So, Elmhurst College added sexual orientation as a demographic category on their application, and the reaction from students is… no big deal. Kind of ho hum, actually.
It turns out that very few students are skipping the optional question. Why would they? Sexual orientation just isn’t the same kind of big deal right now for many of them. An analysis of the 2010 General Social Survey data revealed that the youngest cohort in the US was overwhelmingly supportive of homosexuality, with 50% of those aged 18-29 reporting that they find nothing wrong with homosexuality (as compared to 44-62% of those over 50 that said that homosexuality was always wrong).
Yes, there is still discrimination in the world: LGBT kids get harassed and assaulted in school by teachers and peers, gay clubs get thrown off high school campuses, parents throw their children out of the house for being gay, and the political fight over gay rights sounds like the adoption of gay rights policies would herald the apocalypse. That said, young LGBT folks are not only discovering their sexual orientations early in their lives, they are actually telling people about their sexual identities while still in middle school and high school. And not only are they coming out in person to family and friends, but they are out on Facebook, where all sorts of people can see their information. They live in a time of gay-straight alliances in schools, gay support groups on the internet, a 24-hour LGBT support hotline, out public figures like artists and actors, and a host of LGBT movies, television shows, TV channels, and other cultural media. Yet, despite all of these resources, LGBT youth are still committing suicide.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway message is that we don’t protect LGBT youth by not talking about it. Instead, we have to normalize sexual orientation and gender identity as integral parts of everyone’s identities, and recognize that knowing about LGBT students’ needs and interests allows us to develop and target the necessary supports they can use to be successful.
Campus Pride, the LGBT group focused on higher education, has been lobbying for several years now to get the Common Application to add categories for sexual orientation and nontraditional gender identity. The organization knows from their own experiences hosting college recruitment fairs that students want an assurance that schools (a) want LGBT students and (b) will support them when they arrive. Yet, the Common Application folks refuse to add the question, noting that students might feel uncomfortable being asked the question, though they and other schools are watching the Elmhurst experience closely.
As I have noted, there are real benefits to colleges and universities in gathering the data. These data allows the school to track applicants’ acceptance rates, as well as LGB students’ academic performance, retention, and graduation rates, along with any number of other useful indicators. Small study research shows that LGB students drop out at high rates, due to challenges they face with their developing sexual identities, but we have very few large data sets with hard numbers, due to a refusal of colleges and universities to collect data on sexual orientation. This kind of routine data collection would yield important information for the schools and for higher education overall.
Another objection from critics of including the question was that LGB applicants wouldn’t answer the question. Elmhurst College found a way to provide an incentive for students to answer the sexual orientation question, offering an opportunity to qualify for a scholarship for an LGB student. Even though there was money involved, though, the percentage of applicants claiming LGB identities was still a meager 5%. Apparently, heterosexuals are either very moral or unwilling to be “gay for pay.”
This situation reminded me of my trips to Womencrafts, a store in Provincetown that offered a discount if you would just say at the cash register that you are a lesbian. I remember being amused that other customers wouldn’t claim the discount, even those who were lesbian, many because they were too afraid or embarrassed to be associated with a lesbian identity. And this was in the 1990s. That said, I remember feeling nervous and a little excited when I claimed the discount the first time, and I walked away feeling accepted and proud of myself and my lesbian identity. I would bet that LGB applicants at Elmhurst are feeling much the same way.