Baylor professor apologizes after guest speaker promotes conversion therapy

The incident is just the latest at the Christian university to highlight an unwelcoming environment for LGBTQ people, some students say.
Image: The campus of Baylor University is at the heart of Waco, Texas.
The campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where a guest speaker promoted conversion therapy, prompting the professor who invited him to apologize.Allen Holder / MCT via Getty Images file
By Liam Knox

An American Sign Language professor at Baylor University apologized to his students this week after a guest speaker he invited promoted conversion therapy during his presentation.

The Rev. Jari Saavalainen, a pastor at a deaf church in Chicago, was asked to talk Tuesday about missionary work with deaf people, and professor Lewis Lummer said he did not anticipate the presentation would include any mention of conversion therapy.

Having the subject broached in a sign language class made it all the more shocking, students said.

Celia Scrivener, who heard the talk, said she wasn’t even paying attention, but as the only gay student in class, her peers looked to see her reaction.

“[Saavalainen] pulled up this website and I was looking away at the time ... but a friend of mine who sits right next to me grabbed the edge of my desk,” she said. “I looked up and my jaw just dropped.”

Lummer has since apologized.

Lori Fogleman, the university’s vice president of media relations, wrote in an email to NBC News that Baylor “does not practice or condone” conversion therapy.

She also linked to an August statement from President Linda Livingstone, who said the Christian university in Waco, Texas, is “committed to providing a loving and caring community” for LGBTQ students.

While Scrivener doesn’t blame Baylor for the guest speaker’s surprise endorsement of conversion therapy, she said the university has a lot of work to do if it wants to live up to its purported commitments.

Scrivener, a junior, is in charge of social media for one of the university’s only LGBTQ student groups, Gamma Alpha Upsilon (or GAY, as it looks spelled out in Greek). The organization was formed in 2011, when homosexuality was still listed as a punishable offense in Baylor’s code of conduct. The clause was removed in 2015.

But the group’s main purpose — to provide a space for LGBTQ students on a campus where they are often discriminated against, by the institution and fellow students — is as relevant as ever, Scrivener said.

Even so, the university has denied Gamma’s application for a student group charter every year since its founding, in accordance with university policy against recognizing LGBTQ-affirming student groups.

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The group only just recently secured a room on campus to hold meetings, and even that’s only because an anonymous faculty member registered it for them, Scrivener said.

“They can go on and say that ‘we want our own students to feel loved and accepted and welcomed on campus’ and all of that, but then they just don't really do anything about it,” she said. “They just say, ‘We're having these conversations.’ And, you know, we're getting a little tired of conversations that don't lead to anything.”

Anna Conner, Gamma’s vice president, said Baylor’s official position affirming “the Biblical understanding of sexuality” emboldens students and community members to harass LGBTQ students, and erases the identities of the students themselves.

“A lot of people who are against the LGBT community feel that they are allowed to say and do things without facing any punishment by the school,” Conner said. “So we exist to have this group where people can be open about their identities.”

Conner, a senior, said the group had been wary of stirring controversy over the last eight years. But this year, after a public conflict with conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom, that’s changing.

“We thought that if we damaged our relationship with [Baylor], then we might not even be allowed to do the very small things that we can do,” she said. “Baylor doesn't openly accept LGBT people. But it's just now starting to change because we've been so public about this issue.”

Scrivener added: “We just kind of stopped being so silent and decided to let them have it.”

The students have support from alumni, as well. Skye Perryman, who graduated in 2003, is one of a group of alums who formed BU Bears for All, which is calling on Baylor to rescind its policy against recognizing LGBTQ-affirming student groups and make the campus a more welcoming place for students of all backgrounds.

The group’s letter to university administrators in support of LGBTQ students has received over 3,200 signatures.

“There has been a groundswell of alumni support for LGBTQ students at Baylor, and in particular calling on Baylor to change its policies that marginalize and fail to recognize LGBTQ students as fully part of the campus community,” Perryman said.

Baylor’s policies have had real consequences for queer students. Conner said that despite frequent cases of homophobic harassment, including queer students being yelled at and followed home by some of their peers, the university has been ineffective at addressing their complaints.

“It's very difficult to get LGBTQ students to report actual cases of harassment or physical violence or anything like that because all the stories we have of people that went through with that are very negative,” she said. “It eventually came to a point where people just gave up or they're like, ‘It's not worth it. I'm just gonna have to deal with this trauma on my own or with my friends, because Baylor is not going to support me.’”

Conner, who identifies as both queer and Christian, said the university is caught between a false choice of affirming LGBTQ identities and holding onto its Christian beliefs.

“There's this perception that if Baylor adopts an acceptance of LGBT people, then they immediately lose some type of Christian status. And that's just not true,” she said. “You can still be affirming and be a Christian, you can still be gay and be a Christian.”

Scrivener said the school’s “biblical” understanding of sexuality is demeaning, but she loves attending Baylor and doesn’t want to let hate get in the way of her college education.

“The main response to us is, ‘Well, then why did you come to Baylor?’ Like ‘You chose to come here, deal with it,’” she said. “And all of us are in agreement, that we weren’t going to put our sexuality above getting a very good education. I love Baylor with everything in me … I am so glad and proud to go here.”

Administrators agree “there is more we can do to support our LGBTQ students,” Livingston said in her “Statement on Human Sexuality.”

Conner said she believes Baylor wants to make itself a more welcoming place for LGBTQ people. She and other Gamma members met last week with the university’s Board of Regents, and she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the future of LGBTQ equality on campus.

“If we manage to keep up the pressure and keep talking about the issues, I think something will change within the next few years,” she said.

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