A Baylor University professor is apologizing to students this week after a guest speaker in his class promoted conversion therapy during his presentation.
During a Tuesday session of professor Lewis Lummer's American Sign Language III class, the Rev. Jari Saavalainen, pastor of a deaf church near Chicago, gave a guest presentation on his church. In response to a question from a student about the church's ministries, Saavalainen showed the class a website for an organization called Deaf 611, which offers conversion therapy for deaf Christians "struggling with unwanted same sex attraction."
Celia Scrivener, a junior from Marshall, was in the class during the presentation. When the website came up on the class' projector screen, everyone in the class turned to look at Scrivener, who is gay, to see how she would react. She sat at her desk, her mouth open, staring at what was on the screen.
"I just kept reading it over and over on the board," Scrivener said. "I really didn't know what to think, other than what's going on?"
Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice that seeks to change a person's sexual orientation either through psychological or spiritual means. The practice is banned for minors in 18 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and a number of U.S. cities. The American Psychological Association, the country's largest organization of psychologists, opposes the practice, saying it poses "a significant risk of harm" by subjecting patients to procedures that haven't been scientifically verified.
Baylor itself opposes the practice. In a statement on human sexuality issued in August, Baylor President Linda Livingstone wrote that "Baylor counselors do not practice or condone conversion or reparative therapy."
University officials said the discussion on conversion therapy wasn't part of Saavalainen's planned presentation. Scrivener, 20, says she doesn't blame the university administration for what happened in class. Still, she said, incidents like these are bound to happen more commonly when LGBTQ students aren't given a voice on campus.
On Wednesday, Lummer sent an email to students in the class apologizing for the presentation. During Thursday's class session, Lummer apologized in person and gave the class an opportunity to discuss what had happened.
The incident comes at a time when LGBTQ students are struggling to get their voices heard on campus. Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university, was founded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Until 2015, the university's student code of conduct banned "homosexual acts," calling them "a misuse of God's gift."
For the last eight years, a group of Baylor students has been seeking the university's approval to start an LGBTQ student organization. In September, the university notified the group, called Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or GAY, that it was denying its request for a charter.
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A charter represents official recognition from the university, which would allow the group to advertise campus events and reserve space on campus for meetings. It would also give the group access to the university's student activity fund. That denial came just days after the university released its statement on human sexuality, which includes language saying that Baylor "affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God."
"Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm," the statement states. "Temptations to deviate from this 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."
Scrivener, who is the group's social media director, said denying LGBTQ students a voice on campus can contribute to incidents like the one in her ASL class, because professors, students and, occasionally, guest speakers don't know what's inbounds and what isn't.
There's been progress over the past year, she said — recently, members of the university's Board of Regents met with members of Gamma Alpha Upsilon to discuss LGBTQ issues on campus, something that Scrivener doubts would have happened a few years ago. Students and faculty on campus are mostly accepting and supportive, she said. But, she said, incidents like the one this week show that it can still be difficult to be a gay student at Baylor.