Breaking the mold: Bears find community in weekly sexual identity discussion group

FOOD (COURT) FOR THOUGHT Members of the Sexual Identity Forum discuss Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis during a weekly meeting in September at the Bill Daniel Student Union’s food court. Davis made headlines for refusing to administer marriage licenses to gay couples in Rowan County on the grounds of her religious convictions.

On Thursday nights, about 30 students —sometimes more, sometimes fewer — gather in a crooked circle to talk about sex. But they aren’t talking about sex, exactly. They’re talking about something much more fundamental to who they are, and how they approach relationships, faith, education and community: their sexual identities.

This is Sexual Identity Forum. It’s an informal discussion group that meets once a week in the Bill Daniel Student Center to talk about sexual identity. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, transsexuality, queerness, bisexuality, asexuality, gender, sex and how these things relate to God and Christianity are all up for discussion.

The group presents topics to its members before meetings and arranges activities like bowling nights to keep them connected. SIF has also invited outside speakers like residence hall chaplains and professors to its meetings to answer questions from members.

As these events show, the group does more than host conversations about sexual identity. According to its members, SIF is more than a discussion club. It’s a community for those without one.

“What we’re doing with SIF now is making a community of like-minded people who can come and have support,” said San Antonio senior Teresa Dean, SIF’s president.

SIF was founded in 2011. Early meetings were held in a church basement off-campus, but the group has since moved to the basement of the SUB. It is unable to reserve a formal meeting space on campus because the group has not received a charter from Baylor Student Activities.

SIF has applied for a charter nearly every semester of its existence. Matt Burchett, director of Student Activities, said applications for charters are reviewed multiple times each semester to determine whether the mission and purpose of the organization is in accordance with Baylor University.

Having a charter allows an organization to reserve meeting spaces, advertise on campus and receive funding from organizations like student government. The final decision to charter an organization or not rests with Dr. Kevin Jackson, vice president for student life.

“I like to say, well, there is a policy. I think this policy does reflect the majority of our constituents,” said Chaplain Burt Burleson, who visited one of SIF’s past meetings. “The discernment here is, if you took all the parents and all the alumni, where would they want us to be on this issue? I think, in that sense, that the university policy reflects that.”

Dean and other members hope that, because SIF is a discussion group open to all comers, it may overcome the stigma it may have at Baylor.

“It’s just kind of overcoming that perception that SIF is an advocacy group. But we’re not. A lot of times when you see something this progressive on Baylor’s campus, it’s just hesitant, very hesitant,” Dean said.

Although Baylor has not chartered the group, it has extended some help to members.

“The administration has reached out and we’ve talked to them, but other than that it’s just been small correspondence and not major support. But they’ve talked to us and they’ve reached out to us on occasion,” said Houston junior Cody Austin Shreffler, SIF’s vice president.

Burleson described the university’s approach to members of SIF, and all students of Baylor, as one of Christian hospitality. Baylor does not ask its students to sign a statement of faith upon matriculation or to adopt a single creed of faith. Rather, it the university accepts all who wish to come and finds ways to treat them as Christ would.

To achieve that goal, Student Life has initiated a cross-cultural competency program that will emphasize communication with and understanding of those who do not hold common viewpoints.

“For instance, there are many students who have never had the opportunity of talking to a Hindu student,” Burleson said. “So what does it look like to do that, even as a person who cares deeply for their own faith and whose faith may be very evangelical?”

For its members, SIF is a place where that kind of cross-cultural competency can take place.

“Last year I was a freshman and I had to actively seek this group. I really needed it. It was something that really affected me,” said Mexico City sophomore Mónica Armas.

“It made me grow more [and] meet a lot of people like me to share ideas. It really helped me socially, especially since I come from a totally different background, other country, other ideas.”

Dr. Charles Weaver, chair of the psychology department, has attended SIF meetings to answer students’ questions on genetic and psychological factors that contribute to sexuality. He acknowledged that, although Baylor’s campus has become far more welcoming to students of different backgrounds, the group is still a welcome place for those wishing to discuss and find a like-minded community.

“I think it’s valuable for them simply to have a group that gives them an identity in a place where they might otherwise be lost,” Weaver said.

Spring Branch sophomore Nick Coker said he was fortunate to find the group very soon after arriving at Baylor.

“Generally, it’s a good place just for me to express opinions that normally I couldn’t in Baylor classrooms, or people would give you dirty looks or negative comments for expressing in public,” Coker said. “Without them it would have been really hard to adjust.”

At a meeting last week, three residence hall chaplains answered questions from an assorted mix of Baylor students in the food court. The students first asked the residence hall chaplains about their own respective journeys to their current positions. The chaplains emphasize their role as providers of programs, presence in the community and pastoral care to residents.

One member asked what stance they hold on LGBT relations, and they answered that their job is to care for, not discipline, students. One member recalled her own chaplain from freshman year, the chaplain who listened to her as she struggled with coming out and supported her throughout her transition to Baylor.

Other members remembered their own community leaders and friends at Baylor who have helped them as they struggle with their sexual identities.

“The world around Baylor is changing really fast, and Baylor is changing too,” Armas said.