ONTD Political

California state colleges weigh asking students about sexual orientation

5:56 pm - 03/29/2012
California's state colleges and universities could ask students about their sexual orientation next year on application or enrollment forms, becoming the largest group of schools in the country to do so. The move, now under study, has raised the hopes of gay activists for recognition but the concerns of others about privacy.

The questions, which students could answer voluntarily, come in response to a little-known state law seeking such information. The law is aimed at gauging the size of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations on campuses and whether UC, Cal State and community colleges offer enough services, such as counseling, for those students.



"It would be useful to know if we are underserving the population," said Jesse Bernal, the UC system's interim diversity coordinator. Additionally, giving students the opportunity to answer such questions, he added, "sends a positive message of inclusiveness to LGBT students and creates an environment that is inclusive and welcoming of diverse populations."

Experts said it is almost unheard of around the country for a college to ask about sexual identity on an application or registration form, although a growing number of schools are studying the possibility. Last fall, Elmhurst College, a private school in Illinois, reportedly became the first in the nation to ask applicants about that part of their lives; the school reports that 85% have volunteered answers, with 3% reporting to be homosexual, bisexual or transgender.

In the past, some colleges have used surveys about interests in clubs and organizations to get a sense of gay populations on campuses. Since 2006, the University of California has asked about sexual orientation on a more informal poll about campus life but those were not linked to a student's name and could not be used to track, for example, dropout rates or housing patterns.

The shift comes in response to a law (AB 620) that was written by Assemblyman Marty Block (D-San Diego) and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall. The law calls for schools to adopt policies that discourage bullying and harassment of gay and lesbian students. It also asks, but does not require, state campuses to allow students and staff "to identify their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression" on any forms used to collect such other demographic data as race and national origin.

Christopher Ward, Block's chief of staff, said the law was partly inspired by a UC report showing that gay students had much higher rates of depression than their peers and more often felt disrespected on campus. The questions will provide insights about "the unique and specific needs LGBT students have for their safety and educational assistance," Ward said.

State Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), who voted against the bill, said: "It is an invasion of privacy." He added that the information might be improperly used and wrongly divulged.

After some debate, the UC systemwide Academic Senate recently approved the concept of asking the sexual identity questions when students enroll and not earlier, when they apply as high school seniors, said Robert Anderson, a UC Berkeley professor and Academic Senate chairman. College applications can be viewed by parents, and students may not want to reveal their sexuality to them, he said. Some faculty thought the issues were too intrusive while others thought that avoiding the matter wrongly signaled that it was shameful to be gay, Anderson said.

UC Provost Lawrence Pitts said he generally supports the "opportunity for self-identification" but said the matter faces more study over coming months. If implemented, it would begin with students enrolling at the 10 UC campuses in fall 2013, he said.

At the 23-campus Cal State system, discussions are in an earlier stage on possibly including the questions on enrollment forms for fall 2013, a spokesman said. At the state's community colleges, a committee on diversity issues recently advocated adding sexual identity to statewide online applications but many decisions must be made before implementation, officials said; some individual community colleges also are studying the issue.

UC Berkeley student Andrew Albright, who is gay and a student government activist, said some gay and lesbian students might be initially nervous about how their responses would be used. But he said most would participate if the potential benefits, such as increased services, are made clear and if UC keeps its promises that an individual's information will be confidential and only used in aggregates.

"I think in general it's a good thing," said Albright, a third-year political science and sociology major. Beyond counseling services, professors might alter approaches to various lectures if they know a sizable percentage of the class is gay or lesbian, he said.

In 2010, UC's Undergraduate Experience Survey found that 87% of students in that voluntary poll defined themselves as heterosexual, 3% as gay/lesbian or "self-identified queer," 3% as bisexual, and 1% as "questioning" or unsure, and others didn't respond.

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization that seeks to make colleges more welcoming for lesbians and gays, said he expects many more colleges to follow the pioneering steps of Elmhurst College. He said he is glad that California colleges are studying the matter but added that UC's move to not change applications might hurt students seeking privately funded scholarships for homosexuals and deny "out" students a chance to disclose their identity at the start. "Why can you be asked about race and ethnicity but not about LGBT?" he asked.

Officials at Common Application, the online service used by more than 450 colleges, considered the matter last year but did not add voluntary questions; some member colleges reportedly argued that some 17-year-olds may not realize their sexuality yet and others don't want anyone to know.

Elmhurst College, a 3,400-student school affiliated with the liberal United Church of Christ, asks applicants: "Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?" A positive response could help qualify a student for one of the scholarships given to diversify the student body, according to Dean of Admission Gary Rold.

