said “Dr. Wiles has indicated Living Hope Ministries does not do conversion therapy,” adding that the church is a “discipleship, peer-based ministry.”
Cook also emphasized that although Wiles, one of 41 members of Baylor’s Board of Regents, is vice chair of the university’s student life division, Wiles still has to consult and work with the rest of the board to make decisions.
“It’s unfair to cherry-pick an alleged belief of motive, and then ascribe them to the entire board,” Cook said, adding that there are many diverse-points of views on the board, some of which are LGBTQ-affirming.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that is intentionally being spread regarding this issue. We’re trying to be very clear and keep this on a factual-based discussion,” Cook said. “We’re trying to provide clarity regarding the university’s practices and we have demonstrated that we are willing to discuss the issues that our LGBTQ students face. That’s significant progress.”
Evans, the outreach chair and treasurer of the campus group, countered that saying Baylor’s administration is “doing minimal, if any, changes here at the university.”
In July, Evans attempted to “(go) up the chain of commands” by emailing the Big 12 and NCAA organizations in hopes that they could push Baylor to be more inclusive and have a conversation, but Evans said both organizations have said that the university is in compliance with their standards. A spokesman for the Big 12 conference declined to comment in response to Houston Chronicle’s requests, and the NCAA never responded to inquiries.
Since then, there have been some new developments.
Evans said that an open discussion — likely the first to ever take place between university administration and Gamma Alpha Upsilon — will happen soon. And on Sept. 17, Justin Lee, an author and founder of a Christian LGBTQ organization, will speak at the university’s Cashion Academic Center — in an event hosted by the university’s School of Social Work.
Still, Skye Perryman, Jackie Baugh Moore, and Tracy Teaff, the Baylor alumni who authored the letter that received 3,000 signatures calling for Baylor’s inclusion of LGBTQ students, said in a statement that though dialogue is a part of academic life and can be useful, “this is an effort about real people who are in the Baylor family living their lives as dialogue about their civil rights is happening around them.”
“Until all members of the Baylor family, including LGBTQ+ people, are afforded equal opportunities to participate fully in campus life, our work is not done,” the alumni group told the Chronicle.
“We and thousands of others look forward to helping Baylor move forward and urge it to adopt policies that are in line with its academic and athletic peers.”