Pressuring Christian Universities to Be Affirming
Baylor students are trying to secure the LGBTQ support I wish I had when I was a student there
I’m not sure what to say when people ask me about God.
It’s not a common conversation, especially on the East Coast, where I now live. The subject rarely comes up. When some people find out I went to Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the world, they make their assumptions about my faith. When they find out I’m a lesbian, their assumptions are undone and replaced with another about my absence of faith.
To be from Texas, to be a lesbian, to be a Christian; it’s too contradictory, too confusing. The Baptist schools I went to never made an effort to question this notion of contradiction. If you’re a Christian, you’re saved. If you’re queer, you’re damned.
Recently, more than 3,000 Baylor University alumni, students, and faculty signed a petition in support of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an LGBTQ+ student group at the university. The university has consistently denied the group official recognition because of Baylor’s human sexuality statement, which says, in part, that “Temptations to deviate from this [biblical] norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.”
The petition was launched in response to a university-approved event held by the Baylor Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), who hosted Matt Walsh on campus. Walsh is an online political blogger for Daily Wire who regularly argues against left-leaning ideologies and policies. He often uses his platform to diminish and mock the experiences of LGBTQ communities. For example, on Dec. 5, 2017, he tweeted, “By the way, ‘LGBT rights’ aren’t a thing. It means nothing. You don’t have any special rights due to your sexual proclivities. Religious rights, on the other hand, are real and fundamental to our foundation as a country.”
The Baylor petition in question does not seek to “stop Mr. Walsh from visiting Baylor’s campus” and it is not requesting “[to] remove Baylor YAF as an official student organization.” Instead, the petition aims to “illustrate the fundamental unfairness of the University’s treatment of other student groups, particularly those seeking to provide community to students who identify as LGBTQ allies.”
Essentially, the petition is asking Baylor President Dr. Linda Livingstone and the Board of Regents to stop rejecting the requests of groups like Gamma Alpha Upsilon to become official student groups on campus. Without an official student group status, queer students and allies cannot receive funding from the student government, cannot meet in an official capacity, and are not recognized as legitimate by their institution.
They can meet unofficially, of course, but Baylor will not acknowledge them. They are allowed to stay in the darkness, but they can never come into the light. In the name of Jesus, the school is saying, “You aren’t good enough to be seen. We do not want you. You do not fit in here. There is no seat at the table for you.”
This is not an issue unique to Baylor. According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, there are more than 150 Christian-affiliated colleges in the United States and Canada. Many of these schools have human sexuality statements, similar to Baylor’s, that reject LGBTQ student activity on campus. Institutions affiliated with Christianity often prioritize policies that will protect their funding from affluent alumni and conservative organizations over policies that will project light and love.
Fear, exclusion, shame; these values are at the heart of rejection. Empathy, love, listening; these values are at the heart of Jesus.
I know how harmful it can be when the values of rejection dictate institutions’ policies and decision-making
I know how harmful it can be when the values of rejection dictate institutions’ policies and decision-making. I know what it’s like to have an institution de-value a component of who you are, to let you know, in no uncertain terms, that you do not deserve to be seen. It happened to me, for many years, at Baylor and other institutions like it.
Growing up as a closeted lesbian in Baptist institutions, I learned to become numb, to disconnect from my desires. I never hated myself, but I did refuse to see myself. I ignored my instincts, my crushes, my feelings; I lied to everyone around me, including myself; I poured my attention into other people’s lives, never letting anyone get too close.
I saw myself as more of a brain than a body.
The repression for me was rooted in a lack of definition. I wouldn’t acknowledge the feelings I had or the attractions I felt. The purity culture of evangelical communities — save sex for marriage — allowed me to easily hide my apparent lack of sexual interest. No one around me was having sex, talking about sex, and if they were thinking about sex, never let any of us know. When I felt a distinct twist in my stomach when a pretty girl hugged me, I reasoned I was just happy to see her. My feelings of attraction were attached to nothing. I saw myself as more of a brain than a body.
At my Christian high school, we had to attend chapel services every week. I always felt claustrophobic during them. The uniform was formal: starched white oxford blouses, school-approved length navy skirts, mandatory navy knee socks. We assembled in the freezing, freshly renovated chapel that still smelled vaguely of sawdust. There were huge windows on either side of a wooden cross that hung above the stage, where speakers (almost always men) delivered various sermons that were amplified by wireless headset microphones.
My high school did not mince words during any of their themed chapels: not during the ones on alcohol, not during the ones on sex before marriage, and especially not during the ones on the sins that were truly abominable, like masturbation and atheism and homosexuality.
During the service on homosexuality my junior year, a pastor from a megachurch in Houston delivered the message. He talked about the dangers of homosexuals. That you could love them from a distance, but know that loving them will always break your heart because they will never be saved and cannot spend eternity in paradise.
During the course of his sermon, I sat shivering, listening with rapt attention, internalizing every word, thinking, Homosexuality equals hell, and you’re a Christian, and Christians don’t go to hell, so what you’re feeling is not homosexuality, you are better than that, you are stronger than that, you can beat this, bury everything as far down as you can so no one can ever find it and know who you really, truly are, all the while trying desperately not to think about the strange, out-of-place feelings I’d had for women since I turned 13.
At dinner that night, my family talked about the chapel service.
