Admissions Preferences for Gays?

The Chronicle reported last night that Elmhurst, a private four-year liberal arts college in Illinois, has became the nation’s “first institution to include a question about sexual orientation and gender identity on its undergraduate admissions application.” Elmhurst’s dean of admission told The Chronicle, “We are trying to recruit students who are academically qualified and diverse, and we consider this another form of diversity.” Applicants who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered will be eligible for special scholarships for under-represented groups.

To some advocates, such as Shane L. Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an advocacy group, Elmhurst’s decision is no big deal. “In the next 10 years, we’ll look back and ask why colleges didn’t make this change much sooner.” But in fact the decision could represent a major paradigm shift, with very broad implications for the gay-rights movement generally.

One of the distinctive features of the movement for gay rights is that it has plainly and clearly sought equal treatment—a notion that, over time, has come to be accepted by a growing number of Americans. Conservative opponents often accused advocates of seeking “special rights,” but that appeared patently untrue. In fact, the mainstream gay-rights movement was seeking simple equality: the right to be treated the same as everyone else.

Gays sought the right not to be discriminated against in the workplace. They sought the right not to be treated differently in the military. And they sought the right to marry, just like heterosexual couples. They advanced a very clear and incredibly compelling message: Just treat us equally.

Elmhurst College, by asking students who apply whether they consider themselves “to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangendered) community” is taking us in a very different direction, from equal treatment to affirmative action. Of course, members of the LGBT community should not be discriminated against in admissions, should be welcomed and supported once on campus, and the diversity they bring should be celebrated. But the purpose of asking individuals to identify themselves at the application stage, as part of a process designed to promote greater diversity, signals that identity will be a factor in admissions and scholarships, a line not to be crossed casually.

We have, of course, seen this movie before. The civil-rights movement for many years advanced a powerful argument that it was wrong to treat people differently based on skin color and in a long-running battle, eventually won over the American public. The subsequent decision to advocate preferences based on race—in college admissions and elsewhere—has never convinced the American public in the same way. To this day, opposition to racial preference in college admission remains 2:1 in most polls. For many, the shift from equal opportunity to affirmative action muddied the clean and simple message that racial discrimination is wrong.

Affirmative action presents difficult policy questions. I respect supporters of racial preferences though I ultimately have come down instead in favor of considerations of economic disadvantage in admissions. But advocates of gay rights need to think long and hard before they decide to break with the long-advocated—and increasingly popular—principle of nondiscrimination in favor of something quite different.

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