Metro Weekly

Baylor professor apologizes after guest speaker promotes conversion therapy

University regents recently met with students from the school's unofficial LGBTQ organization to hear their concerns

Baylor University’s Bill Daniel Student Center – Photo: Michael Barera, via Wikimedia.

An American Sign Language professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has apologized to his students after a guest speaker he invited promoted conversion therapy during his speech.

The Rev. Jari Saavalainen, a pastor at New Life Deaf Community Church in Chicago, was asked to talk to professor Lewis Lummer’s class about his missionary work with deaf people.

During the presentation, Saavaleinen pulled up a website advocating for conversion therapy for LGBTQ people.

Celia Scrivener, an openly gay student, claims she was looking away at one point during the presentation, but was alerted to the website by a friend in the class who grabbed the edge of her desk.

She said her “jaw dropped” upon seeing the website. She snapped a photo and posted about the incident on Twitter. 

“No one in the class seemed comfortable with it at all,” Scrivener, who is an officer with Gamma Alpha Upsilon (GAY), the unofficial LGBTQ campus group, told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “I’m very stereotypical looking, it’s not a secret to anyone that I am gay. It kind of singled me out in front of that group of people. It was a lot of uncomfortable-looking faces, especially mine.”

Lummer later apologized for Saavaleinen’s decision to stray from the original intent of the presentation.

Lori Fogleman, the university’s vice president of media relations, wrote in an email to NBC News that Baylor, a private Christian institution in Waco, Texas, “does not practice or condone” conversion therapy.

She also linked to a statement from President Linda Livingstone saying that Baylor is “committed to providing a loving and caring community” for LGBTQ students.

While Scrivener doesn’t blame the school for Saavaleinen’s endorsement of conversion therapy, she says the university has a lot of work to do if it wants to live up to its alleged commitment to LGBTQ students. 

Baylor has been engaged in a back-and-forth dispute with GAY for years, dating back to when the organization was first formed in 2011.

The university has repeatedly denied GAY’s application seeking to be recognized as an officially chartered student group, due to its official position affirming “the Biblical understanding of sexuality.”

Until 2015, homosexuality was listed as a punishable offense in Baylor’s code of conduct.

“They can go on and say that ‘we want our own students to feel loved and accepted and welcomed on campus’ and all of that, but then they just don’t really do anything about it,” Scrivener told NBC News. “They just say, ‘We’re having these conversations.’ And, you know, we’re getting a little tired of conversations that don’t lead to anything.”

Last week, for the first time, GAY was permitted to address Baylor’s Board of Regents during a scheduled meeting, which they had asked for in a letter, signed by more than 3,000 fellow students, sent to university administrators in July.

Vice President Anna Conner and two other group members discussed their experiences and those of other LGBTQ students on campus for more than an hour.

Although the Board of Regents took no action, and the group will have to continue requesting to be recognized as an official student organization, Conner told the Tribune-Herald that the regents seemed receptive and appeared to be deeply impacted by the students’ presentation.

Conner said the university is caught between a “false choice” between affirming LGBTQ students and standing by its Christian beliefs regarding human sexuality.

“There’s this perception that if Baylor adopts an acceptance of LGBT people, then they immediately lose some type of Christian status. And that’s just not true,” she said. “You can still be affirming and be a Christian, you can still be gay and be a Christian.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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