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California colleges consider asking applicants: Are you gay?

The University of California system is considering asking about applicants' sexual orientation. Gay-rights groups applaud the move, but others are worried about student privacy.

Renee C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee/AP/File
Supporters listen during a news conference on the Proposition 8 decision at the Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center in Sacramento, Calif., last month. The state college system is considering putting a question about sexual orientation on forms and applications.

California’s college and university system is looking into asking students about their sexual orientation on enrollment forms and applications.

Given the size of California system – which includes 144 campuses under the University of California, California State, and community college umbrella – the idea is being seen as a potential litmus test for whether other states might follow suit.

Gay and lesbian activist groups welcome the idea, particularly because it is being considered in California, where state laws prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians. Gay-rights groups see the idea as part of a broader acceptance of gays and lesbians in society.

 But others are dubious of the idea, wondering what the benefit is and whether a breach of school data could compromise students' privacy.  

For their part, University of California officials emphasize that this is not yet a law or even a binding rule, but just an idea. They say it is being examined because of a state law passed last fall that calls for schools to mandate rules that suppress bullying and harassment of gay and lesbian students.

“There is no rule, nothing mandatory, and no time frame, this is just being studied,” says Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for the University of California.

Still, debate is taking off because of the impetus the University of California's decision could provide for other universities. Elmhurst College in Illinois last fall became the first in the nation to ask school applicants their sexual orientation, the Los Angeles Times reports, adding that a growing number of schools are also studying the possibility.

“We think this is an awesome idea, it’s hugely important that the number and existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] students be made visible,” says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“Just as with demographic information on race, gender, and age, this will help higher learning institutions gauge what they want and need to offer,” she says.

The data is important for the institution as well as other LGBT students, she adds.

“Knowing that your campus has 3,000 that identify themselves as LGBT rather than just the 50 or so who make themselves known is a huge factor in how isolated such students feel,” she says. “Plus it makes a difference in the funding and support that such centers will get.”

Some academics say it is a bad idea.

“I see the bureaucracy coming up with ostensibly real reasons why this is needed – for reasons of diversity and funding and teaching," says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

But technical breaches of information banks point to the need for highest caution, she says.

“I don’t think they have any evil intent, but until we can insure that such information remains absolutely private, I would argue for more security," she adds. "Recording unnecessary personal data and having it available for leaks is something we have proven we are not yet sensitive enough to.”

Activist Ms. Kendell counters that such fears come within a shame-based context that LGBTs need to break out of.

“This is not 'don’t ask, don’t tell' but rather do tell,” she says. “It says, ‘You can be open and the institution will support you,’ ”

She admits to some concern for students in the first three to four years until public acceptance rises, but says that younger students are far more open to such matters than older generations.

It helps that California is the state in play, says John Lewis, legal analyst for Marriage Equality USA. And also that the practice would be voluntary.

“It’s important to point out that the government was discriminatory in don’t ask, don’t tell and now that that’s over, we are seeing gay pride events and LGBT groups from West Point to the Coast Guard. The military is now a better place because they can serve openly.”

Others feel that the idea is a waste of resources and would provide little benefit.

“The job of the university is first and foremost to provide an opportunity for students to learn and get exposure to the repository of knowledge residing in the halls of higher education,” says Len Shyles, professor of communication at Villanova University, via e-mail.

"Nowhere is it part of that mission to count up how many members of this or that sexual orientation are in attendance," he says.

He adds that if a respondent's sexual orientation were requested as a line item on a government form, a mortgage application, or any other official documents, “the outcry against such a policy would, it seems to me, be deafening. So I remain skeptical regarding the efficacy of such a policy.”

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