A recent, quiet change to Baylor University’s student sexual conduct policy probably won't go down as a landmark achievement for gay rights. The new wording is vague, and it probably didn’t grant gay students any new freedom.
But advocates are still celebrating. The old policy explicitly banned “homosexual acts” among students, and included those acts on a list of “misuses of God’s gift” that also included sexual abuse, incest and adultery.
In May, with little fanfare, the school's board of regents approved a new policy without a specific ban. It instead says that students should be guided “by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God,” and that sex should be limited to within marriage.
That's a small bit of progress for the largest Baptist school in the country, gay rights advocates said. And it’s a sign that a private university known for its religious conservatism – it banned dancing on campus until the late 1990s – is slowly becoming more accommodating to its gay population, advocates said.
“They have done a lot of incremental changes, which are all good,” said Carmen Saenz, chairwoman of a gay community group in Baylor’s hometown of Waco. “And I think this is just another step in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, pushback appears to be limited. Some alumni have complained on social media about bowing to political correctness. But many appear to support the change – or have ignored it altogether.
It’s not entirely clear what the change means. Many gay students and alumni didn’t learn about it until weeks after it was adopted. University spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said in an email that the change was part of a broader review of school policies. The new language "states more plainly the expectations of the university," she said.
And the policy was finalized before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. At the time, saying sex should be between two married people meant specifically a married man and woman. The university hasn’t clarified whether gay couples now qualify, but the policy includes a footnote saying it should be interpreted “in a manner consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963,” which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Either way, the removal of the language specifically targeting gay students is reason for hope for recent graduate Adam Short. He co-founded a student group called the Sexual Identity Forum in 2011, but was never able to obtain official recognition from his school.
Short said he hopes the new policy will clear the path for recognition. That would allow the group to use Baylor logos on its social media posts and reserve rooms for on-campus meetings. It would also allow the group to advertise on campus, which may be most important, Short said. Many students don’t know about the small community of gay students on campus, he said, and many freshmen arrive at school thinking they’ll be expelled if they are outed, he said.
“If SIF has recognition, then it can advertise on campus and make everyone know that it is okay to be gay at Baylor,” he said.
Short said he met with university administrators several times over his college career to push for recognition, but was told that it wasn’t possible.
“They would say, ‘We want to respect you as people, but the policy says this,’” Short said.
In 2013, the student senate approved a resolution asking regents to eliminate the reference to “homosexual acts” from the policy, but the student body president vetoed it.
Saenz said that 2013 vote is a sign of how things work at Baylor. Ideas are raised, she said, but often take a while – sometimes too long – to become reality, she said.
But attitudes are changing, she said. Her group, InterWaco–LGBTQ, keeps a list of professors who are supportive of gay students, and refers students to those teachers if they need help. In the past decade, it has been much easier to find supportive people, she said. And many more students feel comfortable coming out, she said.
School spokeswoman Fogleman seemed to agree.
“Those changes were made because we didn’t believe the [old] language reflected Baylor’s caring community,” she said in an email.