Gay at Baylor: A Christian Challenge

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post

By Mark Osler

This past October, I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Repentance of an Anti-Gay Bigot.”  Among the dozens of responses I received were many from my former law students at Baylor University, where I taught for ten years.  They were heart-wrenching, revealing the pain of attending Baylor in fear of being found out and expelled; of isolating themselves from their classmates; and ultimately their alienation from Baylor and even Christianity.  Baylor bars gays and lesbians from the faculty, and has fought hard to keep any gay student support groups from gaining recognition.  It has done this in the name of Jesus Christ, claiming the authority of the Bible.

I don’t teach at Baylor anymore.  This week I am starting my second year as a professor of law at a Catholic school, St. Thomas, in Minneapolis.  Though smaller than Baylor, it is similar in many ways.  It is strong in its faith identity, and the majority of faculty (at least in my department) and students are more conservative than you would find at most other schools.  Yet, there are differences, and at least one may be crucial to Baylor’s future.

 After a few weeks of teaching sentencing at St. Thomas, one of my students stopped by to see me right before lunch, so I invited him to join me.  He had a genuine interest in criminal law, and in particular wanted to work for the U.S. Department of Justice, my former employer.  I love talking about the DOJ, and asked him which division he would like to work in.

 He immediately told me he wanted to work in the Civil Rights Division in Washington, an important and often controversial office.  Looking over my sandwich at this middle-aged white male, I asked “Why Civil Rights?”

Mark Osler

He immediately responded, “Well, I’m gay.”  He then began to describe some of the work he had already done in the area, but I barely knew he was talking—after ten years at Baylor, I was in a state of shock to hear a student openly admit this to a professor in a public place.  I looked behind me to see if anyone we might know was around, and felt relieved when there were only strangers.

I need not have worried.  St. Thomas has a gay and lesbian student organization, my administrative assistant is openly gay, and two of my colleagues who are full professors are also openly gay and are welcome to (and do) bring their partners to law school events.  Yet, not only does the school survive, but the fact that we are welcoming to gays and lesbians does not in the least seem to be read as any kind of statement on the part of our sponsoring body, the Archdiocese of Minnesota.  We are a community that includes gay men and lesbians as faculty, staff, and students, and stand proudly together as Christians.

Baylor can accept gays and lesbians without sacrificing anything.  Yes, the student code of conduct bars pre-marital sex, but gays and straights are equally susceptible to breaking that rule; if potential for sexual relations is a reason to bar anyone, it is a reason to bar everyone.   That rule should be enforced evenly.  All evidence now is that it is enforced in the dorms, but not elsewhere.  If that is the case, then enforcement should be consistent, gay or straight.

Former Baylor President Abner McCall once told a good friend of mine that “Baylor can’t be a Christian.  Only people can be Christian.”  As Christian people we must be both honest and loving.  Honesty tells us that there have been, are now, and will be gays and lesbians at Baylor.  If the plan has been to exclude them, Baylor has done a lousy job.   Given that gay men and lesbians are and will be students at Baylor, love instructs us to help them grow in faith and to welcome them, rather than exclude or demean them.

 The time has come for Baylor to hire gays and lesbians who meet all other requirements; to lift the veil of fear from student life; and to allow gay and lesbian groups to establish themselves on campus.  Baylor is strong, proud, and Christian, and all of those qualities make such a change possible without a loss of identity.

 To remain an engaged and relevant institution, Baylor must change.  Its message to gays and lesbians has to be something other than what is perceived on campus now:  That if you are gay, there is no love for you, on Earth or in Heaven.  Christ promises more, and so should Baylor.

7 thoughts on “Gay at Baylor: A Christian Challenge

  1. I’m sorry Mark; Baylor will probably do just fine as it is. It’s got lots of alumni and donors who would really be upset by a bunch of gay/straight alliance club branches fruiting up the place. It would be bad for the Football, most of all. Sounds like a nice liberal Catholic University, but I’ll bet any Faculty that gets married to a same-sex partner soon finds out that no pre-marital sex isn’t the only policy that affects gay and lesbian faculty differently from you. A very well-meant and Christian piece from someone who clearly cares about his students, but has no idea what theology shaped to fit patriarchy means. (Hint: he’s saying “Don’t whip the slaves, they’re your brothers, treat them well and they’ll work harder.”

  2. Sorry, that’s an analogy, of course. I was going to use women being submissive to husbands instead, and then I thought, oops, I’m looking for an obsolescent scriptural justification.

  3. Sandra:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be implying that the real world has embraced gay rights and Baylor is living in a past generation. That may be true in Canada (I hope it is), but here in Texas, opponents of gay rights outnumber supporters by an imposing margin (how imposing, I’m not sure). This is Baylor’s dilemma. How do you embrace the principle of gay rights without throwing Baylor culture into chaos? There are plenty of smart, caring folks at Baylor, and many of them have been watching the unfolding debate over gay rights carefully. Unfortunately, as things presently stand, no one in the Baylor community can broach the subject in a public setting without placing their career in jeopardy. When a Baptist church in Waco called a woman pastor a few years back, fundamentalist picketers showed up to protest. That’s the kind of culture we’re talking about. Baylor lies at the center of Texas culture, and, yes, that makes the school pretty darn conservative. So conservative, in fact, that the school isn’t ready to deal with the issue of gay rights; and yet the issue must be dealt with. That’s why professor Osler (a Friends of Justice board member, by the way) has done an important service by addressing the elephant in the room. If he didn’t care about Baylor as an institution it would be easy to trash the school for its bigoted approach to gay students. But that’s not what is happening here. Mark is pleading with men and women he loves to face up to the presence of gay students and stop pretending they don’t exist. This is a combustible issue; so combustible that no one currently on the faculty is likely to start the conversation in a public way. That has to come from the outside and I’m glad Mark cares enough about Baylor University to raise the issue even though the administration is desperate to kick the gay rights can a few years down the road. This issue has created havoc in every mainline denomination in the United States (with the possible exception of the UCC) so no one (least of all Mark Osler) is going to bring it up in a cavalier fashion. Sure, gay rights is a divisive issue. So was civil rights. You couldn’t champion the cause of civil rights in the American South without putting your livelihood on the line. Nothing has changed.

  4. I apologize. I’m in bed with the flu this week and my laptop is too close and my delete button is too far away. I commend Mark for bringing up the subject of Baylor’s intolerance., to support the faculty and students there who support change.

  5. The last two sentences are the core of the matter: “Its message to gays and lesbians has to be something other than what is perceived on campus now: That if you are gay, there is no love for you, on Earth or in Heaven. Christ promises more, and so should Baylor.”

  6. Baylor has a persistent group of students who meet for a Sexual Identity Forum, and they have a website: sifembearsdotcom, with the period in there, and it looks like Prof. Osler dropped in Thursday night. This letter from the newsletter “Religious Dispatches” halfway down the page, “There’s sin, and then there’s gay sin”, I think is apropos:
    This is going to be a tough fight between Christian charity and alumni dollars.

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