University of Iowa Brings Groundbreaking Gay Question to College Admissions

When it comes to gay rights in higher education, the University of Iowa has been on the front lines for decades. In 1970, they became the first state university to officially recognize a GLBT group on campus, and they’ve offered insurance benefits for domestic partners of employees since 1993, longer than any other American public university. This week, the Hawkeyes put another notch in their rainbow belt when they announced that they have added an optional question on sexual orientation to their undergraduate application. The question, which asks prospective students “Do you identify with the LGBTQ community?” will appear in a section that also includes optional inquiries about parental education levels and interest in on-campus groups such as fraternities and the ROTC. The University of Iowa is the first public higher education institution to specifically ask about queer identity; Elmhurst College, a small private college in Illinois, added a similar question last year. The University of Iowa also added a “transgender” option to their gender identity question.

These ideas were proposed by Jake Christensen, a senior admissions officer. Christensen is gay and an alum, and says that, as a student, he always found the U of I community open and accepting – so much so that when he began working in the admissions office, he was surprised to find no “targeted recruitment” of LGBTQ students. With the new question, Christensen and his cohorts hope to send a message of support and acceptance right out of the gate, connect prospective students with appropriate resources, and include LGBTQ students in demographic studies. Answers will not factor into admissions decisions.

THE GAY LIBERATION FRONT'S 1970 YEARBOOK PICTURE {VIA UNIVERSITY OF IOWA ARCHIVES}

THE GAY LIBERATION FRONT’S 1970 YEARBOOK PICTURE {VIA UNIVERSITY OF IOWA ARCHIVES}

In fact, the answers might not matter as much as the question itself. School officials think the question’s very presence will say something about what the school stands for. “For some students, this may be the first time in their lives that an institution has exhibited a sensitivity to diversity, and has sent a welcoming message,” Christensen explains. The university’s Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge agrees, saying that “asking LGBTQ students to identify themselves demonstrates that we value this aspect of identity just as we value the other categories for which students check boxes.” Michael Barron, the Assistant Provost for Enrollment Management, thinks the question “will cause [queer students] to look more closely at the university because we value that part of who they are. We want students to feel we are receptive to and sensitive to their lifestyle and their description of themselves.” Meanwhile, even if the question doesn’t affect them, the fact that the application asks it tells straight kids what kind of a university they’re dealing with.  “We are telling people that this is a place with respect for all kinds of students.”

In addition, the new question will be used to help the University direct students towards resources they otherwise may not have found as quickly. “What we’ve heard from students, especially LGBT students, is that they don’t find out about support services and organizations until they’ve been here for a year or two, unfortunately,” says Dodge. “This [new question] allows us to do some more personal outreach.” It will also provide them with demographic information that helps them  figure out to what extent the school  is “attracting applications, admitting, enrolling or graduating students of differing sexual orientations or gender identities.” Data like this could help the school better allocate its resources and apply for grants.

GRANTS, SAY, FOR MORE TULIPS {VIA CAMPUS PRIDE}

GRANTS, SAY, FOR MORE TULIPS {VIA CAMPUS PRIDE}

The school’s current gay population strongly supports the measure, as does Campus Pride, a nonprofit that, among other things, rates the LGBT-friendliness of colleges and universities in an Index available online (the Department of Probably-Not-Coincidences reports that Christensen is quite involved with Campus Pride, which gave the University of Iowa a near-perfect score in 2011. One of the only areas that needed improvement? “LGBT Recruitment and Retention Efforts”). “For the first time, a major, public and national research university has taken efforts to identify their LGBT students from the very first moment those students have official contact with them,” says Campus Pride executive director Shane Windmeyer. “This is a huge deal in that it shows any campus that it can do the same thing.”

