Second-year senior Brit LaVergne has been trying to get an LGBTQ student group chartered at Baylor University since her freshman year. She’s now the president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, and its unchartered status has made it difficult or impossible to secure meeting space, to voice concerns to the administration, and to be a presence among other student groups.
Gamma began as the Sexual Identity Forum in 2011, and has tried unsuccessfully to gain a charter—and the campus resources that come with that—nearly every year since. So LaVergne was skeptical when the university began exploring the possibility of a chartered group—a newly created group, not Gamma. “I didn’t know how much oversight or control Baylor would want to have over the creation of this group or its existence,” she said.
But when the administration held listening sessions in fall of 2021, she was pleasantly surprised. The university engaged outspoken activist students who, in LaVergne’s words, “want to burn down the building,” as well as those who just wanted a safe way to meet other students like them. While the sessions included students representing religious and conservative groups, most agreed that LGBTQ students should have what they need to feel like they belong at Baylor.
Last week, Baylor granted its first charter in history to a LGBTQ-focused student group. The constitution of the new group, called Prism, says its purpose is to extend care and community to LGBTQ students, to represent their interests with the university administration, and pay for events or guest speakers using students activity funds.
It’s not a full-throated affirmation of queer identity. The university’s Bible-based statement on human sexuality still stands, upholding sexual “purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman.” But, according to those who have been advocating for an official LGBTQ organization for most of their college careers, it’s not nothing.
“Right now, we’re kind of just celebrating what people would call baby steps,” said Prism copresident Lor Duncan, a senior. “You wouldn’t expect an infant to run a marathon, you would celebrate the first few steps it did take.”
To call a 175-year-old institution an infant is no small statement, but Baylor, like some other religious colleges and universities, has for decades intentionally avoided progress toward LGBTQ inclusion. A gay student at Truett Seminary lost his scholarship in 2004, the same year the student paper, the Baylor Lariat, was reprimanded for editorializing in support of marriage equality. In 2015, the university did drop language characterizing “homosexual acts” as “misuses of God’s gift” from its student code of conduct, but the current code still states that only sex within heterosexual marriage is permissible.
As Duncan and the other student leaders crafted the constitution for Prism this spring, they had to keep in mind the context in which they were working: the university’s policy handbook explicitly states that “Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.” (The handbook lists resources for students “struggling with these issues.”)
Prism must abide by those prohibitions and steer clear of publicly advocating for changes to the university’s stance on human sexuality, but the charter itself is the result of a decade of advocacy. Frustration over the experience of queer life at Baylor escalated in the summer of 2020 when students began sharing their experiences of discrimination via anonymous Instagram accounts, said LaVergne. Then, in March 2021, three current and former Baylor students joined a class action lawsuit alleging that Baylor’s religious exemption from Title IX, a federal education law prohibiting sex-based discrimination, was harming LGBTQ students.
With pressure mounting, the board of regents—which the administration had begun consulting in 2018 about how it might create a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ students—reaffirmed the university’s statement on human sexuality in a May 2021 resolution, while directing President Linda Livingstone and her administration to explore the possibility of a chartered group for LGBTQ students. In addition to chastity, the resolution calls upon another value: “the dignity and worth of all.” (In response to requests for comment from Livingstone for this story, Jason Cook, Baylor’s vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer, sent a statement: “Baylor’s leadership has been in discussions about demonstrating how to love and care of LGBTQ+ students as an expression of its Christian faith since the summer of 2018.”)
Support and inclusion of LGBTQ students on college campuses across the country has steadily grown over the past fifty years. The first student center devoted to LGBTQ students opened at the University of Michigan in 1971, and today such support centers can be found on 62 percent of college campuses nationwide. In 2016, the Obama administration interpreted Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex on college campuses, as protecting transgender students, but the Trump administration punted the issue to states and localities. The Biden administration has issued guidelines that say sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under Title IX. But many Christian colleges and universities— including Dallas Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor an hour north of Austin, and Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene—have been granted religious exemptions from Title IX, allowing them to restrict resources and opportunities based on their “controlling organization’s religious tenets.”
Baylor’s own Title IX exemption dates back to 1985, when it sought to allow certain male-only scholarships, clubs, and programs, and to be exempt from having to grant disability status to unmarried pregnant women, as the law requires. The school has never had specific exemptions for its LGBTQ policies. (The university says it is in compliance with all Title IX laws.) In 2021, three Baylor students filed administrative Title IX complaints with the federal government, requesting that Baylor be required to grant a charter to an LGBTQ-affirming group, like Gamma Alpha Upsilon. The three students are also named in the class action lawsuit, which aims to end all religious exemptions from Title IX.
