Baylor University’s LGBTQ Students Deserve Recognition and Real Support, Not More Hollow Platitudes

Justin Davis
Sep 3, 2019 · 21 min read
Baylor’s Burleson Hall as seen from the Draper Academic Building from August 19th, 2001

Note: A comprehensive list of references for this piece is included below.


I was a closeted student during my years at Baylor in the 2000s. And while I didn’t grow up particularly religious, let alone Baptist, I quickly fell in love with the campus and with Waco. Though Baylor, and Waco along with it, have changed incredibly since I arrived almost 20 years ago, some things remain the same. For at least two decades now, LGBTQ students have been asking to form a student group at Baylor, which would provide a safe place to meet, socialize, and engage with the broader student body. However, Baylor has remained steadfast in its opposition to recognizing an LGBTQ student group. It is well documented that Baylor has refused campus discussions on LGBTQ issues, threatened LGBTQ students with discipline for off-campus advocacy, arrested students for protesting Baylor’s anti-LGBTQ policies, and revoked student scholarships.

When questioned about the treatment of LGBTQ students, Baylor’s response has been that it seeks to create a “caring community” around these issues, but in all these years Baylor has yet to take any meaningful steps to do so. Only in response to ongoing controversy this Spring around its LGBTQ policies has Baylor finally invited an LGBTQ affirming and self-identified gay Christian to speak on campus — something it has never done. Baylor’s School of Social Work has invited Justin Lee, formerly of The Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, to speak on the subject of Christianity and LGBTQ+ Persons. Justin and I became friends eight years ago when I was living in North Carolina. Even then, he was frequently invited to speak at Christian colleges and universities about LGBTQ Christians, so we discussed how meaningful it would be for him to speak at Baylor, especially given the ongoing struggles of LGBTQ students there. While I am glad that Justin has been invited to speak on campus, Baylor also needs to extend such invitations to its own LGBTQ students and alumni, including those from Truett Seminary.

Over the last twenty years, there has been a dramatic shift in Texas regarding the treatment of LGBTQ people. While legislators continue to propose discriminatory bills, the majority of Texans now support marriage equality and LGBTQ protections. Still, Baylor remains largely unchanged. This year, close to 4,000 Baylor freshmen have enrolled. These Freshmen have lived their entire lives after the landmark case of Lawrence vs. Texas, which decriminalized homosexuality in the United States in 2003. In this era, Baylor’s continued refusal to recognize an LGBTQ student group is not only ignorant but also threatens the wellbeing and safety of its students. And yes, Baylor’s counseling center does now offer a counselor-moderated support group for LGBTQ students — which is certainly a help to those specifically needing therapeutic support. But in excluding student-led social groups and redirecting solely to therapeutic and spiritual care providers, Baylor demonstrates that the institution continues to pathologize the lives of LGBTQ students.

In refusing positive social support systems for LGBTQ students and allowing fellow students and ministries connected to Baylor to push conversion therapy and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric both on and off campus, Baylor is almost certainly, yet again, running afoul of Title IX. This time by creating a hostile environment that targets LGBTQ students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and subjecting them to treatment that has been well documented as negatively impacting mental health.

My own story is particular but not unique, and the details demonstrate how Baylor skirts Title IX by pretending ignorance of the promotion of conversion therapy both on and off campus. When I arrived on Baylor’s campus in August of 2001 at 17, it was my first time away from my home in Southern California. At the encouragement of my Freshman Welcome Week leader, I began attending Waco’s Antioch Community Church my first week as a student. I quickly became engrossed in the culture of the church, and within a few months, I began to internalize their message of shame, disgust, and fear about my sexuality. These messages came not only from the pulpit but from fellow Baylor students involved as leaders in Antioch’s college student ministry.

