A few minutes before 8 on a Thursday night last month, dozens of students, faculty and staff members crowded into a classroom in Baylor University’s Marrs McLean Science Building. Some stood in groups chatting. One faculty member stopped each student she didn't already know, introduced herself and asked them about themselves.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth Benton walked to the front of the classroom, where pizza boxes were stacked on a table next to a rainbow-colored poster.
"Welcome to the faculty-student meetup at the unofficial-official gay club at Baylor!" Benton shouted.
For the next few minutes, faculty members stood up, one by one, and introduced themselves to the room, giving their departments so students in the group would know which of their professors supported them. One professor passed out rainbow stickers for other faculty members to put up in their offices to show they were affirming of LGBTQ students.
It was a meeting that likely couldn’t have happened a few years ago. Over the last few years, LGBTQ students at Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, have begun coming out of the shadows. At the same time, more and more members of the university’s faculty are showing public support for those students in ways that would have been risky just a few years ago — ways that include showing up to an unofficial-official gay club meeting.
"I don’t think anyone would have been willing to risk it five or six years ago," said Anna Conner, a Baylor senior and vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or GAY, the LGBTQ student group.
The group was established in 2011 under the name Sexual Identity Forum. Since then, it’s been pursuing a charter, which would represent official recognition by the university. It would also allow the group to reserve spaces for meetings and advertise its events on campus, as well as giving it access to student activity money that other student groups receive. Each year, members of the group apply for a charter, and each year, they’re denied.
In some ways, the group mirrors life on campus for individual LGBTQ students. At a university where, until relatively recently, students could be expelled for being gay, the group is more visible than it’s ever been and enjoys more support on campus than it’s ever had. But because the group still doesn’t have official standing with the university, it exists in an awkward gray area.
Baylor was established in 1845 by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. For decades, the university’s code of student conduct banned "homosexual acts," calling them "a misuse of God’s gift." The university’s board of regents quietly lifted that ban in 2015. At the time, LGBTQ rights advocates called the move a step in the right direction.
Since then, university officials have tried to thread an impossibly fine needle, holding a public, campus-wide conversation about how to support and make space for LGBTQ students and faculty while still officially discouraging same-sex relationships.
Last year, members of BU Bears for All, a group of alumni, students, faculty and staff that advocates for LGBTQ rights at Baylor, released an open letter to Baylor President Linda Livingstone in which the group called on the university to grant Gamma Alpha Upsilon a charter. More than 3,000 people signed the letter, including several current and former faculty members and one former vice chair of the Baylor Board of Regents.
In an Aug. 27 email to students, faculty and staff, Livingstone said that, although the university's policy on human sexuality remained unchanged, the university could do more to support its LGBTQ students. From conversations with students about the issue, Baylor officials learned that, among other things, the university needed to establish trust with LGBTQ students so that they feel comfortable seeking out the resources the university offers.
"Meanwhile, as we begin the fall semester, we pledge 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," Livingstone wrote. "We are all part of the Baylor Family and are called by Christ to love one another."
The following month, the university released a statement on sexual ethics, which states that the university "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 reads. "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."
Livingstone declined to comment for this story. In an emailed statement, Lori Fogleman, a Baylor spokeswoman, said the university held focus groups last fall with student and faculty leaders to discuss how the university could do a better job of supporting LGBTQ students. The university plans to release the results of those focus groups, along with a social climate survey the university also conducted last fall, later this spring.
"We pledge to continue these conversations with faculty, students, staff and members of our LGBTQ+ community as we aim to provide support for all of our students in keeping with Baylor’s Christian mission and our calling by Christ to love one another," she said.
Conner, the Gamma Alpha Upsilon vice president, said the university's human sexuality policy leaves LGBTQ students unsure what's allowed and what isn't. Friends have told her they don't know whether they can hold hands with their partners while they're walking across campus — not because they're afraid they'll be punished by the university, but because they're worried someone will harass them and the university won't do anything about it.
"You don't know where you stand and other people don't know where you stand, so they feel like they can just do whatever and get away with it," Conner said.
A diversity and inclusion section of the university's website notes that Baylor "will not tolerate harassment of any member of the Baylor Family," including LGBTQ students, and encourages students who are being harassed to contact the university's Title IX office, the bias response team or the campus police.
When she came to Baylor as a freshman, Conner was pleased and surprised to see how many LGBTQ students there were on campus, and how many straight students were supportive. But in the nearly four years she's been there, she's been disappointed with the pace of change. The group has had to fight for nearly every inch of ground it's gained, she said.
Every now and then, an LGBTQ high school student who's considering going to Baylor gets in touch with the group to ask what it's like. When that happens, Conner said, she tries to be honest. She tells them that most of the faculty and students are supportive, but they shouldn't expect much support at an administrative level.
Still, she said, there are any number of reasons an LGBTQ student might decide to go to Baylor. Conner decided to go there because it's strong academically and isn't as big as the University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M. Any prospective student who's worried about the university's policies on LGBTQ students just needs to weigh those concerns against the possible benefits of a degree from Baylor before making their decision, she said.