A Box of Their Own?

The costs of an affirmative action policy for gay students outweigh the benefits

Discrimination has a long and hoary tradition at Harvard. At first, students were all white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and male. Eventually, men of other faiths were admitted, as were men of color. Finally, with the merger of Radcliffe, women became full members of the Harvard community. In the past decade, the changes have accelerated; the advent of affirmative action has made diversity of every form a goal of most universities.

As it should be.

But while we firmly believe that a diverse campus is a strong campus, a new frontier has been reached that deserves further scrutiny—affirmative action for gay students.

This past Monday, “Inside Higher Ed” reported that Middlebury College had decided to “give students who identify themselves as gay in the admissions process an “attribute,” a flag that gives the applicant a leg-up in the same way that being a recruited athlete, legacy, or ethnic minority would.

There are three compelling arguments for admissions policies that give a boost to applicants of underrepresented minorities. First, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minorities often face challenges in their lives that have hindered them from achieving at the level of applicants who have not faced such adversity. Second, historical wrongdoings and current social attitudes make it more likely that individuals from these groups will face race-based discrimination, explicit or implicit, at some point during their lifetimes. Third, universities themselves benefit from the wider exchange of ideas that arises from diverse student bodies.

What about for homosexual applicants? Until recently, Harvard has been quite a hostile place for gay students to go to school. From secret courts in the early 20th century charged with evicting homosexuals to tacit ostracism that continues to some degree today, Harvard’s history with gay students isn’t one of its shining achievements.

Thus it would seem that a “minority” sexual orientation would fit the bill for affirmative action. Gay students are likely to have faced adversity in the past, have been historically oppressed at institutions of higher learning, and are likely to be discriminated against in the future. But our concerns are more practical than philosophical.

Sexual orientation isn’t a straightforward proposition; moreover, unlike race, geography, or socioeconomic background, sexuality is inherently private. These factors can create perverse incentive structures under a college admissions system in which gay students are rewarded for publicly announcing their sexual orientation. We fear, for instance, that many individuals who are unsure about their sexuality would feel unduly pressured to “come out” on their applications. Others who are not gay may even be inclined to misrepresent their sexuality to gain a leg-up. Being gay is less black or white than being black or white (which itself isn’t always black or white), and we must be careful not to treat it as such.

Furthermore, gay students who should benefit most from affirmative action policies would be least positioned to. Gay students who have had to hide their sexuality throughout high school because of hostile communities and families, likely would be unable to denote their homosexuality on an application. Instead, students who have grown up in more tolerant settings in which they are comfortable discussing their sexual orientation openly—that is, the students who need affirmative action the least—would benefit the most. The implementation of affirmative action for gay applicants, then, could end up working against itself.

To be sure, applicants who have, in fact, overcome some sort of adversity or obstacle as a result of their sexual orientation, should be recognized for doing so—just like applicants who have overcome other forms of adversity. Ultimately, however, because being gay is a personal matter, more so than being black or being Native American, a blanket affirmative action policy for gay students would oversimplify a complex issue highly dependent upon individual circumstance.

This page has a history of supporting diversity. We firmly believe that cultivating a multi-racial, multi-faith, generally inclusive student body from a wide range of geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds benefits a university’s community. We also believe in a student body tolerant and supportive of all sexual orientations. But the practical costs of instituting a general affirmative action policy for gay students outweigh the philosophical benefits.