In its two decades, Antioch has grown from 1,500 to 5,000 members and has come to wield a significant presence and influence on Baylor’s campus. Antioch has long been a source of controversy in the Waco and Baylor communities for multiple reasons ranging from its church culture to its Senior Pastor (and Baylor Alumnus) Jimmy Seibert’s outspoken views on homosexuality. In 2013 and 2015, following groundbreaking decisions by the US Supreme court that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Seibert preached that 90% of lesbians and gays have been sexually abused, that young men in the homosexual lifestyle will likely die earlier than heterosexual peers, that LGBTQ parents are more likely to abuse their children, are more prone to mental illness, more likely to become sexual abusers themselves, and he claims to have seen hundreds of people change their sexual orientation to heterosexuality. However, all of the sources from which he draws his information have been widely and thoroughly discredited as well as renounced.

Meanwhile on campus, like many LGBTQ students, I didn’t know where to turn. Baylor’s policies and statements on homosexuality foster an environment of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. To this day, Baylor has not defined what it means by “homosexual behavior” in its Statement on Human Sexuality and has not said what disciplinary procedures students face should they do something that is perceived as violating its policies — only clarifying that students will not face disciplinary action or lose scholarships for merely identifying as LGBTQ (apparently the verb of being is excluded from their undisclosed list of forbidden actions).

Alongside the crisis of mishandled sexual assault cases, Baylor is also failing the LGBTQ students under its care. Due to the added fear of repercussions with regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBTQ victims of assault are significantly less likely than their peers to turn to campus resources like Baylor’s Title IX office, Bias Response Team, or Chaplain’s Office. Baylor encourages LGBTQ students “struggling with these issues to avail themselves” to Baylor’s counseling center, or spiritual life office, but the fact remains that many LGBTQ students are afraid to use these resources out of mistrust or fear of retaliation. When students feel unsafe on campus and like they cannot trust the institutions that are designed to support them, they are more likely to become isolated, experience mental and emotional distress, and are placed at greater risk of harassment, violence, and sexual assault. These factors cultivate a hostile environment in which LGBTQ students experience harassment and spiritual and emotional abuse from their peers, especially those who either attempt to “pray away” someone’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity or pressure them into seeking out conversion therapy.

Baylor’s own Title IX policy prohibits gender-based discrimination — including on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression — and any behavior that creates a hostile environment, which can disrupt a student’s education. Furthermore, this policy specifies that this behavior is prohibited between students, whether on or off campus. What is not addressed, however, is the ways in which Baylor’s Sexual Conduct Policy and Statement on Human Sexuality have been used to prohibit LGBTQ student groups and to justify disciplinary action against LGBTQ students, despite failing to specify how the university defines “homosexual behavior” and clearly presuming a singular interpretation of “biblical teaching” about human sexuality.

Two and a half years into my time at Baylor, I was referred to Living Hope Ministries, an ex-gay organization in Arlington, Texas. Like many before me, I was referred there by Antioch members who were fellow Baylor students who “had struggled with similar issues.” This initiated several years of counseling and group sessions during which I and others like me met under the guidance and influence of ministry leaders to pray in an attempt to change our sexuality.

Ex-gay therapy became popular during the height of fear about the AIDS crisis, and it goes by many names: conversion therapy, reparative therapy, sexual orientation change, or colloquially, “pray away the gay.” The practice itself has been debunked by most of the movement’s own original founders, as well as by every major medical and mental health association in the United States, as being ineffective, harmful, and destructive. Research has shown that attempts at religious and therapeutic conversion therapy often result in increased depression, suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts, and lower educational achievement. Considering the already high depression and suicide rates among college students, Baylor has a responsibility to mitigate these increased risks for its LGBTQ students.

Furthermore, Baylor’s own Counseling Center, which offers an APA-accredited doctoral Internship program, recognizes the harmful physical, mental, emotional, and academic impacts of unsupportive environments for LGBTQ students while also recognizing the positive impacts of supportive and affirming environments. It seems that the Board of Regents continues to ignore their own in-house professionals on this matter, instead choosing to seek out voices that confirm their own biases.

Earlier this year, during its meeting in Dallas this Summer, Baylor’s Board of Regents invited Janet Dean, a psychologist from Asbury University, to speak to them about the experiences of LGBTQ students on Christian campuses. (Notably, Baylor has never allowed its own LGBTQ students or alumni an audience with the Board.) In 2018, Dean co-authored the book Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Faith and Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses. While the book avoids explicit mention of ex-gay or conversion therapy, the authors describe LGBTQ people through what they call a “disability lens,” which religiously frames same-sex desire as an unfortunate abnormality to be accommodated.