The creation and charter of Prism doesn’t change the complaints, which remain filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. And it doesn’t change the fact that Baylor continues to discriminate against LGBTQ students, said Paul Carlos Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog and civil litigation group working on behalf of LGBTQ students at schools with religious exemptions to Title IX. “Prism is not enough because it continues to perpetuate the belief that something is wrong with LGBTQ+ relationships and identities,” Southwick said.
But students say the resources now available to them are meaningful. Without a charter, LGBTQ groups such as Gamma had not been able to reserve private rooms and had to hold meetings in common areas, said LaVergne. The lack of security left many would-be members feeling exposed on the conservative campus, especially when the group engaged in activism, she said.
The priorities for crafting Prism’s constitution and bylaws came directly from the administration’s fall listening sessions, Duncan said. Privacy had been among the chief concerns of potential members. Some students are not out to their parents, she explained, and others worry about being outed or harassed by those who join the group for the purpose of outing fellow students. Prism’s membership policies include measures to ensure that participation in the group will not be tantamount to coming out publicly—such as keeping attendance logs and membership rolls from being publicly accessible.
When LaVergne arrived at Baylor in the fall of 2017, she was surprised by how religious the university felt. She’d known, of course, that famously Baptist Baylor took pride in its Christian origins, and she assumed some vestiges of institutional religion would remain. But she also assumed the 20,000-student university was as diverse and pluralistic as any other Tier One research school, especially after fifty years of Title IX regulations. It was and it wasn’t, said LaVergne. She knows plenty of students who do not agree with the Baptist General Convention of Texas—Baylor’s denominational affiliate—on gender and sexuality issues. But the school is no Trinity University—the San Antonio university that dissolved legal affiliation with the Presbyterian church in 1969—or Southern Methodist University, where “Methodist” now takes a backseat to the other adjective in the school’s name. At Baylor, LaVergne said, “I didn’t realize how deep the Christian sentiments ran.”
For a long time, those Christian sentiments have kept LGBTQ students such as LaVergne on the margins. But a different aspect of the Christian mission, caring community, was given weight in Prism’s chartering process. “We came into the journey committed to Christian mission, Christian hospitality,” said Matt Burchett, senior director of student activities at Baylor and one of the administrators involved in the charter approval process.
Baylor’s move to be inclusive of students regardless of identity—without affirming LGBTQ relationships—is not unique. As more Americans understand sexuality and gender as more than behaviors—who you have sex with—those calling themselves “side B” Christians have argued that a single or celibate gay or lesbian person, for instance, should be embraced by Christian institutions, including leadership in religious organizations. Other Christian institutions have expressed their stance as “accepting but not affirming,” saying that while they would welcome an LGBTQ person or couple to worship in their church or participate in Bible studies, they would not perform a marriage or any other blessing of a gay, lesbian, or queer relationship.
These positions, and now Baylor’s needle-threading charter for Prism—acknowledging LGBTQ students as an official group but continuing to maintain that God’s plan for human sexuality is cisgender, heterosexual marriage—are efforts to depolarize a conversation that has left little distinction between personal conviction and dogma, and has led many to feel they must choose between their faith and their identity or relationships. “We want to open conversation around LGBTQ faith and spirituality in a more vibrant way,” Burchett said. What that means for Prism could be complicated, he acknowledged. Burchett applauded the students involved for their “incredibly mature perspective on the complexity and the challenges ahead.”
When the charter for Prism was announced, LaVergne understood the difference between the new group and her own. Both want to uplift the voices of LGBTQ students on campus, but they will do so in different ways. While Prism navigates the complex relationship to the institution, she said, Gamma will host events celebrating LGBTQ identity, offering queer-affirming sex education and advocating for policy change—which, at Baylor, means theology change.
If Prism is the resource-rich mothering organization, Gamma is the uninhibited big sister, Duncan said. Both can nurture and offer fellowship. In a statement on Instagram, LaVergne welcomed the new group and reaffirmed Gamma’s commitment to the community: “Gamma Alpha Epsilon will continue providing an affirming environment for Baylor students of all religious, non-religious, and faith backgrounds and will advocate for the legitimacy of queer-affirming theology.”
Even beyond the LGBTQ community, most reaction to the Prism news has been positive, Duncan said. Some conservative groups have issued condemnatory statements, but she said most alumni, community members, and students who’ve reached out were congratulatory. “Everything directed toward us has been very positive,” Duncan said. “It’s been a blessing.”
Bekah McNeel is a journalist in San Antonio who writes about education, immigration, and religion.