20190430_loc_baylor_lgbt_jl

Baylor students Anna Conner (from left), Hayden Evans and Elizabeth Benton belong to a LGBTQ support group seeking recognition at Baylor.

When I was first accepted into the US Army – Baylor University Doctoral Program in Physical Therapy, it didn’t really matter to me that my degree would be from Baylor. I was more concerned about staying in the Army and caring for soldiers. However, over the last three years, far more people have asked me about being a Baylor Bear than about being a cadet at West Point.

Now, I’m proud of being a Baylor alumna, even waking up in the wee hours of the morning or staying up late into the night in Afghanistan to watch Baylor play. I’m grateful for the conversations it has started and the friendships it has granted with a host of intelligent, driven, passionate, caring people whom I otherwise would not have met.

Given that pride in the institution and its reputation, I feel compelled to publicly support the current and future LGBTQ+ students at Baylor. Students, you belong. You are strong, fierce and fabulous, and you can do this. I was closeted for 30 years for fear of being disowned by my family, kicked out of West Point or discharged from the Army. Today, I am an out, proud, lesbian trans woman on active duty as an officer and physical therapist in the United States Army. I made it. You will too. As it is written, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” You were fearfully and wonderfully made, just as you are. You have beautiful gifts and extraordinary personhood to bring to the world. Even if you can’t be out right now, keep each other’s lights shining. Your time is coming.

I grew up in the church. I sang in choir. I led worship in junior high, high school and college. I participated on the worship team in every church since then, including my multinational church when I was stationed in the Republic of Korea. And while I believed in what I was doing, I never felt whole. Being a Christian has been a deep part of my life since I was a young child, and yet I always felt that I couldn’t be my full self.

In 2014, I began attending a church in which a Baptist pastor with a high view of Scripture preached the Bible in a way that included me. I eventually came to believe that God made me exactly how I am, and that I belonged. Not only was that preacher clear about my belonging, the congregation was too. After I had moved away and transitioned, I came back for a visit and the church asked me to lead worship. Leading worship in a small Baptist church in Texas as an out trans woman was one of the most significant moments of my life. For the first time, I was able to be who God created me to be, in the place of God, with the people of God. Now, I take that experience for granted: I frequently play piano, sing in the choir and lead worship at my current church.

Before transition, most of my energy, emotion and strength was spent hiding and fighting my very self. I performed at work by emotionally detaching, but my internal struggle caused significant discord in my home life. I couldn’t let anyone in for fear that all of me would come out. Now, having transitioned, my world has changed. I am no longer at war with myself. I no longer spend my days wondering how God messed up when he made me. I have discovered a deeper capacity to love than I thought possible. I am a far better friend, parent, sibling, physical therapist and human being than I ever was before. I can bring my whole self to the world. I am not struggling to survive; I have the strength to fight for others. I have the courage to sit in the depths of struggle with people, having had others sit with me like Jesus sat with those who were rejected and dehumanized by the religious institutions of his day.

Baylor, your LGBTQ+ students aren’t requesting that you change your interpretation of Scripture and become an open and affirming religious organization. They simply want to be allowed to be public about their identities. This is not frivolous; it is a matter of life and death. Research is clear that when LGBTQ+ youth are supported and recognized, their risk for suicide and depression decreases dramatically. These students want to support each other. Allowing them the space to do that will not harm anyone. But it might just save someone’s life.

Your LGBTQ+ students have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to their faith and your university by choosing to attend an institution that does not welcome them fully. They believe that you can do better. They believe that the world can be better. They believe in Jesus’ example and his words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Baylor, I know that you can step forward in bravery and love and continue to make me proud of being a Baylor Bear. As a prestigious religious institution here, you could set the example for others to follow. I hope you do. I leave you with this challenge from the Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall: “When Jesus stops by and reverses longstanding socially and ecclesially accepted ways of doing things, don’t panic. Just believe. Jesus has blessings abundant for everyone.”

Alivia Stehlik is a Baylor University graduate, a captain in the U.S. Army and a transgender woman. More than 3,200 alumni, faculty and students are pressing Baylor regents to revise school policies and formally recognize an LGBTQ student group. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.