Why Stanford Shouldn’t Ask

After Harvard’s decimation of Yale (45-7) at their latest Big Game, I was not surprised, while scrolling over headlines on the Harvard Crimson’s website, to find almost every article exhibiting pride. However, one article in particular stood out. According to this column, Harvard applicants should be “Proud,” because Harvard is now considering asking undergraduate applicants whether they identify with the LGBTQ community. I usually don’t particularly care what other schools put on their applications, but this notion bothered me. My immediate reaction was to wonder if Stanford University should adopt this policy too, and I believe that we should not.

The move to include the question on college applications began in August, at Elmhurst College, a small university in Illinois. Elmhurst wanted to increase the level of diversity within its walls, even though the school is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which  is very accepting of members of the LGBTQ community in the first place.

Harvard joins Elmhurst and peer institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania in moving towards including the question on their applications, too.

When faced with any change in policy, one must first identify the problem, and then ask whether this change addresses said problem. Clearly, our nation is leagues away from social equality and acceptance. So yes, if you’re seeking equality for LGBTQ individuals, then there is a problem. But asking college applicants about their sexual orientation, and subsequently making admission or scholarship decisions based on their answer, is a terrible way of addressing it.

The first issue is that this policy does not facilitate progress. Your knee-jerk reaction to the last sentence may be to call me closed-minded, as though I am not considering the benefits of adding more LGBTQ students to the Stanford community.

But consider this: isn’t Stanford already a fairly more tolerant (if not very tolerant) campus? It is, and the same can be said about any of our peer schools. Most modern day universities go over and above society in the diversity of their population and their tolerant atmospheres. So in terms of adding diversity to our student body, this question is not really needed. We already routinely accept (and treat normally) people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds.

But I am also curious about the sort of applicants who would indicate that they are indeed members of the queer community, when applying to college. Students who are “out” in high school probably come from accepting families and communities, or ones that are learning to be accepting. I seriously doubt that this change in the application would spark a revolution of students outing themselves through the college admission process. So what will happen instead? Essentially, teens from accepting communities (i.e. their homes, friend groups, etc.) are moving into other accepting communities (i.e. Stanford, Harvard etc). In what way does this bring any change to those places where discrimination is most rife? Society could benefit more if students coming from less tolerant communities could go to Stanford and perhaps bring some of the Stanford atmosphere back to the communities from which they came.

What about all of those who for whatever reason are still not open about their identity? This application question puts undue burden on them. The question is an opportunity to simply state a truth about themselves and reap potential benefits, but it would also mean admitting something about which they are not ready to be open.

Certainly students are able to choose not to answer, but it still unfairly burdens closeted LGBTQ students. As a parallel, if an applicant identifies as a racial minority, and is applying to a school with an acceptance rate south of 8%, it makes sense to tick that box. The only difference for closeted LGBTQ students is that the dilemma is more pressing; it subjects closeted teenagers to unnecessary pressure, considering that there is potential advantage in jumping the gun and coming out.

It is also worth noting that a significant portion of the LGBTQ community comes out in college. College is a place away from home and high school, where students explore who they want to be.  A lot of these students would not be comfortable ticking the box as applicants, and if we assume there are benefits for those who have done so, then a large portion of the LGBTQ community is basically being punished for not being brave, comfortable, or settled enough to answer in the affirmative.

Barring all of these questions, we must also ask: does this policy promote actual equality, anyway? As a close observer of recent civil rights movements, it is my understanding that all that the queer community wants (and deserves) is to be treated fairly, like any other demographic group. Preferential treatment is inherently unequal. Affirmative action of any sort is itself a very contentious issue, but this takes it a step further.

Institutionalized racial discrimination led to deep-seated segregation and income disparity, impeding kids of racial minorities from going to top colleges. But it is easier for a gay man to pass as straight than for a black man to pass as white. As one UC Davis psychology study points out, for decades, gay people have been incredibly successful in American society (even when black children were not allowed to sit in the same classroom as their white peers).

That is not to say that discrimination by sexual orientation does not impede success, because it does. Back in 2007, the Journal of Labor Research observed that gay men earn less than their straight counterparts.

But consider this: A child born to an African-American family is African-American. A gay child born to a white family cannot be identified as gay until much later in life. Therefore, as far as statistics will tell us, these two children are more likely to be born into families where the gay child starts off with a better economic position. What we need to do then is make sure that they both get the same opportunities.

All that I am simply implying here is that the link between ethnicity and socioeconomic disadvantage makes a more compelling case in favor of affirmative action towards minority races when it comes to college admissions. Regardless of how you feel about that, colleges would be betting on a far more vague idea of “disadvantaged” status if they were to make the argument that LGBTQ applicants deserve an upper hand so that they may be pulled out of an economic rut.

For the LGBTQ community (here I will leave behind any comparison with race, since I do not want this to turn into a debate over affirmative action), this means stronger anti-discrimination laws. While federal mandates such as the Matthew Shepard Act, and repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell help, more enforcement at local levels is necessary.

But the role of a college in this entire process should be to make the university environment a comfortable experience for every student. The only proper way to attract LGBTQ applicants is to show them that the campus environment can be a safe haven for them, and allow them to indicate on other parts of the application, such as the personal statement, whether being queer has had a formative effect on them that the admissions committee should consider.

For Elmhurst College, apparently their affiliation with a tolerant church was not good enough. But while Stanford can perhaps do more to promote the accepting environment we have (and are always improving upon), it should not lead us down the unnecessary, unfair, and counterproductive route of preferential treatment.

Nadiv Rahman ’13 is a Political Science major at Stanford, and Opinion Editor of the Stanford Review. Please feel free to email him with any questions or comments at nadivr@stanford.edu.

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