Is Asking Students About Their Sexual Orientation Ever Okay?

Oct 17, 2011

Elmhurst College, located just outside of Chicago, recently made headlines when it announced that it would be adding a question to its application starting in the 2012-13 academic year: 'Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?' As expected, some believe posing such a question is acceptable; others do not. Education Insider asks, Is it ever okay to ask students about their sexual orientation?

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By Harrison Howe

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A Question of Diversity

Some might believe that the question Elmhurst College is asking is a matter of privacy; others who are unsure if the question is appropriate feel that in some cases LGBT individuals are not always sure of their identity themselves and may have a hard time addressing the issue. But Elmhurst officials insist that the LGBT question is not one meant to pry into anyone's personal life or to make anyone uncomfortable. Scholarship eligibility and direction toward services or on-campus groups that LGBT students might be interested in are the main reasons the school has decided to gather this information.

Answering yes to the question will make those students eligible for an Enrichment Scholarship, one that Elmhurst offers to members of groups seen as underrepresented. S. Alan Ray, president of Elmhurst College, states that while the scholarship 'is not limited by race or ethnicity. . .it is often informed by those attributes.' Traditionally given to minority students, the award will be open to qualified LGBT students.

Some insist that asking the LGBT question is not really different than asking about a student's race or religious affiliation. Gary Rold, Elmhurst's dean of admissions, adds that answering the question is not mandatory and that students are free to skip the question altogether. The question will be grouped in a section with others that students can choose not to answer, such as religion or languages spoken in the students' home.

It is believed that asking this question will provide LGBT students with a safer and more accepting environment and help them contribute to the cultural diversity that Elmhurst and all institutions of higher education strive for. Rold told the Chicago Sun-Times in August 2011: 'Increasing diversity is part of our mission statement. This is simply closing the loop. . .of another group who has a very strong identity. It may not be race and religion but it's an important part of who they are.'

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Campus Pride, applauded Elmhurst's decision. Also quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, Windmeyer said, 'It's important that these youth have a way to express their sexual identity, like their racial identity. Colleges ask those questions so they can give them the resources to get them to be successful.'

In the context that the question is being asked and the way in which Elmhurst - and possibly other colleges down the road - has addressed the topic, no one should fear that LGBT students are being treated in any way except with a sensitivity and decency that is awarded to all students. So, is it ever okay to ask students about their sexual orientation? If the information is being used for transitional purposes and to accommodate the lifestyle of LGBT individuals, if the privacy of these individuals is being protected and if knowledge of such information could in the long run 'get them to be successful', then possibly the only answer to that question may be a resounding 'yes'.

Find out how some universities across the U.S. are accommodating LGBT students by changing on-campus housing policies.

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