In 2001, Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first institution of higher education to include an optional demographic question on its admission application forms related to sexual and gender identity. The question asks: “Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT community?” with the three multiple-choice answers: “Yes,” “No” and “Prefer Not to Answer.” Many schools have since followed Elmhurst’s lead.
Though the way students answer this question will not impact their chances for admission, college administrators took this move to increase student diversity on the campus, which is part of their mission statement.
Elmhurst took an important step forward because it sends a strong message that this institution acknowledges, welcomes, and supports LGBT people. In the midst of Elmhurst’s progressive advancement, however, conditions related to campus climate often remain difficult at best for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students.
I, with my co-researchers Sue Rankin, Genevieve N. Weber, and Somjen Frazer, conducted our comprehensive study, 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People, which was sponsored by the Q Research Institute in Higher Education, part of the national organization Campus Pride.
We found that a considerable number (31%) experienced difficult or hostile campus climate, 21% experienced some form of harassment around their sexual identity or gender expression. Among LGB participants, 13% feared for their physical safety, while 43% along the transgender spectrum feared for their physical safety.
Approximately 50% of our participants concealed their identities (i.e., were in the closet) in an attempt to avoid intimidation. These rates were significantly higher for LGBT participants of color. In addition, more than one-third of all participants seriously considered leaving their campuses.
While enumerated categories on official forms, and also within bullying prevention, hate crimes, and civil rights legislation, and directed questions in research surveys aid in efforts to raise the visibility and to determine the unique needs of members of specific communities, for example, minoritized ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender diverse segments of the larger population and specifically within our campus communities, we typically encounter resistance and backlash to these efforts.
Elmhurst College’s inclusion of an LGBT demographic question on their standard student admissions form has not, as some had contended, taken us down the slippery slope from a focus on equity and equality of opportunity to the realm of affirmative action.
Those who assert this show utter lack of knowledge regarding the goals of the LGBT movement. Those who employ this scare tactic divert attention from the real goal we have of heightening visibility of LGBT students and their issues and ending the isolation and marginalization on our campuses.
Those who find concern about the preference abounding in college admissions policies, they should investigate the inequities in granting preferences to “legacy” students whose parents and grandparents graduated from these esteemed institutions, many who have contributed substantial amounts to their alma maters. According to The Economist:
“In most Ivy League institutions…‘legacies’ make up between 10% and 15% of every class… The students in America’s places of higher education are increasingly becoming an oligarchy….”
In fact, all the major movements for progressive social change have had many “firsts,” and they have gained from the theorists, activists, and movement leaders who have preceded them.
The first wave of the Feminist movement in the 19th century gained its inspiration from the leadership and strategies of the Abolitionist movement. The workers and union movements built on the strengths of the Abolitionist and Feminist movements.
The Civil Rights movements continued to build on those who had gone before. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gained inspiration for his philosophy of non-violent resistance not only from his religious faith, but also from Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India, and Leo Tolstoy in Russia.
The second wave of the Feminist movement recharged from previous movements reflecting the first wave and the movements during the intervening years. The countercultural youth movements, the environmental justice movements, movements for peace, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements, the movement for intersex equality and rights, the disability rights movement, the movement for medical and mental patients’ rights, the movement for youth liberation, indeed, the movements for all oppressed people somehow connect and draw from one another.
In addition to social movements, academic discourses also align in a number of ways. Critical Multiculturalism, Critical Race Theory, Critical Feminist Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, Queer Theory, and others synergize, reflect upon, and enhance one another.
One of my favorite poets and essayists, Adrienne Rich, highlights the damage done through silencing and invisibility:
When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you …when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.”
But we can take strength that at these moments of “firsts” like those at Elmhurst College, we have the opportunity to join in unified action. Rich continues:
It takes some strength of soul — and not just individual strength, but collective understanding — to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.
Thank you Elmhurst College for leading the way!