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Baylor students, faculty clash over proposed gay student group

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by Mark Wiggins

BAYLOR - For weeks, they've met unofficially on Baylor campus, but so far their efforts to be officially recognized by Baylor University have been unsuccessful.

Students with the Sexual Identity Forum say it's time the historic Texas institution finally confronts its tenuous history with homosexuality.

"I think when you don't talk about it, when you put something away under the rug, it creates this culture of fear," says Baylor senior Saralyn Salisbury.  "I know a lot of gay students at Baylor who think that they'll be kicked out of Baylor if they're open [about who they are]."

It's a fear sparked in part by stories like that of George W. Truett Seminary student Matt Bass, who in 2003 accused the university of revoking his scholarship because he was gay.  Within months, the story prompted demonstrations, drawing attention to the school's policy towards homosexuality on campus.

It's been a constant source of friction between students, faculty and staff.  In September of 2010, a national tragedy sparked a turning point for Baylor senior Samantha Jones.

Jones, who is openly gay, says the bullying and suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi served as a wake-up call to gay students around the nation. Jones says Baylor's reaction to the tragedy left much to be desired.

"We didn't get an e-mail saying, 'This is someone who you can approach if you're struggling with this,' ...nothing," Jones says.  "And that hurt even more."

Jones decided what Baylor needed was a Sexual Identity Forum, a student group where the topics of homophobia, hate crimes and suicide could be discussed among fellow students.  In November of 2010, Jones filed her first request to create an officially recognized student group.

Jones says she knew the path to acceptance would not be easy. According to Baylor's Statement on Human Sexuality:

"Baylor University welcomes all students into a safe and supportive environment in which to discuss and learn about a variety of issues, including those of human sexuality. The University affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God. Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching."

Jones says she tried to make it clear in her application that her group wasn't about advocacy, but discussion.  The university didn't agree, and her application was denied twice.  Jones says the last denial came on Wednesday in the form of an e-mail.

"This latest time they said that students weren't responsible enough to hold forums about controversial issues like sexuality," says Jones.

Baylor spokesperson Lori Fogleman says student organizations are subject to a specific set of procedures in order to be recognized, and says the university clearly communicated its concerns.

"The university does not believe that a student organization is the most viable medium in which to have this kind of dialogue on difficult decisions," says Fogleman.  "We really want to make sure we place our students in a safe, educational environment, where a multiplicity of opinions can be welcomed."

Fogleman says the university works hard to provide professional forums for the discussion of sexuality.  Students with the unofficial Sexual Identity Forum say that's a sign of progress, but they'd like to see more.

"There's way more need to discuss it than opportunity," says Baylor Freshman Erica Heath.  "We're trying to fix that ratio."

The group currently has a petition on their website, and Jones says the group will continue to appeal the university's decision in the hopes of finding acceptance.

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