“Well, that’s a little dramatic,” my mom said. I had just retold the pastor’s last story about someone in his family who died of AIDS. He said, it broke my heart to see him go, but I was even more devastated by this simple knowledge: I would never see him again. He never repented of his sins. He would live in hell, for forever, for the life and love he lived out. “And there is absolutely all judgment and no love in that. Which is ridiculous. But still. You know, if you or Hayden ended up gay — ”
“God, Mom!” Hayden, my brother, choked on his chicken and coughed dramatically. “Don’t even say that. It’s not going to happen.”
“I know,” my mom handed him some water to help with the coughing. “But if either one of you were. Or decided to be. Or whatever it is. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to sound casual, cool, and inevitably failing to do both.
“Well,” my mom narrowed her eyes at me, like she could read my thoughts (my own fear projected), then moved past it. “Well, it just makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. And imagine what my friends would say. I want you guys to have what your dad and I found. You know, before I met David…”
It always came back to this. My parents wanted my brother and I to be happy in the specific way that they were. It was their only real reference for love.
“I don’t want y’all to be hurt,” my mom continued. “I want you to find love. True love, not just desire or sex or whatever it is that they have. I want you to experience this kind of marriage. And it takes a man and a woman for that to happen.”
After dinner, I helped clean up the kitchen, asked if I could be excused, and sprinted upstairs to run a bath. The water was scalding and steam rose up from it, blowing away from me with the ventilation fan roaring like white noise.
I slipped into the tub and dunked my head under water. When I came up for air, I whispered,
“Father, keep me safe.”
What I really meant: Protect my friends from my desires.
Another dunk, another whisper.
“Father, forgive me for neglecting your truth.”
Help me bury this feeling forever.
It was a homemade baptism: desperate, driven by guilt and shame.
“Make me more like you.”
Keep me straight, keep me straight, please, God, keep me straight.
Brené Brown, the research professor and storyteller known for her TED Talk on vulnerability, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
This shame was at the heart of my baptisms. I did them for years. Drowning myself, my desires, trying to come up clean and pure and good enough to love.
I came out when I was 24. Afterward, my best friend told me that for the past 14 years, she had resolved herself to the fact that there was a wall within me that she could never break down. I was someone you could never get to know. I was so afraid of that, of letting someone truly know me, because I didn’t believe I was deserving of love. All of my life, I had been told by Baylor and other places like it that my desires were perverse, deserving of punishment, and impossible to love.
Shame lives in the dark. It thrives in it. For years, I walked around blind. I couldn’t see myself. I couldn’t let others see me. I was lost. I parroted verses from the Bible about grace and love and light. But the very institutions that tried so desperately to get me to conform to their ideologies were preventing me from understanding the foundational truth of Christianity: love God and love others. But I was afraid of love. Fear, exclusion, shame; rejection ruled my whole life. I had enveloped myself in a cloud of darkness and convinced myself I was seeing the sun.
1 John 4:18 reads, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Why do the institutions that claim to perpetuate this perfect love cultivate so much fear in those who don’t conform? Those who are different? The outsiders?
The late Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer and fierce ally for LGBTQ+ folks, published a six-part series on her blog discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian. In the final installment, she writes:
It is time we accept the reality God has not created a rigid, one-dimensional world when it comes to gender and sexuality…Matthew addresses the incredible damage done by Christians who teach LGBT people to hate their sexuality, which cannot so easily be separated from their very selves. “When we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered,” he writes, “we encourage them to hate a core part of who they are.”
It wasn’t until much later, after I had left Texas and moved to Boston, that I discovered other Christians, like Rachel Held Evans, who received queer people with gentle kindness, acceptance, celebration, and love. Through Twitter, I’ve seen that many of my acquaintances at Baylor feel this same way. It fills me with so much hope to know that there are Christians who practice with compassion the Gospel of Love, embodied by Jesus’ mandate in Matthew 22 to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
I was only able to overcome my shame once I understood love. And I could only understand love when I was able to accept the truth of who I was. Some of my closest friends came from the Baptist institutions I was a part of. I associated those institutions’ intolerance for homosexuality with their individual incapacity to accept me as a gay woman.
I was only able to overcome my shame once I understood love.
When I came out to those friends, though, they loved me well. It wasn’t easy. But I suddenly found I had a community. A real, actual, valid community to whom I finally opened up. When I fell in love with a girl for the first time, my friends from Baylor were there listening. When that girl didn’t love me back, they came together and helped me make a collaborative “moving on” playlist on Spotify. It seems simple, but there was no higher form of love and support to me in that moment than sending me music meant to heal.
Coming out to my family is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. But when it happened, my mom quoted Shakespeare to me, holding my hand and saying, “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, nor bends with the remover to remove, oh no! It is an ever fixed mark.”
An ever fixed mark. Love that moves with people, not policies. But, the human sexuality statement at Baylor is the governing principle behind their decisions to exclude queer people from campus life. It promotes exclusion, and it prevents visibility.
Visibility. Being seen. Is there anything more important at a Christian institution? There shouldn’t be. What Jesus did so radically was see those who were on the outskirts of society. Those that the Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious powers) tried to keep in the periphery. When gentiles came up to Jesus, asking to be healed, did he turn them away because they weren’t Jewish, as the Pharisees may have done? No. They asked for help and they received it.
You can’t tell someone they aren’t good enough, aren’t godly enough, and call that love. You can’t allow a group of students to invite a hateful speaker on to campus, a speaker who is specifically hateful to a group of people you refuse to give official community status to, and call that love. You can’t prioritize your politics over your compassion, your funding over your empathy, your rules over their needs, and call that love.
Without love, Christianity is meaningless.