Gay? Check Yes or No

Every year, thousands of high school students spend months focused on the art of self presentation. They cram for standardized tests, pen soul-baring essays, and join clubs to beef up their resum├ęs. College applications force students into the daunting task of reducing their lives and accomplishments to a series of checkmarks, numbers, and writing prompts. For gay and lesbian students, the process is further fraught by the decision of whether to identify as gay -- and if so, how to indicate it on the application. Do you write your application essay about coming out? Or will admissions officers get the point if you list the Gay-Straight Alliance under your activities?

Thanks to a decision from the University of Pennsylvania's admissions office, answering these questions may soon be a lot easier. Last week, the Ivy League university announced it would provide a space on its admissions application for students to indicate their sexual orientation and use current gay students to recruit them. One group is also asking the makers of the "common application," which is accepted by 392 private and public colleges in lieu of a school-specific app, to provide a check box for sexual orientation. For schools, it provides a way to signal acceptance and target gays and lesbians for recruiting. For students, it answers the question of whether one's sexual orientation is appropriate to mention. But while the inclusion of a checkbox for "gay" shows how far society has progressed in accepting sexual orientation as just another attribute, it raises new questions about how sexual orientation fits in the affirmative-action schema.

There are two different views about the aim of affirmative-action policies: Some colleges seek to cultivate a diverse student body they believe enriches undergraduate life, while others view these policies as a way to reward achievement in the face of adversity. Having a checkbox to indicate sexual orientation, I would argue, does little to further either of these goals.

In casual conversation, many of my gay friends have said they felt shortchanged by admissions policies that don't take sexual orientation into account. Usually this is said jokingly, but there is a real sense that the crippling discrimination against gays and lesbians is not acknowledged in the same way that racial discrimination is. Whereas the legal framework for racism has largely been dismantled, gays and lesbians have only recently begun to enjoy legal protections with respect to housing, employment, and marriage -- and only in certain states.

However, like minorities who can slip under the radar, many gay people are able to "pass." The pressure to do so is of course a type of adversity, but the point is that gays and lesbians are in the strange position of being able to evade overt discrimination by concealing their sexual orientation. Discreet boxes for "gay" and "straight" also pose a problem for those who fall somewhere in between. Given the aims of affirmative-action policies, the natural question is: Which high school students will feel comfortable identifying as gay and putting it on the application?

There will be students who, despite an intolerant atmosphere, muster the courage to come out. But more likely, students who are out in high school live in communities that are more tolerant. Statistically, these communities are more educated, less religious, wealthier, and whiter. Having grown up in a conservative, largely Hispanic community on the U.S.-Mexico border, I would not have felt comfortable identifying as gay on college applications. So if the intention is to recruit gay students, the effect will be felt only by the subset of gay applicants who, at 18, feel comfortable identifying as such. It really becomes a proxy for other demographic attributes that on the whole are largely indicative of privilege. In other words, checking the box doesn't tell the whole story, which is also why universities have come under fire for cultivating "cosmetic" racial and ethnic diversity by admitting wealthy minorities who do not face the same barriers as their less privileged counterparts. A gay teenager growing up in a conservative, Christian household has a very different story than one who was raised by musicians on the Upper East Side.

Ivy League schools have had little trouble attracting gay students; most already have active and large gay communities. Because gay people are not concentrated in any socioeconomic or ethnic group, admitting a representative sample of qualified applicants will naturally yield a healthy LGBT community on campus. For many gays and lesbians, college is the first place where they feel accepted and affirmed enough to come out. Admissions policies that actively identify and recruit gay students overlook closeted gay students who may blossom in college and become valuable members of the LGBT campus community.

The effort to recruit LGBT applicants -- closeted and not -- would be better served by trying to cultivate a supportive campus by establishing LGBT resource centers and highlighting the school's community and resources in campus brochures and information sessions. Gay applicants will feel at ease talking about coming to terms with their identity and those applicants who see it as incidental need not identify their sexuality.

While gays and lesbians face a lot of the same active discrimination as racial minorities, they are not automatically at the same socioeconomic disadvantage as racial minorities tend to be. And as long as identifying as gay carries negative consequences, checking the "gay" box will say a lot more about you than just your sexual preference.

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