‘I’m Pretty Sure I’m Gay.’ But Please Don’t Ask.

November 29, 2015

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
I was 28 years old when I came out as a gay man. People wonder how I managed to stay in the closet so long, but on a practical level, it wasn’t that hard. Rarely was someone rude enough to ask.

For today’s high-school students, though, the question may soon be unavoidable. And it will come not from family or friends, but from a source that causes plenty of anxiety already: their college applications.

Last year my alma mater, Duke University, became the fourth college in the nation to explicitly encourage aspiring undergraduates to disclose their sexual orientation on their applications. The University of California system followed suit this year. And now the gay-rights group Campus Pride is leading a coalition of 25 civil-rights organizations seeking to persuade the designers of the Common Application — used by more than 500 American colleges and universities — to add optional questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Their goals are laudable: promoting diversity, signaling inclusivity, and channeling resources to better serve LGBT students. But the way they’re going about those goals is misguided and likely to exert undue pressure on one of the most sensitive decisions LGBT children will face during their lives.

We shouldn't expect the average high schooler to have a fixed or even well-developed view of his or her sexuality.
I think back to 2001, when I was 17 and applying to college, and I consider how I would have approached Duke’s question, which gingerly invites applicants to "share a perspective you bring," perhaps through "your sexual orientation or gender identity." Had I been completely honest, here’s what I might have written:

"I’m pretty sure I’m gay, but it’s hard to know for sure. I banish the thought every time it crosses my mind. My girlfriend and I just celebrated six months together. And I’m mortally ashamed of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog full of shirtless men secreted behind my dresser.

"Regardless, I won’t be bringing a gay perspective to your school, because there’s no way I’m coming out. Not now, not in four years, maybe never. I hope that won’t hurt my chances. I’m going to be a math major, and I assure you my pining for the swim team won’t add much to a discussion of Lagrange multipliers."

I would have quaked with each keystroke, and I would have wiped the file off the family computer the minute I was done. I also would have hidden the application from my parents as soon as it arrived, lest the words "sexual orientation" conjure any ideas about me.

Times have changed, of course. Coming out has gotten immeasurably less risky — I’m a testament to that. And yet we shouldn’t expect the average high schooler to have a fixed or even well-developed view of his or her sexuality. According to a 2013 Pew study, only half of LGBT people are confident about their sexual orientation or gender identity by the age of 17. And that makes some sense — isn’t college famously the time for experimenting? Moreover, coming out happens later, at a median age of 20. That age may drop in today’s more accommodating climate, but only to a point.

So as more and more colleges ask a question that is premature and impolite, what makes their inquiry truly nefarious is the quandary it represents for closeted applicants: Should they disclose their most closely held secret to increase their odds of admission?

That it will help is hard to deny. As one of my classmates at Yale Law School put it, LGBT applicants do well in admissions because we have ready-made "sob stories" to trot out in our personal statements. He was unduly derisive, but he’s almost certainly right that LGBT perspectives are compelling to universities seeking to diversify their classes. (Categorical LGBT preferences in admissions, if they exist, have received almost no popular, academic, or legal scrutiny.)

That gives many sexual-minority applicants an unfortunate incentive to reveal their identity before they’re ready. I felt that pull in law school when classmates were applying for diversity scholarships and summer programs for which I, as a white, male, but gay student, would have been eligible. I had to consider whether relinquishing my privacy was worth $15,000 and a summer job. The bargain felt tawdry, and I resisted selling out. But I can’t say I would have made the same decision when I was 17, when nothing seemed more consequential than where I went to college. Coming out is a life-altering occasion and a deeply personal choice. College admissions has no place interfering.

Besides, colleges can achieve the same ends by less burdensome means. If they want to better understand and serve the LGBT student population, they should wait until the class is admitted and on campus to survey them. That gives students more time and distance from their parents, and it severs the query from the high stakes of admission. Also, there are better ways for colleges to advertise their inviting campus climates: in brochures, on campus tours, on their websites, and above all by taking strong action against anti-gay bigotry on campus — as Duke did this month when a gay freshman found a death threat scrawled in his dorm.

It’s certainly worth celebrating the fact that these colleges want to extend a hand of welcome to students who, decades ago, would have gotten the boot. But in the rush of progress that the LGBT community has experienced recently, it is too easy to forget that there are still a lot of scared and confused 17-year-olds under enough pressure already.

Adam D. Chandler is a lawyer in Washington. From 2003 to 2006, he was the undergraduate representative to the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid at Duke University.