Baylor Student Activists Appeal to NCAA

LGBTQ advocates want the association to intervene and help break what they call a long-standing pattern of discrimination at one of the nation's most prominent religious institutions.

August 7, 2019
 

Students and recent graduates of Baylor University, one of the country’s most prominent Baptist colleges, want the National Collegiate Athletic Association to examine the institution’s treatment of gay, transgender and queer students who say they have long faced discrimination on campus and in university policies.

These advocates wrote last month to Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, imploring the NCAA to investigate the university’s policies on LGBTQ issues. Most of those who signed the letter are officers of Gamma Alpha Upsilon (which spells out "GAY" in Greek letters), an LGBTQ student group that has sought official recognition from the university for eight years. Formally known as the Sexuality Identity Forum, the organization has been continually denied formal recognition, though the university has never publicly explained why.

The students assert in their letter that Baylor is the only member institution of the Big 12 Conference, one of the NCAA’s “Power 5” conferences, the most affluent and prestigious of the association's leagues, that “prohibits LGBTQ+ students from being officially recognized as part of the campus community.” Other major religious institutions in the Power 5 include University of Notre Dame and Boston College, both in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

A similar letter was sent to Big 12 Conference officials.

The authors of the letter to the NCAA also question whether Baylor complies with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law barring sex discrimination on college campuses, which also provides protections for gay or gender-nonconforming students. The Trump administration more than two years ago withdrew guidance issued by the Obama administration that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that matched their gender identities.

Religious institutions can apply for exemptions from Title IX if they believe following the law would violate their religious beliefs. But, as the students note in the letter, Baylor has not sought such an exclusion from the law.

“On Baylor’s campus, LGBTQ+ students regularly face harassment and discrimination whether it consists of being called inflammatory names during walks to class or being physically unsafe and threatened,” the students wrote.

It is unclear how the NCAA could intervene in Baylor’s practices. The association has previously condemned laws that are prejudicial against LGBTQ people and said it would not hold playoff games in states with such laws on the books. But it has not gone as far as to cut ties with religious institutions that have Title IX waivers, as was demanded by gay rights groups several years ago.

Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman provided a written statement on the university's behalf: "Baylor is committed to providing a loving and caring community for all students, including those who identify as LGBTQ. We believe that Baylor is in a unique position to meet the needs of our LGBTQ students because of our Christian mission and the significant campuswide support we already provide to all students."

The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment. A Big 12 Conference representative declined to comment.

Baylor in 2015 removed references from its conduct code that explicitly forbade “homosexual acts,” as well as eliminated parts of the code that deemed same-sex acts as “misuses of God’s gift.”

But the university maintains a “statement on human sexuality” that discourages students from participating in advocacy groups that “promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.” This would include “homosexual behavior,” according to the statement.

Gay rights advocates believe this statement is why Gamma Alpha Upsilon has not been accepted as an affiliated organization. Baylor’s rules on sexual conduct, which cite Baptist doctrine from 1963, also state that sexual intimacy must be “in the context of marital fidelity.”

A petition urging the Baylor administration to reconsider its refusal to formally recognize LGBTQ groups has gained more than 3,200 signatures since April. An opposing petition, advocating for Baylor to preserve its “traditions,” has also circulated on campus.

The opposition letter states that if Baylor officially chartered gay-friendly groups, it risked jeopardizing its long-standing affiliation with Baptist General Convention of Texas, the state representatives of the Baptist Church, from which the university receives millions of dollars in funding. The convention only recognizes heterosexual relationships.

Baylor’s Board of Trustees has declined to let Gamma Alpha Upsilon representatives speak during board meetings. Last month, board members heard a presentation by Janet B. Dean, an associate professor of psychology at Asbury University, a Christian institution in Kentucky, who has written about queer students’ experiences at religious colleges and universities, The Waco Tribune-Herald reported. Baylor president Linda Livingstone said that Dean’s appearance was beneficial for the board.

Activists remain frustrated that the trustees will not hear from them directly.

Tensions flared in April when a conservative group, Young Americans for Freedom, invited Matt Walsh, a right-wing blogger for The Daily Wire who holds antigay views, to campus. In promoting Walsh's appearance on campus, YAF, which the university granted formal recognition, posted fliers with an image of a hammer and sickle on a rainbow flag. The title of Walsh’s talk was “Why the Left Has Set Out to Redefine Life, Gender and Marriage.”

The Texas Tribune reported that the leader of the group said he did not intend to offend students and removed the posters, but by then many on campus were already enraged. A copy of the flier, the posting of which the university approved, was included in the letters to the NCAA and the Big 12.

“Baylor University officials approved inflammatory fliers … targeting LGBTQ+ people. This flier was posted throughout campus. Yet LGBTQ+ students are denied the ability to advertise or organize in any recognized way,” the students wrote.

Kyle Desrosiers, a rising senior at Baylor who identifies as gay, wrote in a column in the Tribune-Herald that the administration’s failure to protect him and students like him was “cruel.”

He described being harassed on campus for holding hands with his boyfriend and hearing classmates and professors make jokes about his sexuality in class.

“My experience is not unique,” he wrote. “This pain is shared among a sizable population at Baylor University. Trans and gender-nonconforming students face a far greater level of harassment and exclusion on campus. For many of us, experiences of alienation and marginalization result in a strain on our mental health. Worse, we are often afraid to turn to the Baylor Counseling Service or Title IX [office] for fear of losing academic and professional opportunities at Baylor.”

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