While this approach is presented as a clinical framework, it relies heavily on Christian norms of heterosexuality, which associate LGBTQ orientations and gender expressions with the Christian concept of “the fall.” The authors offer this approach as a more compassionate way of viewing LGBTQ people, one that doesn’t blame them for choosing their identity. Unfortunately, it ends up denigrating all people with disabilities and LGBTQ identities by viewing them as abnormal. This goes against the American Psychological Association’s understanding of LGBTQ identity and against the United Nations’ definition of disability, both of which point to society’s lack of acceptance as the problem, and society’s acceptance of the full range of human differences as the solution to reduce the harm both groups experience as the result of bias and discrimination. One has to wonder why Baylor would invite someone like Dean to come and speak to them, given that conversion therapy (no matter how it is softened) has been so thoroughly discredited and denounced.

While Baylor administrators make a great show of stating that Baylor counselors do not condone or promote conversion therapy, it seems to be a case of the right hand pretending not to know what the left hand is doing. It is a rather dubious sleight of hand, considering that the current Board of Regents Chair and Vice Chair of the Student Life Committee — Kim Stevens and Dennis Wiles, respectively‚ — both have explicit connections through their churches to Living Hope Ministries, the aforementioned ex-gay organization.

Dennis Wiles is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church Arlington, which has employed Living Hope’s Executive Director and provided Living Hope Ministries with office and meeting space for decades, as well as significant funding ($52,635 a year contributed in support of its mission). Wiles also represents the Baptist General Convention of Texas, of which Baylor is affiliated, on the Board of Regents. It is worth noting that in recent years, the BGCT has kicked LGBTQ affirming churches out of its conference. Meanwhile, Kim Stevens — who Baylor’s website describes as being an active member of Antioch Community Church — runs a local event production company, which has produced Antioch’s annual global missions conference, World Mandate, which draws heavy attendance from and is heavily promoted in the Baylor community. The event was hosted at Baylor’s Ferrell Center for several years, and in 2012 was attended by then Baylor President, Kenneth Starr.

Both First Baptist Church Arlington and Antioch Community Church are listed as “Partner Churches” on the Living Hope Ministries website. All of this is to illustrate how these connections between the Baylor Board of Regents and specifically anti-gay ministries clearly make it impossible for Baylor’s leadership to be objective with regard to LGBTQ students in their decisions. Moreover, it is disingenuous for the Administration to disavow conversion therapy on campus, while Regents responsible for Student Life actively support it through off-campus ministries that target Baylor students.

In an email to the Baylor Community on August 27th of this year, Baylor President Dr. Linda Livingstone stated that the university’s policy on human sexuality is “established by the Board of Regents.” The policy was first established by Baylor in the fall of 2002 following campus controversy around the formation of Baylor Freedom, an early Baylor LGBTQ student group. The policy was then revised in anticipation of an off-campus gay rights rally in March of 2004, further cracking down on LGBTQ students on campus by adding the still undefined words, “homosexual behavior.”

These conflicts of interest speak to the deeply-rooted implicit bias within Baylor’s leadership that undermines its ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBTQ students. It is not merely that these Regents have conservative theological beliefs about sexuality, it is that they are actively partnering with dangerous organizations that inflict harm on Baylor’s LGBTQ students. Their decisions to, (1), refuse LGBTQ student groups a charter and, (2), allow other students and outside ministries to exert pressure towards conversion therapy clearly contribute to a hostile environment as defined by Baylor’s Title IX Policy.

On April 4th of this year, ahead of the campus visit of Matt Walsh, a blogger who spoke at a campus event about the perceived threats he believes LGBTQ people pose to life, gender, and marriage, Baylor President Linda Livingstone said, “Our campus should be an environment where we can learn how to respond to each other in a respectful, compassionate manner and to use challenging situations and discussions to share and reflect upon our own personal beliefs and core convictions.”