In January 2011, Windmeyer tried hard to get more campuses to do the same thing when he spearheaded a petition asking the Common Application to add a similar question to their undergraduate form. The Common Application, which serves as the gateway to nearly 500 member schools, voted down the proposal, citing fears that the question might make students uncomfortable for a variety of reasons: “Would the student feel pressure to answer? Would the student worry how this information would be used? Would the student worry who had access to this information? Would the student worry that a negative decision was in part because of their answer?” Rob Killion, the Common Application’s executive director, also points out that the Common App already asks students if they’ve been involved with gay rights organizations in high school, which provides colleges and universities with another way to “identify applicants who may benefit from targeted outreach efforts.” The board plans to revisit the proposal sometime in the next decade (I’ll bet it’s sooner, now that the University of Iowa has made its move).

REMEMBER THIS?

REMEMBER THIS?

The other notable change in the U of I application, and one that’s been getting skimmed over by most of the press coverage I’ve seen, aims to make the gender identity question more inclusive. It’s a good idea that fell apart in the execution: the drop-down menu that used to ask applicants to choose between “male” and “female” now includes a “transgender” option. This doesn’t make much sense; many people who identify as trans still consider themselves male or female, and, although a list that tried to hold all possible gender definitions would stretch far beyond even the largest computer screen, “transgender” seems like a less-than-adequate catchall. I’m surprised they didn’t follow the recommendations of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, which recommended the following to the Common Application board in early 2010, after consulting with consortium members, “other professionals who work in higher education (e.g., director of financial aid, visa specialist, professor of trans theory), [and] transgender activists outside of higher education”:

“Our primary and preferred recommendation… was that the gender question should mirror the question about ethnicity. Making the questions parallel would make the question about gender optional and students would have the ability to select more than one option. The language we suggested for applicants to be able to select is:__female__male__transgender__additional identity (specify_______).We did not want to “other” the transgender identity, and we also wanted to leave the ability for applicants to be able to select more than one option and write in a different or more specific identity. The “specify with a line” language is consistent with the language on the question about ethnicity.”

Sarah Dopp, who runs a genderqueer blog AND a tech blog, provides some even more nuanced options (I particularly like the gender-spectrum slider bar).

Is the University of Iowa’s idea a good one? And what exactly will it do? The shift from high school to college is a particularly tricky one for queer adolescents. Although many more kids are now coming out in high school, many still wait until college, and others test the waters a bit before they do that. Those who are waiting until college to come out may do so for reasons that would also make them wary about, say, getting an LGBT-themed brochure in their school mailbox, or telling their parents about receiving a diversity scholarship. Others might not be comfortable with labels (something that Christensen took into account when he was wording the University of Iowa’s question). As high school guidance counselor Susan Tree puts it, “Not everybody shares the same context for this question.  For some kids, this would be extremely affirming, and for others, this would be very intimidating.” Even if being in a supportive environment brings a kid right out of his shell and/or the closet, it can be hard to imagine and act on that feeling before you actually get there, even with bolstered faith from a particularly welcoming application. This fact has already affected the school’s first-year housing program: Spectrum House, “a living-learning community dedicated to promoting inclusion and awareness for individuals across the gender and sexuality spectrum,” will be incorporated into a broader social justice living-learning community next year. “Spectrum House has struggled for numbers since it was created in 2011. The main reason for this is many first year students are not yet at the point to select Spectrum House – but would be more interested in something similar that does not “out” them at the same time,” Kate Fitzgerald, the University’s Director of Residence Life, told me. Whether this new application question will help first years get closer to that point remains to be seen.

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Cara is a writing reading bicycling fiend and a lab mouse to the world. Sometimes she's also Hat Benatar. She lives in Jamaica Plain with five cool roommates and an ice cream machine, and is generally thinking about gender, words, sustainable biodiversity, and/or electric guitars. You can follow her on twitter @cjgiaimo if you want.

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22 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    My heart swells when you report on my home state.

    Also, I’d love to hear what other Autostraddle readers/contributors have to say about self-id questions like this on college/job apps…

  2. Thumb up 1

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    I was asked if I identify as LGBTQ on my application to the University of Illinois College of Law. I guess that question must not be on the undergrad application…

  3. Thumb up 4

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    When I applied to MIT this year they had a section to identify as LGBTQ, complete with a box for you to type in an identity in case it wasn’t already available. It was a lovely surprise during the otherwise stressful college application process! :) Definitely hope Common App follows suit in the coming years.

