California state colleges weigh asking students about sexual orientation

Students walk between Lough Memorial Fountain and Brotman Hall at Cal State Long Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

California’s state colleges and universities are laying plans to 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 has raised the hopes of gay activists for recognition but the concerns of others about privacy.

The questions, which students could answer voluntarily, would be posed because of a little-known state law aimed at gauging the size of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations on the campuses. The law encourages UC, Cal State and community colleges to explore whether they are offering 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. In addition, 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 rare 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.

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. 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, asks applicants: “Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?” A positive response could help students qualify for 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.”