Sadly, President Livingstone, Baylor, and its Board of Regents have never extended Christ-like grace — respect, compassion, the opportunity for discussion — to its own LGBTQ students or alumni. What hurts, especially in light of Janet Dean’s invitation and presentation to Baylor’s Board of Regents earlier this Summer is that after it was over, Livingstone said, “As we know, in the Christian community it’s a very difficult conversation to have. . . . It provided [the Board of Regents] a safe environment to have that conversation around an issue that’s very important to us, to think through how we best serve LGBTQ students in a caring and loving way because of our Christian mission.”

“A safe environment to have that conversation around an issue that’s very important to us.” Even re-reading this now, I have to pause to let the hypocrisy of this statement wash over me.

This is precisely what Baylor’s LGBTQ students have been seeking for decades — a safe space to talk about issues at the core of who we are and how we navigate the world around us that is all too often not safe, not caring, and not loving. Instead, Baylor’s Board of Regents invited a straight person to come and speak to them about our experiences as LGBTQ students and alumni who are already members of Baylor’s “caring and loving” Christian community.

LGBTQ students cannot thrive, learn, and experience their college years on the same footing as their peers when they are made to feel unwelcome and invisible when they are dismissed and ignored in favor of those who seek to minimize or erase them. My own experience at Baylor, of being isolated and intimidated on campus, and passed off to local ministries practicing conversion therapy had serious long-term impacts on me. My time at Baylor was already not an easy one. I was a first-generation college student with a terminally ill father and would be diagnosed with chronic health issues myself while I was a student. The added mental, emotional, and spiritual distress of efforts to change my sexual orientation only compounded these stresses and impacted my wellbeing, my academic performance, and my ability to engage with other students on campus and in the classroom.

It took several years after graduating to finally accept myself, and it has taken many more years of therapy to unpack and start to resolve the trauma of those years. It has only been in the last few years that I can say I am finally beginning to thrive as a whole person. Even as I prepare to marry the love of my life in a few weeks, I know that I will always have to work on the fear, guilt, shame, and homophobia that I internalized during those years. Conversion therapy leaves permanent scars, and the words, voices, and institutions that condemn LGBTQ people while claiming to love us are all but impossible to shake, even for those of us who survive them.

Baylor continues to aspire to be a leading university, but if it continues to mistreat LGBTQ students, it will be forever consigned to sectarian irrelevance. Beyond potentially risking its federal funding through more Title IX violations, Baylor’s mistreatment of LGBTQ students also risks its standing with the NCAA and the Big 12 athletic conference, its APA accreditation for its PsyD program, and its reputation as a top-tier research institution.

What’s more, Baylor has a moral and ethical responsibility to its LGBTQ students, one rooted in its Baptist values. In President Livingstone’s own words, “While Baylor is a university that supports and encourages free speech, we have an additional — and very important — responsibility as a Christian university, and that is to appreciate differing opinions and backgrounds in a respectful, compassionate manner that extends grace as Christ did.”

Last week, Dr. Livingstone pledged to the Baylor community “to continue these ongoing conversations with faculty, students, staff, alumni and members of our LGBTQ community and to provide support for all of our students in keeping with Baylor’s Christian mission.” What will come of Dr. Livingstone’s pledge awaits to be seen. Baylor’s new FAQ on Human Sexuality at Baylor proves that its administration is woefully out of touch, ignorant of its own history of its mistreatment of LGBTQ students, and bent on deceiving the Baylor community and the public about its beliefs and practices.

Any productive dialogue must be grounded in the truth about the whole story of how Baylor has directly and indirectly treated LGBTQ students and the many ways it has obscured this story. Baylor’s LGBTQ students, staff, faculty, and alumni have waited for decades just to have a chance to speak at Baylor’s table. We are and have always been part of the Baylor family and it is time for us to tell our stories. And it is long past time for Baylor to listen and be held accountable.


References

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American Psychological Association 6th edition formatting by CitationMachine.net.

Justin Davis

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Avid baker, dog dad, and seeker of justice

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