Rejection of LGBTQ student group leads to a fight at "unambiguously Christian" Baylor

The Baptist university has denied a charter to Gamma Alpha Upsilon for eight years, members say.

Members of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, like its vice president, senior Anna Conner, 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.
Members of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, like its vice president, senior Anna Conner, 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.  Juan Figueroa for The Texas Tribune

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.
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.”

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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.

Disclosure: Baylor University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.