LGBTQ community fights for rights at Baylor, in Waco

Jennifer Knapp performed at the "Nevertheless the Preached" event at the Hippodrome in 2017, sharing about her struggles as a member of the LGBTQ community through song and word. Lariat File Photo

By Meredith Howard | Assistant News Editor

Homosexual behavior is described as a temptation and issue by Student Policies and Procedures. However, students who are part of the LGBTQ community cannot be subject to disciplinary action or a loss of university financial aid on the basis of their sexual orientation.

The same could not be said 13 years ago.

Baylor’s sexual misconduct policy in 2007 included “homosexual acts” along with “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery [and] fornication.” This means that students could be subject to disciplinary action for their sexual orientation.

“The sanctions that the University may impose against a faculty member or a staff member for an act of sexual misconduct range from censure to separation,” the policy said.

Faculty members could be fired for not being straight.

The policy also said that when considering sanctioning, “constructive forgiveness will guide all efforts.”

Baylor was not the only institution in Waco that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation.

Carmen Saenz, founder of InterWaco LGBTQ Community Group, lived in New York City during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. She compared Waco’s atmosphere for LGBTQ individuals in 2002 to that of New York in 1980.

“Coming from Brooklyn, and coming from New York City, the climate for the LGBT community in — I moved to Waco in 2002 — was significantly different,” Saenz said. “When I moved here, it was almost like being thrown back to the 80s, when things were so bad in New York City.”

Saenz said when she founded InterWaco, it consisted mostly of “friends’ children that were queer, were lesbian or trans.”

“There was a young girl who went to apply for a job at a store, and the manager actually said to a young person, ‘We don’t hire your kind,’ meaning we don’t hire lesbians,” Saenz said. “I realized that there wasn’t an advocacy group here in McLennan County or Waco for anybody — whether it’s teenagers, same-sex marriage, housing equality, anything.”

InterWaco members began meeting in early 2012, and the organization partnered with Equality Texas later that year. Equality Texas “works to secure full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Texans through political action, education, community organizing and collaboration.”

“We did something called the Equality Project, which was bringing people together to learn about advocating at the state level with our legislators,” Saenz said.

InterWaco is a political advocacy group that meets in person about once every other year to prepare for the legislative session. The group also works with schools to mitigate “LGBT bullying.” COVID-19 has prevented them from going into schools for the past year.

“We’ve worked with a few Baylor professors about finding more inclusiveness in their classrooms when they’ve had a student who’s trans, and it’s their first exposure to the trans community, and I think it’s a good thing that some of the professors have reached out asking thoughtful questions rather than just be dismissive to students,” Saenz said.

Saenz said the organization often refers these inquirers to the Transgender Education Network of Texas or other education groups depending on the nature of the question.

While InterWaco focuses primarily on LGBTQ legislative issues, Waco is also home to organizations that function more as support groups.

Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) houses a couple of groups like this, including gatherings of women who are HIV positive and providing church space for people who are trans to get together.

Charley Garrison, who’s been the church’s pastor for over 20 years, said the inspiration for the trans support group came from posting resources for trans people on the church website. People began to respond to this page with a need for support.

“I began getting phone calls from people. I remember several times meeting in clandestine meetings with people from Baylor, at a location that they felt comfortable in, just to talk about what it was like for them,” Garrison said. “They needed someone just to talk, and so from there, I think it evolved into an actual support group.”

The church’s mission is “to proclaim the truth that God’s love is for everyone, no exceptions,” Garrison said. He also said that the church welcomes everyone, and its services are currently being held over Zoom at 11 a.m. on Sundays.

In 2010, another group began meeting in MCC’s basement. This was the Waco Queer Alliance, now Gamma Alpha Upsilon, Baylor’s unofficial LGBTQ student organization.

Dr. Ada-Rhodes Short, a Baylor alumna, co-founded the group.

Short said she hadn’t thought about whether Baylor was affirming to the LGBTQ community until Welcome Week.

“I arrive as a freshman, and it was like Welcome Week, and I found out you’re like not allowed to be gay here. This is bad. I’m a very queer teen,” Short said. “I guess at the minute I felt like, ‘Oh god, I bet I’m like the only queer person on this campus.’”

Short said she quickly realized she was surrounded by other members of the LGBTQ community. They were just “not allowed to be out.”

“We’re meeting in the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church — just like a bunch of queer Baylor students having a potluck — and we were like, ‘We should probably do something, but none of us want to get expelled.’ A lot of us were freshmen, and then a few upperclassmen,” Short said.

