Veronica Penales: One of the students fighting for LGBTQ inclusion at Baylor

Shreveport, LA sophomore Veronica Penales is an LGBTQ student at Baylor pushing for the charter of Gamma, and she is in the midst of filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Dept. of Education for giving religious tax exemptions to taxpayer-funded private religious universities. Christina Cannady | Photographer

By Emily Cousins | Staff Writer

Shreveport, La., sophomore Veronica Penales said she never expected to be known at Baylor University as an activist for LGBTQ rights, but her coming out experience inevitably led her to ask more of the university.

Penales said she has two coming out stories: one in high school and one in college.

Penales said she came out to a few close friends her junior year in high school, but she came out to her whole school senior year at a blackout pep rally.

“All the seniors were wearing black,” Penales said. “And there’s a line in our alma mater that says, ‘with pride.’ It was during that song that I pulled out the rainbow pride flag and was holding it over my shoulders as we were all singing it. It was the last time the senior class was singing the alma mater with the whole school, so it was very emotional, and it was just super cool. Lots of cheers all around, and the flags stood out against all of the black, which is really exciting. That was definitely a really good day.”

When she attended Line Camp, a week in the summer dedicated to teaching incoming freshmen about Baylor, Penales said she had a great experience, but the large stress on religion made her feel nervous about sharing her sexuality with her classmates.

“I wasn’t scared for my safety or anything, maybe just a little uncomfortable,” Penales said. “I was like, ‘Maybe it’ll be better to start off not making people think that you’re trying to push some sort of agenda.’ When I came here, I realized that the religion of Baylor wasn’t the only thing about Baylor, and that’s what led me to come out again.”

On Bisexual Visibility day during her freshman year, Penales said she decided to post the picture of her coming out at her high school.

The next day, Penales said she went to the Honors Residential College Tailgate and got a rainbow flag painted on her thigh at the face paint station.

After leading a sic ’em at the game, a member of Chamber of Commerce asked Penales if she would like to run the flag.

Tom at Baylor on Instagram took a photo of us, and it was like one of those professional looking photos,” Penales said. “I asked him if I could have a copy to repost for the end of the game … And I posted ‘#flagrunner’ and a bunch of other hashtags or whatever. A lot of people started commenting, ‘#NotMyGoodBaptistUniversity,’ ‘#NotMyGoodChristianUniversity.’ The worst one, in my opinion, was the one that took the flag runner hashtag that I had, and removed the ‘L’ from it. So it just said that word.”

After that, Penales said she took screenshots of all the comments, and deleted the negative ones to keep the comment section positive and supportive.

“I actually didn’t report it for a while, I just kind of sat with those screenshots,” Penales said. “But later on, when I found out that one of the people who commented that post was going to be up for HRC leadership, … and they pretty much plan events but they also become the face of the HRC for incoming freshmen, I wasn’t sitting well with that. I don’t think someone who’s homophobic should be representing the HRC, so I reported it. Obviously, as we know, nothing was done. I was just referred to the counseling office. I don’t even know if they spoke to her, but I was told that she wasn’t going to be on leadership. Then the following year, I came back and she was, which definitely was a huge slap in the face.”

Penales said she was a member of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, the unofficial LGBTQ group at Baylor, her freshman year. Because of her positive experiences in the group and the negativity she had received after coming out, she made it a goal to become a student senator and pass a bill calling to charter Gamma.

In the Fall of 2020, Veronica reached her goal of passing the “No Crying on Sundays” bill.

Immediately after the bill passed, Penales said she created a petition for the student body to sign in support of Gamma and get support from specific students organizations on campus.

“We needed to show that specific people supported this bill,” Penales said. “We obviously had the petition running and that was going great. We had stickers that were circulating around campus as well. And then it was a breath of relief getting all of this support rolling in and an alumni letter saying, ‘We support this as well.’”

Even though the bill passed 30-15, Penales said it’s been hard to understand why some of her friends in the senate didn’t vote at all or voted no.

“To know that some of your friends who you talk to, who you eat with, have coffee with, study with voted no is very confusing because you’re not asking for much,” Penales said. “You’re literally asking for the bare minimum, and to vote nay on something as impactful as that that’s going to be something that affects Baylor far beyond our years is ludicrous to me.”

Penales said beyond the students, they needed to get support from the Faculty Senate, and ultimately speak with the Board of Regents.

When they got to meet with the Faculty Senate, only Penales, Addison Knight, co-author of the “No Crying on Sundays” bill, and Emma Fraley, president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, got to speak to the senate. Veronica and Knight split five minutes, and Fraley got five minutes as well.

“Addison said her piece. Emma said her piece,” Penales said. “They were both very emotional pieces, and then I literally came up and the first thing I said was, ‘You can either come out of this meeting as cowards, or knowing you did the right thing. This is enough. Ten years has been enough fighting for this.’ I don’t know if that helped. I don’t know if that hurt the argument, but we got the resolution we wanted.”

Penales said her activism on campus caught the eye of lawyer Paul Carlos Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project.

Southwick asked Penales to be one of the plaintiffs in the recently filed case against the U.S. Department of Education.

“I started off as an anonymous plaintiff and was telling my story, and [Southwick] said ‘Your story relates to a lot of people. It could win or it could help win our case.’ … Obviously you want to do the most for the cause that you can, and that’s why I decided to attach my name,” Penales said. “So I went from anonymous to a named plaintiff, to a plaintiff who was interviewed by the Post.”

Penales said every once in a while, she wonders if she will receive disciplinary action from Baylor for being such a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights.

“What if Baylor decides that they’re done with me pushing for these issues?” Penales said. “And then they decide to ruin my academic career, but in a way to make it seem like they aren’t. That’s probably my biggest nightmare. I think about that before every interview.”

In the end, Penales said the end result is worth much more than the temporary fear.

Dr. Thomas Spitzer-Hanks taught Penales her freshman year in a World of Rhetoric course. He said she was always willing to engage in tough conversations.

“She understands what it is to be misunderstood,” Spitzer-Hanks said. “I think that the way that she is able to use that experience of being misunderstood, not being seen for who she is in every place and in every time, she has found a way of making a data source of power and joy, rather than anger and weakness. That I think is really a powerful gift that she has the opportunity to give to others, because I think it would be really easy to frame some of the things that are going on at Baylor in a very antagonistic way.”

Spitzer-Hanks said the conversations at Baylor right now are slowly moving to find a new direction.

“I think that having somebody like Veronica, who has been often misunderstood, trying to work within an institution that’s really easily misunderstood is actually really great,” Spitzer-Hanks said.

Dallas sophomore Audrey La said not only is Penales a great leader, but a well-balanced person.

“She just is so driven and productive with her activism,” La said. “She just gives all of her time to the cause. Then also just stays on top of her schoolwork, so she has such a good GPA and she makes time for social events and relaxing. She’s just really good with her time.”

Carmel, Calif., Liz McRae said Penales joined and started many groups on campus, such as the Baylor Democrats, the Millenium Fellows, Texas Rising, It’s On Us Baylor, and she is vice chair to the National Pride Caucus through Baylor Democrats.

McRae said she works closely with Penales on the Millenium Fellows. She said Penales always listened and encouraged her to push for ambitious projects like the community garden they created for students and Wacoans in need of fresh produce.

“She gave me the ability to be able to present it to people and just be able to have confidence and be able to like come forward with my ideas and express them because I know it’s a very ambitious project,” McRae said,

Veronica said she knows all her work at Baylor will be continued after she graduates and continues to fight for LGBTQ rights.

“You have to keep reminding yourself everything you’re doing is for a cause bigger than you,” Penales said.