Some critics argued that the college's move could be seen as a tool to bolster the gay population. The school was not seeking to be a pioneer or to advance any political stance, Rold said. "That we are first is not of any great consequence," he said. "We are just trying to collect information for our purposes to help out students."

Los Angeles Times

I'm not in school anymore, but, as I told a friend, I bet that, much like my (multi)ethnicity, I doubt there would be a box for me to check that actually covered my sexuality.
That said, would I volunteer this information? I'm honestly not sure. The problem, as you probably know, is that you never really know if you're going to get an "oh, yeah, sure, no problem" or a "get the hell away from me you sick freak" response. It's like walking a minefield.
bnmc2005 30th-Mar-2012 01:26 am (UTC)
Psychic moment: My partner and I were having this very conversation tonight. She was suggesting that it would help student groups to be visible and I was wondering whether or not I myself would have self-identified in college and at what point. Freshman, no way. Sophomore, maybe. Junior and Senior- sure. I was out by then but obviously everyone comes out in their own way and identifies as different things and/or at different stages in their life. It's not as easy as a checkbox. Some people feel threatened and pressured to identify as anything before they're ready.

Separate subject: We were perviously discussing an outgoing student survey I'm working that asks for gender as "Male/Female/Transgender". I'm impressed with the effort to be inclusive but I'm also wondering if, instead of radio buttons, if maybe there should be just a text box where people can self-identify as they please. I am CIS female and don't want to speak out of turn but it seems that check boxes can be limiting / othering? I don't know.
spaz_own_joo 30th-Mar-2012 03:14 am (UTC)
checkboxes pretty much make it inevitable that you're gonna be doing some categorizing, but my suspicion is that they're going to be doing some categorizing with the data no matter what, and something tells me it'll work better to let the surveyee do the categorizing rather than to let the web app/surveyor/whatever do it with what may be unclear data to them.

I think 3 options as [male, female, transgender] is pretty awkward because I know plenty of transgender people who identify as male or female, and it's pretty awful to require that they other themselves from a binary gender that they identify with, just as it'd be equally awful to require that people who identify with neither side of the binary to pick one or the other.

Leaving just a text box where you can type whatever gender you like is certainly the least restrictive or othering, but it's fraught with ambiguity and data-cleanup problems. Some people will capitalize or abbreviate and others won't, some people will make typos, and some will use shorthands like "M2F" - which means that for almost all purposes the surveyee ought to be counted as female. This means that in a lot of cases the gender entered by will have to be reviewed by hand by a person who is at least familiar with a range of transgender terminology.

One solution I've seen which I found elegant was a hybrid: 2 radio buttons for "Male" and "Female", and a third one next to an empty textbox that's just labeled "Specify:" This gives people the option of providing more detailed information, but helps to make life easier for the people handling the data by ensuring that everyone identifying as simply "male" or "female" does so in an identically consistent manner.
tigerdreams 30th-Mar-2012 04:59 am (UTC)
It seems to me (and, as a disclaimer, I don't speak from personal experience on this as I'm cis, so feel free to disregard or tell me if I'm off-base, anyone) that they should have options for "male," "female," and "both/neither/genderqueer" and then ask in a separate question about whether or not the person is trans*, rather than attempting to lump trans* status into the gender question. I feel like that would avoid the ambiguity/data-cleanup issue, and make it so that trans* people's gender identity was treated with the same validity as cis people's, rather than getting a special box to explain themselves in.

But idk; I hope I haven't come across as though I'm trying to speak for anybody. :\
spaz_own_joo 30th-Mar-2012 04:55 pm (UTC)
also cis, opinion also irrelevant, but that does strike me as a far better solution!
roseofjuly 30th-Mar-2012 05:22 am (UTC)
The data clean up would be a nightmare. Even for just gender-binary answers, you'll get things like "boy/girl," "male/female," "M/F," "woman/man." Probably more. (I'm usually the one doing this data cleanup on my research team so just thinking about it made me groan.)

I think the last solution is the best - an "other, please specify." Cleaning up 3% of a 20,000 person sample is far less daunting than all of it.
bnmc2005 30th-Mar-2012 02:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the response. I will take this feedback back to the people doing this form and we'll see what happens. There are other text areas and fields in this same form for other questions so there's going to have to be some manual reading of the data anyway.

Thanks everyone.
bnmc2005 30th-Mar-2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
(p.s.And WOW my typos. Low blood pressure ftw. )
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