The following spring of 2011, Garrison contacted Short and connected her with a then senior at Baylor, Samantha Jones, who was interested in starting an LGBTQ student group.

“Sam and I meet, and we kind of just like immediately connect and are like ‘oh, this is a great idea.’ We spent a lot of time trying to figure out a name for the group because Sam had already started trying to figure out how do we get this chartered. We knew we couldn’t call it gay straight alliance or anything like that; having ‘queer’ in the label was definitely not allowed,” Short said. “Eventually we arrived at Sexual Identity Forum.”

More than 50 students came to the Sexual Identity Forum’s first on-campus meeting, which was held at the Bill Daniel Student Union Building. The New York Times interviewed Short and Jones about the group around that time, leading to a national spotlight being shone on Baylor’s stance on human sexuality.

“We got a lot of attention, and it was a really bizarre thing because I went from being like a little freshman who was terrified of being seen and exposed and kind of like expelled to suddenly being like ‘oh yeah, we’re just having a big gay riot at the Student Union Building,’” Short said.

Jones was the Sexual Identity Forum’s first president, and Short was the second. Short said they met with the Board of Regents, vice presidents, the president and other administrators about getting chartered. They were rejected and have been rejected every year since (and sometimes twice a year, when they’ve filed each semester).

“So we would sort of apply for a charter once a year, meet with Kevin [Jackson] or whoever the person we were meeting with that term was, be denied, know we were going to be denied, just get kind of stuck in this thing where like queer students exist; queer students will continue to exist at Baylor,” Short said. “We are not going anywhere. We refuse to go back to being afraid of being expelled.”

Short said the size of her group provided security because she said it would not look good for Baylor to “expel 50 queer students.”

LGBTQ students continue to exist at Baylor. Los Angeles senior Jake Picker is the vice president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, and he said that the group now has almost 100 active members on its Discord channel, where groups of students will plan impromptu study times and hangouts.

Picker said that Gamma has still brought in a lot of freshmen this semester despite COVID-19, and numbers remain strong.

While Short said that she enjoyed meeting in the SUB to “take up space” as LGBTQ people, some of Gamma’s current membership prefers to meet more privately, as a way to protect members who may not be out yet.

A Houston junior who is an officer with Gamma spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not out.

“When I first learned about Gamma, from the get-go I wanted it to be more private because I was constantly concerned with who would find out because there are, I mean, a good number of people who go to Baylor, and they’ll walk around on campus who know me and my family personally, and I guess I was always concerned, especially when I was a freshman, about someone seeing me at one of the meetings,” she said.

She said the first time she went to a Gamma meeting, someone who lived next to her in her dorm saw her and began to treat her differently as a result.

“She just would like glare at me in the halls, and like make a noticeable effort to go around me if she ever had to pass by me in the halls, and I thought that it was a little bit weird, and then at one point I was washing my hands in the bathroom, and she came in, she looked at me and we locked eyes, and then she just glared at me again, and she pivoted and turned around and walked away,” she said. “It was just — I don’t know — really kind of enhanced that insecurity and that fear that I had of not feeling like my identity was safe or private because we met in public.”

A Presidential Perspective email was sent out in August 2019 reinforcing Baylor’s stance on Human Sexuality. The specifications are as follows:

“Baylor is in compliance with Title IX and other federal and state regulations regarding the services and the support we provide to our LGBTQ students.

Students are not disciplined or expelled from Baylor for same-sex attraction.

In addition to the ongoing presence of many caring, trusted faculty and staff members, Baylor provides resources for LGBTQ students through the Title IX Office, Bias Response Team, Chaplain’s Office and Spiritual Life, and the Counseling Center.

Baylor counselors do not practice or condone conversion or reparative therapy.”

In October 2019, Gamma announced it had secured a private meeting space in Marrs McLean Science Building. Picker said the group had a faculty member book that space for them, since they are unable to as a non-chartered organization.

Gamma Alpha Upsilon’s first in-person meeting of the semester was held on Oct. 1 at Common Grounds. Gamma members would like to hold another in-person meeting this semester, but due to COVID-19 concerns, future scheduling is up in the air. Online meetings have been held as well.

Picker said the group still submits a charter request every semester and continues to be denied.

“We’re hopeful for the future,” Picker said.

The organization will celebrate its 10-year anniversary next semester.

*Editor’s note: a New York Times article linked above in this story refers to Dr. Ada-Rhodes Short before she was out as transgender, so it uses a name and pronouns that she no longer claims.