As an undergraduate at Baylor University in the 1950s (class of ’59), I worried a lot about Baylor’s being a racially segregated university. The issue of integration was much on my mind because I had graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1955, two years before the integration of Central High became a national event.
I had been in supportive correspondence with two of my high school teachers who were among those publicly struggling to get Central High reopened and further integrated after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, playing the race card, engineered the closing of Central for a full year (1958-59). While all of that was happening in Little Rock, here in Waco, Baylor’s doors remained closed to African Americans.
The Vietnam War was still in the future, so integration was the moral issue of the day and Baylor, far from being a leader in the matter, was, as of my graduation, not even a follower. In fact, Baptist Christians were often justifying segregation by appealing to certain biblical passages and, indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention had itself been born in the 19th century out of a biblical defense of slavery. And though Baylor had never been a Southern Baptist Convention institution, Baylor was a child of Texas Baptists and eventually affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. In that historical process, Baylor was influenced by the long Southern history of segregation. As it turned out, Baylor was the last of the schools in the old Southwest Conference to grant admission to African Americans, remaining segregated until 1964.
Another issue of justice has been brewing at Baylor for some years and has now been brought to the fore. And again, Baylor, instead of being a moral leader, has, so far, not even been a follower. At issue is Baylor’s treatment of its LGBTQ students and their request for official recognition of their organization. For several years gay and lesbian students at Baylor have been seeking such recognition. Baylor repeatedly has failed to grant their request.
Three Baylor graduates are now leading an alumni group supporting official recognition for Baylor’s LGBTQ student organization. Attorney Skye Perryman, Baugh Foundation executive Jackie Baugh Moore and higher educational consultant Dr. Tracy Teaff have co-authored a petition supporting such recognition and have met with Baylor President Linda Livingstone to ask that Baylor recognize the student organization.
The petition requests that “the university reconsider its exclusion of student organizations that are designed to provide a community for individuals in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) and allied community.” More than 3,000 Baylor alumni have now signed the petition, including current and retired Baylor faculty members and administrators, ministers, former members of the Baylor Board of Regents and Baylor graduates who have received a variety of distinguished Baylor alumni awards.
The petition notes that for nearly a decade “LGBTQ and allied students have worked tirelessly, organizing among themselves, working with faculty and preparing drafts of charters and applications, only to be turned down repeatedly.” As a result, these “students are not able to obtain campus spaces to host events or to apply for funding through the student government allocation fund.”
Almost simultaneously with presentation of the letter of petition to President Livingstone, the Baylor Student government passed a bill supportive of the inclusion of LGBTQ student organizations on campus.
I genuinely wish I knew what to say to encourage those who oppose gay rights to at least rethink their opposition. In considering this issue as a moral one, it is crucial to try to see matters from the perspective of the other. In some ways it sounds like such a cliché to appeal to the golden rule, but as Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and among the most widely read Christian writers today, points out, some form of the golden rule is the moral heart of all major religious traditions. Judaism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Islam: “None of you is a believer until you love for [the other] what you love for yourself.” Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” And, of course, there is the Christian tenet: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
In my classes when the issue of gay rights was discussed, heterosexual students would often say things like: I certainly do not recall ever choosing to be heterosexual. I never thought to myself, I believe I will be attracted to members of the opposite sex. No heterosexual ever said, I remember the time and place when I chose my sexual orientation. For heterosexuals, it is a discovery, not a choice, a realization, not a decision. Surely, the same is true for gays and lesbians.
The moral heart of the matter, then, is putting oneself in the place of the other. Sexuality is a fundamental dimension of who we are. What would it be like to have the essence of one’s sexuality described as immoral? What would it be like to try to live one’s life without sexual intimacy as those who oppose gay rights argue that gays should do?
Time and again, I recall American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” describing Abraham Lincoln as “possessing extraordinary empathy, the gift . . . of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” This capacity to feel with the other is the foundation of movements for justice throughout time and place. It should empower concern for justice for gays and lesbians.
Eventually, the arc of justice will land at Baylor with regard to this matter. The LGBTQ community will be recognized and valued. Would that it came sooner rather than later, just as we now look back and wish Baylor had pursued racial justice sooner than it did.
The Baptist minister, Mississippi author and civil rights leader Will Campbell, in a presentation at Baylor years ago, said there would come a time when we Baptists would apologize for how we treated homosexuals as we now apologize for how we once treated blacks. Surely this is so.