The Common Application has a large and detailed section dealing with demographic questions, including race, ethnicity and gender. A question on sexual orientation is not included either in the main application or on Penn’s supplement. This is as it should be. Despite Penn’s recent success in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender recruiting, the University should not go the next step and include a sexual-orientation question on its Common App supplement.
Queer student leaders have come to believe such a question would be a good idea. Tyler Ernst, Engineering and Wharton junior and chairman of the Lambda Alliance, sees the question as helping Penn recruit LGBT admits. “Right now,” he explained, “our outreach to LGBT admits only goes to the people who self-identify through their essays, but many LGBT applicants aren’t necessarily writing about their LGBT status in those essays … we want to make sure every admit knows what a welcoming and accepting place Penn is.”
Certainly, Penn should be proud of its hard-won status as one of the top LGBT-friendly schools in the country, and it should reach out to admitted students and tell them about it. But a sexuality question on the Penn supplement has serious implications that make its adoption more fraught with controversy than it might seem.
The immediate problem with the inclusion of an LGBT question is the possibility of the University engaging in affirmative action on the basis of sexuality. Whether we use the question (and the virtues of affirmative action itself) that way is irrelevant — to ask an applicant a question is to imply that the question will have some bearing on his or her application, no matter how seriously the institution denies it (like the “optional” essay).
Imagine the pressure this places on individuals who are still in the closet, or who can’t let their conservative, Christian, high-school staff know. (Let’s not even talk about Penn accidentally outing students through outreach based on such a question.) Or on students who are still questioning their sexuality and don’t identify as L, G, B or T. Penn would create the impression of discriminating in favor of LGBT students who had come out in supporting environments at the expense of students who grew up in repressive environments, or who are still questioning their sexuality. This hardly seems fair, even if it is only an impression.
But let’s say Penn were to take the sexuality question and put it in a “bubble” so that it didn’t even appear to the admissions officers before the candidate was accepted to Penn. This still leaves an important question unanswered: What do we say about ourselves when we target our recruiting around such a simple box-checking exercise?
LGBT friendliness is not solely important to LGBT people. An institution’s tolerance of sexual and gender minorities informs all of that institution’s values, from its attitude toward discrimination in general to its valuation of academic freedom. With an LGBT question, the temptation to communicate our LGBT friendliness to only LGBT people would be considerable. But there is no good reason that our LGBT friendliness should not be broadcasted to every admitted student — not only the ones who may or may not check a particular box on the application.
Moreover, there is something sordid about this divvying up of students on the basis of sexual orientation, with its undertones that if you are LGBT then you of course will want to find out about the LGBT Center and LGBT life. It cuts against one of the best things about Penn: the freedom it gives all students to explore their identities free of labels or entrenched communities.
And that freedom to chart your own course — even more than gay friendliness — is why I, a gay man, applied to Penn in the first place.
Alec Webley is a College senior from Melbourne, Australia. He is the former chairman of the Undergraduate Assembly. His e-mail address is webley@theDP.com. Smart Alec appears on Thursdays.
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