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'Are you gay?' California may ask college students

March 30, 2012 |  8:44 am

Cal State Long Beach
Besides race, gender and age, California's state colleges and universities may be asking students another question in the future: "Are you gay?"

Although some gay activists are pleased with the idea being considered by the institutions, saying it will raise awareness and recognition, others are concerned it would invade privacy.

The questions, which students could answer voluntarily, would be posed because of a little-known state law aimed at gauging the size of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations on the campuses.

The law encourages UC, Cal State and community colleges to explore whether they are offering enough services, such as counseling, for those students.

"It would be useful to know if we are underserving the population," said Jesse Bernal, the UC system's interim diversity coordinator. In addition, giving students the opportunity to answer such questions, he added, "sends a positive message of inclusiveness to LGBT students and creates an environment that is inclusive and welcoming of diverse populations."

Experts said it is rare for a college to ask about sexual identity on an application or registration form, although a growing number of schools are studying the possibility.

The shift comes in response to a law (AB 620) that was written by Assemblyman Marty Block (D-San Diego) and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall. The law calls for schools to adopt policies that discourage bullying and harassment of gay and lesbian students.

It also asks, but does not require, state campuses to allow students and staff "to identify their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression" on any forms used to collect such demographic data as race and national origin.

Christopher Ward, Block's chief of staff, said the law was partly inspired by a UC report showing that gay students had much higher rates of depression than their peers and more often felt disrespected on campus.

The questions will provide insights about "the unique and specific needs LGBT students have for their safety and educational assistance," Ward said.

State Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), who voted against the bill, said: "It is an invasion of privacy." He added that the information might be improperly used and wrongly divulged.

The UC systemwide Academic Senate recently approved the concept of asking the sexual identity questions when students enroll and not earlier, when they apply as high school seniors, said Robert Anderson, a UC Berkeley professor and Academic Senate chairman.

If implemented, it would begin with students enrolling at the 10 UC campuses in fall 2013, he said.

At the 23-campus Cal State system, discussions are in an earlier stage on possibly including the questions on enrollment forms for fall 2013, a spokesman said.

At the state's community colleges, a committee on diversity issues recently advocated adding sexual identity questions to statewide online applications but many decisions must be made before implementation, officials said; some individual community colleges also are studying the issue.


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Photo: Students walk between Lough Memorial Fountain and Brotman Hall at Cal State Long Beach. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.