Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whuh Whuh What???

I just saw this blurb from an MIT Press Release (via the Office of Undergraduate Admission):
"Another change this year was the addition of an optional application question asking students to describe their sexual orientation and gender identity. MIT is now one of just a few schools to offer this question on its application; Elmhurst College, a private liberal-arts school near Chicago, became the first to do so last year."

Before I start to sound like just another straight white conservative mossback male, let me lay my creds on the line:  I fully believe in FULL equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.  I have been consistently in favor of DADT repeal and gay marriage for as long as I've written this blog.  If you read this blog, you already knew that, but I felt like I had to say it.

...And now that I have, I'm wondering, "What the heck is this?"  Why is this being asked of 16, 17, and 18 year-olds, who may not be sure of all this themselves? 

As a late bloomer with a sarcastic wit, I might've tried to answer this one cheekily: "Hopeful but frustrated."  Or perhaps, "Thinking about the girl in front of me in Physics class but wouldn't know what to do if push really came to shove."  "Living vicariously through the football team."

But before I get back to my day job (last final of Core is tomorrow...and the trial-by-fire semester will all be over in just 21 hours), I will try to get serious for a second.  How does a pimply, gangly kid with only vague concepts of 'this stuff' answer that?  The easy answer is just to leave it blank, as it is optional. 

But does that create a disadvantage?  Is some future clean energy scientist with 800s on her board scores, but without the 'crazy weekend at Smith' story now less 'competitive' than someone with 750s but some precociously bi-curious tendencies?

Furthermore, will some applicants try to 'game' this question?  Is it better to say that I'm into girls (can't help it, I really was just born that way) but that I'm an unequivocal "Straight Ally?"  That seems better than leaving it completely blank, right?  Should I wax eloquent about the gender spectrum?  Or should I go even further and hint that something that might not even be true in the first place but could help put my application in a certain pile OTHER than the one for the plain vanilla people from upper middle-class public high schools?  Then, if called out on it afterwards, could I plausibly cite "confusion about budding sexuality at the time?"

I'm all about LGBT equality.  In fact, I'm SO MUCH in favor of LGBT equality that I think MIT could best practice it by eliminating this question from all future applications.


kad barma said...

I've always found it fascinating that our approach to improving racial equality here in the US REQUIRES race information on hiring forms, (so it can be used by the government to confirm a lack of bias), while in France it's FORBIDDEN to ask for the information at all so it can never be used as part of a hiring decision. (I'm guessing you're with the French on that one). People are funny, and not always in funny ways...

The New Englander said...

Kad, I like the French principle in general but I think there are two important distinctions w/this: While race is generally more cut and dry (notwithstanding the occasional 1/16 this or 1/32 that), they're getting into murkier territory, which could lend itself to manipulation by savvy teenagers. The second thing is that they're asking that question of people who are still at an age when those views are being formed. Some may be uncomfortable offering what could be perceived as the *wrong* answer.

I wouldn't have a problem with them tracking LGBT in general (say, by surveying the incoming/outgoing classes, surveying alums, employees, or whatever else) but don't like the association w/admissions.

kad barma said...

I'd say race is at least as murky in its own ways, (you can ask Lily what she's going to think about it in a few years), and the similarity with which I'm struck is the paradox of don't ask vs don't tell. You hit several of the stickier bits regarding adolescent sexuality and related self-identification, and I'd say the sticky bits of racial self-identification can indeed, at times, compare, and Betsy Warren can attest to some of that.

Either way, I'm with you--the sooner we get beyond the compulsion to label the better off we'll all be.

Marianne said...

I read about this the other day, and while I think the intention is good, I think the execution misses the mark completely. I think taking the path of 'knowing the number of LGBTQ students will help us make our school a more welcoming environment' is looking at the issue backwards. Schools *know* they have LGBTQ students so they should make the environment welcoming. The number doesn't matter.

That being said, this is a huge culture change for people and I think it takes a lot of effort to change a mindset around relationships. I've been married (to another woman) for three years. In those three years, I have been in situations where my martial status is relevant (mostly having to do with insurance) and the question "Are you married?" is *always* followed up by a question about my "husband." I then have to say: My wife, wife's name here, and answer the question. It's not a huge deal and no one has ever had a negative reaction, but it gets old after awhile. And that doesn't even address getting to know new people, especially a lot of people, all at once like when starting a new job, school program, etc.

I don't think people are asking me about my "husband" out of any sense of malice or unacceptance, I think it's just what we've been socially conditioned to see/think/believe. And while I don't think the assumptions that are being made are intended to be harmful, they just make simple small talk a bit more tiresome/difficult/annoying than it needs to be.

I think maybe the lesson that MIT may want to teach is: don't make assumptions. It goes a long way to making things more welcoming for everyone.