Are you gay? The Graduate School at Northwestern University wants to know

The Graduate School at Northwestern University added a new question to its application asking applicants' about their sexual orientation.
The Graduate School at Northwestern University added a new question to its application asking applicants’ about their sexual orientation.

By Tanni Deb

Last month, Northwestern University’s Graduate School made a controversial change to its application. For the first time ever, the school was asking applicants whether they identify themselves as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender community. The move has some people worrying about how the information will be protected and why it is being collected in the first place.

Although the number of same-sex marriages has steadily increased across the nation, homosexuality is still viewed as an immoral lifestyle by some churches and conservative groups. And coming out as gay can be dangerous. In a 2013 survey, Pew Research reported that 30 percent of 1,197 LGBT adults had been physically attacked or threatened while 58 percent said they were the target of insults and jokes. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, sexual orientation was ranked as the third-highest motivator for hate crimes. So will there be negative consequences for students who honestly identify their gender identity in admissions applications?

Ed Yohnka, the director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois says it’s possible. “The worst will be [if] the information leaked in some way that can cause [LGBT students] discomfort or even some threat or physical harm or being cut off from a family member,” Yohnka said.

Other LGBT advocates and technology experts agree that protocols need to be set to ensure that students’ sexual orientation is protected from public view, especially when information stored on almost any computer can be accessed illegally.

“If you’re on the Internet, there is a potential for break-in,” said Bill Lidinsky, a professor at Illinois Institute of Technology. “My personal view is that it’s impossible to make it 100 percent secure.”

Although technology professionals can make their network systems difficult to hack into, any computer that is connected to the Internet could be penetrated, said Lidinsky. One way to make students’ information more secure would be by placing it in a database that can be accessed from only one computer, he added.

The Graduate School has taken appropriate steps to ensure students’ privacy, said Nick Alena, the associate director of admissions and recruitment. The information on students’ gender will not be fed into the university’s central student database systems and access will be restricted to administrators in the admissions office, the assistant dean of diversity and the associate dean of academic affairs. The analysis of the data, which will be completed within the graduate school, will be evaluated in the aggregate to better understand the LGBT population.

“I would expect that any college or university would want to adhere to the highest standard of privacy and protection,” said Anthony Papini, the executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, an organization that promotes safety and support for LGBT youth. And any information gathered about gay students should be used “to thoughtfully support [them].”

The answers to the optional question will not be shared with members of the admissions committee and therefore will not affect admissions decisions, Northwestern said. However, the responses will help determine whether the school needs to further allocate resources to the LGBT population. The goal is for the graduate school to better understand the students who are admitted in order to create a safe, inclusive and supportive environment on campus, according to Nsombi Ricketts, associate dean of diversity and inclusion.

“To make sure we are fulfilling our goals … we need to make sure we have demographics and most accurate measures as possible in the graduate student population. And then with that data we can provide the best service,” she said.

The initial communication with those who self-identify as LGBT will help the school connect them with support services through the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. They might also be paired with potential mentors via the Queer Pride Graduate Student Association, a LGBT student group at Northwestern. The results also will be tracked and evaluated with additional demographic indicators such as race and ethnicity. Subsequently, the data will be included in the graduate school’s annual diversity report, which contains the breakdown of applications, admitted students and enrollees in each graduate program.

“I think it’s an affirming step to ensure that the whole aspects of an individual’s identity are recognized as they pursue higher education,” said Papini. “It allows us to more fully support students who are pursuing college education by providing access to resources.”

Bernard Cherkasov, the chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, encourages LGBT students to answer the sexual orientation question honestly. He stressed that visibility not only creates an environment of respect and mutual understanding, but it also is the key to removing barriers and being accepted in society.

“If the students are coming from an environment where they weren’t able to come out or they felt repercussions, now … they [can] see that the university is welcoming them with open arms,” he said.

Red Lhota is a 21-year-old senior majoring in chemical engineering at Northwestern and a member of Rainbow Alliance, a LGBT student group on campus. He said that it is “empowering” to know he has the chance to self-identify as LGBT on a graduate school application.

“It’s important that programs and admissions are welcoming to queer students and knowing the number of students it can help,” Lhota said.

The ACLU’s Yohnka believes that Northwestern can serve as a model for other institutions and help lead society in understanding the LGBT community. “I think it reflects a desire on the part of many universities to understand the many types of individuals,” he said. “As it reflects that, I think it’s a growing sign of awareness, understanding, power and embracing of that diversity.”