Campus Pride Blog

To Ask or Not To Ask: LGBT-identity questions on college admissions and other forms essential to safety and accountability

elvira.jpgThe following is a guest post from Elvira Rajala-Wilk (pictured right), a graduate of Northern Michigan University and residence hall director for four years. She currently works at Ball State University. She considers herself an ally and LGBT issues are one of her passion areas. In addition, one of her favorite professional duties is supervising a group of student staff members charged with social justice and diversity education and advocacy.

In her post, Elvira takes us through some of the issues she’s been faced with as LGBT students move into her campus’ dorm rooms. She also discusses the importance of colleges and universities asking optional LGBT-identity questions on college admissions, residence hall applications and other forms, and why they are necessary for campus safety, inclusion and accountability.

To Ask or Not To Ask?

by Elvira Rajala-Wilk

At my institution, residence hall directors assign students to their rooms and, therefore, roommates. Every year I get a call from a parent who is inconsolably upset that his or her child is living with a gay. Usually they come upon this information via Facebook, because our housing application does not ask anything about race, religion or sexual identity. If we asked that question, I would have to explain to these ignorant-yet-loving parents that I knowlingly placed their baby with an LGBT roommate, which to them is a great evil. Well, actually, they “don’t have any problem with gay people” — it’s just that they don’t want their son/daughter living with one.

Why would I open up myself and my students to that? At least now I get to hide behind the fact that I don’t know who is gay and who isn’t. I don’t have to make decisions based on that information because I am unaware.

Wait a minute.

I don’t have to make decisions based on that information because I am unaware.

I think this is commonly referred to as an “ah-ha moment.”

Why should we in higher ed ask about LGBT demographic information? It’s about awareness and not getting forgotten. That’s why the LGBT population should be counted on the U.S. Census. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” told people they have no right to be proud of who they are nor stand up for their rights. If we don’t ask, we can continue to assume our LGBT population is small and isolated and continue to treat them as such. Programming, goals and resources will continue to cater to the majority. Our LGBT population will know that we’re okay with them being here, so long as they don’t “rub it in anyone’s faces.”

Higher education professionals spend a lot of time talking about assessment. Being counted means having statistical evidence that supports the needs of a group and spending resources on them. If the board of trustees asks why money should be spent on a position for LGBT advocacy, the response can be “for this group of students right here” as they point to a sheet of paper sitting on the desk saying something-or-another percent of their student population identifies as LGBT. It can also be the argument to add it to resident advisor training, provide funding or office space to LGBT student organizations or create a support group in the counseling center. Even on a campus of 30,000 students, it’s hard to ignore a group of a few hundred students.

Webinar: To Ask or Not To Ask

rainbowtestform_sm.jpgLearn more about the addition of LGBT-identity questions to college applications and other forms in our upcoming April 19 webinar, “To Ask or Not to Ask: LGBT Identity Questions on National Research and College Forms.” The webinar will explore the impact of asking about LGBT identity, the importance of visibility in serving LGBT populations and advocate for LGBT data collection in national research and forms to further create safety and inclusion for all members of the campus community.

Click here to learn more about and sign up for this webinar and other upcoming programs in our Spring 2012 Campus Pride Webinar Series…

There are implications, though. One is that already-strained resources have to be further divvied up. But is it right for the majority to control more than their fair share? Also by asking, it can be assumed that the institution is supportive and has resources in place. To be ready, there should be a group, department or position available to ensure the campus community is reasonably safe, welcoming and supportive. Diversity and awareness programs should be implemented to educate the greater population. Residence hall staff need to be ready to prevent and respond to bias incidents and harassment for those living on campus.

I think the type of question is relevant as well. It’s not just “gay” or “straight,” but a spectrum.  A spectrum needs a unique set of questions to acknowledge the unique set of needs each individual has.  Bisexuality shouldn’t be considered a stepping stone on the way to gay, and that “T” in LGBT is a bit of a catch-all for a few different types of unique people.

I thought calling out LGBT students would put them in danger. Now I fear that by not asking we are inadvertently putting them in more danger; the danger of pushing LGBT issues under the rug and continuing to marginalize them. By asking the questions, it’s putting a message out there that says “You – as a whole person – matter.”

This is just me. This is just where I’m coming from today. I’m not discussing statistics or research, but the reasons why I think it’s important to ask questions about LGBT demographics on college applications. I think the things that are left in the dark are forgotten. I want to be able to shed some light on the LGBT population so they can have power and support, too.

Related Stories:
“Campus Pride welcomes University of California consideration of LGBT questions for incoming students” (Campus Pride Blog)
“To Ask or Not to Ask: LGBT Identity on College Admission Forms” (Huffington Post)
“Elmhurst makes historic move to include LGBT students in admissions application question” (Campus Pride Blog)