Brittney Griner, Confetti Angels and Baylor’s Soul

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post

By Mark Osler

This week, Baylor basketball star Brittney Griner made her first public statements about her sexuality, and at least one headline read that this announcement is “no big deal.” In the sports world, that has been true. Griner’s impressive talent and character speak for themselves.

It is a big deal at Baylor. That’s because Baylor, citing its Christian identity, continues to bar gay men and lesbians from employment, and bars active homosexual relationships under its student code of conduct. In the past few years, debate over that policy has grown more heated.

Griner’s brave act creates a fascinating conundrum: Baylor at once discriminates openly against gays and lesbians, and has as its best-known and perhaps most-admired student a remarkable student-athlete who is a lesbian. For her part, Griner seems unashamed of either her sexuality or her school. Therein lies the secret to Baylor’s future. It can be both Christian and accepting of gays and lesbians, and now we know what that looks like.

The President of Baylor is Ken Starr, perhaps the only person in Waco who is more famous than Brittney Griner. Starr has done a remarkable job as president, by focusing on raising money and relentless cheerleading for what is and has been an excellent university. His talents are well suited to the job, and he avoids negativity at every turn.

Both Ken Starr and Brittney Griner are pretty smart. Ken Starr probably knew that there were gay men and lesbians on campus, and Brittney Griner probably knew that Ken Starr had been (perhaps unfairly) vilified by some in the LGBT community for his role in California’s battle over gay marriage. Yet, what they did together was this: After Baylor clinched another Big 12 Championship, they made confetti angels on the basketball court as the crowd roared.

There really is something deeply moving and beautiful about that scene, which friends in Waco have described to me. It answers the question that keeps Baptists wringing their hands, the many variations of, “How can a Christian school tolerate gay men and lesbians?” The answer is right there, in that image. The way that you tolerate gay men and lesbians is that you treat them well, you teach them, you advise them, you admire and encourage their talents, and sometimes you have fun and celebrate with them. You treat them as students.

The tendency at Baylor to point to Christianity as the reason to bar gay people, as employees or students, will change now that the face attached to the issue is one belonging to a person as well-liked and admired as Brittney Griner. I don’t doubt that many in Waco very much wish that she had just not said anything, but the truth is that her brave honesty is best for everyone. Instead of imagining a scary future where gay students can walk the campus openly, religious conservatives can look at the present and see that it maybe is not so bad. What happens, after all, if Baylor lets gay men and lesbians study and work there? Confetti angels — that’s what happens.

Mark Osler teaches law at the University of St. Thomas.  He formerly taught at Baylor law school.

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