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College Application Asks: Are You Gay?

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 1, 2011

Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, may be the first college to ask its incoming students whether they are gay, reported the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 1. The application question, which is optional, is intended to help administrators facilitate a more open and supportive environment at the liberal arts school, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

"I'm so proud of my college. I think this is a great step contextually, within the nation," Elmhurst senior Ally Vertigan told the newspaper.

College officials said that it is important for the college to extend a hand of greeting to a diverse student population. That includes prospective students.

"Football players wouldn't come here if we don't have a football team," Dean of Admissions Gary Rold said. "This has greater emotional charge to it. But it's in the same continuum."

The new question asks applicants, "Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?"

The article said the query was adopted following a request from the school's GLBT organization, Straights and Gays for Equality, which was considering putting together an event for college recruitment.

S. Alan Ray, the president of the college, issued a letter to address the media coverage and inevitable blowback generated by the news, which some see as controversial.

"While the news coverage overall has been highly favorable, it has inspired a great deal of commentary and expressions of opinion, both for and against this administrative action," Ray's Aug. 30 letter, which is posted at the college website, read.

"I've heard a number of legitimate concerns expressed by our many varied constituents, and -- unfortunately but inevitably -- I've heard the College's action and intentions misrepresented at times in some of the media.

"Now that the dust has settled a bit, I thought I'd reach out to you with some thoughts on 'frequently asked questions' inspired by last week's coverage," the letter added.

Among the "frequently asked questions" the letter addressed were why the college had decided to put the question on the applications, scholarships for GLBT students, and even a query that asked what value gay students brought to the college's quality of life on campus.

To this last query, Ray wrote, "A self-identified LGBT student brings distinct perspectives and experiences to campus, which add significantly to our cultural diversity. Of course, among our core values is our commitment to cultural diversity and to fostering mutual respect among all persons. Moreover, the best research in the field shows that undergraduates learn better when they engage a wide range of persons both like and unlike themselves."

As for the question regarding scholarship funds, Ray noted that the college offers a variety of scholarships, including one class called "Enrichment Scholarships." That pool of scholarships has been offered to students of various races, faith traditions, and ethnic backgrounds.

"This year, we also will offer this scholarship to academically qualified, self-identified LGBT students," Ray wrote, before going on to note that the college's scholarships take the form of reductions in tuition fees, an approach that avoids the appearance of "tak[ing] money away from other students."

"In short, self-identified LGBT students add to our campus mix and thus enhance the education of all of our students," Ray wrote.

The president also said that the fact that the college is affiliated with a religious institution also played a role. Many private, religiously affiliated colleges are not welcoming to GLBT students, because many faith traditions view gays with suspicion and dismiss them as "sinners" who "choose" a sexual "lifestyle" not in keeping with biblical mandates.

But anti-gay interpretations of scripture are not adhered to universally, and some denominations take a far more friendly and celebratory approach to GLBTs. Such is the case, Ray pointed out, with the United Church of Christ, which deems itself to be "extravagantly welcoming."

"By the way, when the President and General Minister of the UCC, the Reverend Dr. Geoffrey Black, received word of the change in our application, he sent me an email," Ray disclosed. "'This is good news!' he said. 'I might add that it is yet another UCC first and I am delighted to hear about it.' "

Ray's letter went on to offer a note of explanation for why the addition to the application had not been submitted to alumni and other "friends of the college" for vetting. "[A]dding a single, optional question to our application is the sort of routine thing we do on campus many times every day," Ray's letter noted, going on to observe that the question did not reflect a change to any existing policies, but rather arose out of the college's policies as they have been.

"At the same time, I regret the fact that some of our friends felt blindsided by the move, and I understand that people of good will can disagree with our decision," Ray added. "Our goal now is to engage all of our friends, whatever their point of view, in constructive dialogue on this and all other issues."

The college president assured readers that the college had not added the question for "publicity," but rather sought to undertake what it saw as a necessary "action as a principled institution seeking to do right by its students."

Ray acknowledged that public response to the move had been "mixed," and added, "For decades now, our society has been in flux on LGBT issues. We understand that we've entered a discussion in progress, and we're determined to state our point of view as fully, respectfully and thoughtfully as we can."

"In short, we want LGBT students, like all students, to succeed at Elmhurst," the president's letter said. "We want them to learn and grow in a safe environment. We want them to know from the start that they will not feel isolated here because of their sexual orientation or gender identity."

GLBT equality advocates applauded the inclusion of the optional question, reported TIME Magazine in an Aug. 29 article.

"In the next 10 years, we'll look back and ask why colleges didn't make this change much sooner," said Campus Pride head Shane Windmeyer, in remarks made to the publication The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But the article also noted that a similar question that might have appeared on the Common Application (a single, generic college application form that is accepted by nearly 500 colleges) was rejected this year by the Common Application board.

The board found that the "potential benefits to adding the question would be outweighed by the anxiety and uncertainty student may experience when deciding if and how they should answer it," TIME reported.

Still, some institutions of higher education have edged toward such inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Dartmouth, in a supplement to the Common Application, "asks applicants to choose up to three personal interests from a list of 22 that includes 'gender identity' and 'LGBT community,' " though the supplement stops short of asking students outright whether they might be GLBT.

Students who are unsure or not willing to address the question on the Elmhurst application are free to select the option that reads, "prefer not to answer."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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