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    I think this can be mistakenly used as a means of discrimination.
    If the uni as a whole is pro-gay, individuals within the institution who handle applications may be anti-gay. so we can see how such a question can segregate applicants and influence acceptance decisions.
    I believe there’s a law in California – that makes it illegal to demand the person’s sex when applying/hiring because of gender discrimination. THere should also be a law making it illegal to ask for the person’s sexual orientation IF it is going to be fuel for unwanted discrimination.
    Just food for thought.
    social policy is indeed interesting, no?

    • Thumb up 4

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      The article states that the applicant’s response will not be used in admissions decisions. That means that the admission department doesn’t look at the answer until the student is already accepted.

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        Yes true. I’m naturally quite cynical when it comes to discrimination and inequality.

        Universities are mainly businesses, businesses want money, money/grants mostly come from 1% conservatives, conservatives are mostly anti-gay (or so they declare).
        Hence my twist on the point. All I’m saying is, I wouldn’t be surprised if this question on the app in reality didn’t help us, and that universities will somehow bypass the fine print (that the admissions dept does NOT look at these answers).
        I bet if we conducted a research years after this question was implemented in the app process, we’d find some kind of trend/ skew of gay accepted students correlated with the university’s monetary profit.

        Then again, I could be jumping to conclusions and expecting the worst from people today, just because I find it absolutely devastating that 1hr away from a city like NYC, a human being killed CHILDREN.

        And now I’m jumping from topic to topic.
        Ahhh, society! how can we fix it!!

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          I agree that it needs to be looked at from all angles. There is a realistic possibility the information could be used for discrimination. Maybe not at U of I which has a good track record but at less progressive institutions.
          The question is basically asking prospective students to come out on their college application forms. I’m sure we all know that one does not just come out to anyone.There needs to be trust and a sense of emotional and physical security.

          Universities are all about making money and have a tendency to gloss over unpleasantries. They cover up suicides,date rapes, teacher-student liasons , bullying,cheating scandals you name it. None of this is mentioned at recruitment drives or open days.Bottom line, most universities don’t give you the whole story. Who knows where college application forms end up and who reads them.

          Most college applicants are young,relatively inexperienced and are living away from home for the first time. I’d advise caution before submitting an honest answer.
          Don’t get me wrong, the question must remain – it is a sign of acceptance. But until we reach that level where one’s sexual orientation is no longer such a big issue I would suggest other ways of revealing and celebrating one’s identity on campus.

          Campus pride, annual LGBTQ campus events, a magazine, visibility on campus TV and radio,prominent guest speakers from the LGBTQ community, gay rights groups, inclusive residences and an administration which not only talks the talk but walks the walk as well. Those are more valid ways of showing support than a piece of paper which simply asks ” are you queer”. Who wants to know?

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      It could be used as a means of discrimination, just like ‘looking’ at someone’s last name or skin color or gender expression/presentation.

      And there are certainly multiple ways to look at the inclusion of questions regarding identity on applications. On one hand, a person could argue that race/ethnicity/gender/orientation/etc. should have nothing to do with an individual’s qualifications for a job or for college acceptance. However, employers and educational institutions are required to report stats on race/ethnicity/gender so why not orientation as well?

      I try to look at this positively; knowing how an applicant SELF-identifies regarding race/ethnicity/gender/orientation, should allow schools and employers to monitor diversity and indirect discrimination WHILE EMPOWERING the applicant who has CHOSEN to answer the questions.

      Hope, hope, hope :)

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      I don’t see how this can be anything other than a positive thing: as far as I understand it, admissions tutors never see the replies to these questions for individual candidates (so they can’t discriminate based on them), but the statistics for whole intake are collected and released the next year.

      This means the establishment can compare the proportions of their intake of different identities to national/local averages, and if the figures are less than they should be, question why that is and investigate what they can do to increase fairness in their admissions process as well as making their establishment more appealing to minority applicants.

      Chances are, if this question is on the survey, it is only going to help the group it’s asking about in the long run, even if it doesn’t affect an individual candidate’s application. In theory at least.

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    I’ve got to say, I was slightly surprised by the description of this question as ‘groundbreaking’. Having recently gone through university applications myself, I’ve checked all kinds of boxes, including one on sexual orientation when I enrolled onto my current course. I’ve always assumed that most universities (/jobs) have these kind of questions as part of their ‘Equal Opportunities’ monitoring – I certainly wouldn’t be surprised by them – maybe it’s more common in England?

    Anyway, it felt good checking that box to know that they would a) acknowledge different sexualities and b) not discriminate based on them.

    I have to say, though, outside of very specific LGBT contexts I can’t remember seeing anything other than male/female binary questions for gender, which is bad. But now Iowa has one, which is good! Yay for progress.

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    I go to Elmhurst College. Or rather, I just finished my undergrad. I’m pretty proud of the efforts my campus has made in regards to the LGBT community. A survey was recently sent out about mixed gender living spaces. Smell that? It’s progress.

  7. Pingback: College application essays yield a 500-word identity crisis | Som2ny

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    Yaaaay for progress! I live in the UK and was pleasantly surprised to get both a sexual orientation question and a gender identity question, not when I was applying (I don’t think) but once I was accepted and they were taking my info down. (The gender ID question caused my mother to roll her eyes when my brother was filling out his own form, and I had to explain to her that no, it wasn’t “going too far”, it was a totally valid thing to ask. Sigh, my parents. They are supportive, but there SO MUCH they don’t get)

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    Our school also had a gender-neutral “pride wing” that only existed as such for a year before being renamed the “social justice wing.” My freshman year, my parents prevented me from living in the then-named pride wing, and I heard I wasn’t the only one. Unfortunately, some students would rather risk a homophobic/transphobic roommate than being outed to their parents, even with the incentive of gender neutral bathrooms and support within the pride wing community.

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    This could backfire really really badly.

    When I was in undergrad in Australia, in a pretty LGBT-friendly institution, I knew of international students who lost their home-country Government scholarships because they got outed as trans*. How public is this information going to be? Why do they need to know? What if I don’t know myself?

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    This is absolutely wonderful!

    At my university, the LGBT resource center is on shaky grounds because of budget cuts, and there’s potential that it could be folded into another department. I think LGBT resource centers (if funded well enough) could be pretty important in drawing students to a university.

    So many high school students see college as safe spaces, progressive/liberal places where they can be out for the first time and socialize with other LGBT people. College is a shining beacon to many college students – and colleges with rainbow beacons (aka, have a lot of LGBT-friendliness and actively recruit LGBT students) are more likely to draw these students.

    For each university to which I applied, I did a ton of research into their LGBT centers and student organizations. These organizations were factors that were equally as important in my decision as the majors that these universities offered. From a recruitment standpoint, questions like these are integral to quantifying how many LGBT-identified people apply to the university, “proving” that they’re a demographic worth targeting for future recruitment efforts – and more importantly, solid data that can be used to support the creation of LGBT resource centers and/or increase their funding for recruitment and retention of LGBT students.

    I hope many other universities begin to follow suit, because data like this can be used to support the need for better LGBT centers at these universities.

    As a sidenote: The gender identity question seems to have flopped/missed the mark, as has been noted, and there is definitely a concern about the logistics of the “Do you identify with the LGBTQ community?” question. (How does a student who is filling out their apps with a parent answer this question without knowing? Can there be a way to answer it and then hide it in the final “This is the info you’ve entered… Please check that it’s accurate before submitting” print-out?) I’m not so concerned about the question being a factor in admission decisions – if a university says it won’t be a factor, it’s fairly easy to separate that data in the app that goes to an an admissions officer.

    Asking these questions and presenting the options in thoughtful ways is important and shouldn’t be underemphasized – but I am so happy that universities are beginning to ask these questions and to acknowledge these realities of students’ lives as important.

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