Monday, August 29, 2011

Elmhurst College: Giving Queer Kids Money

I write a lot about higher education around here - I'm a grad student, after all, and if that weren't enough, I study the history of higher ed for a living. More specifically, I study the queer history of higher ed. So when I learned - thanks to Facebook buddy Damon - that Elmhurst College in Illinois has become the first to ask students whether they identify with the LGBTQ community, my ears perked up.

Elmhurst phrased the question as, "Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?” and answering the question is optional. The answer doesn't play a role in whether the students are admitted, but a "yes" could put them in line for a scholarship (and given that this is a small private school, that's a big deal) and help the school direct the queer students toward resources available to them on campus.

Of course, the Illinois Family Institute is up in arms about it, because they think sexual orientation and gender identity are choices, such that anyone who identifies as queer is bringing persecution on themselves. But I don't expect this will be the only controversy surrounding the decision. Queerty asks whether poor students will identify as queer on the application to help pay for their education. Autostraddle points out that it might be unsafe for some students to answer "yes," although they certainly wouldn't be forced to.

I don't think I need to address the Illinois Family Institute's concern here. We all know that they're bigoted jerks with an interest in maintaining the hetero-patriarchy. I think Queerty was being somewhat tongue in cheek in their post, and Autostraddle doesn't think the question is a bad idea overall.

Queerty's point is interesting, though - there's no way to really verify sexual orientation or gender identity, and we shouldn't be going on missions to try to come up with a way to do so. I don't feel particularly concerned about high school students claiming to be gay who aren't, and Elmhurst probably has financial aid opportunities for students who come from low-income families. But colleges that have offered scholarships to minority groups have traditionally done so for groups who tend to be coming from a socioeconomically disadvantaged community: Native Americans, Black people, and other racial groups who have faced oppression at the hands of the white patriarchy. Queer people come from these groups, of course, but they come from everywhere. That's the thing: queer people aren't born into communities of other queer people the way Black people are born into communities of other Black people. This has a couple of implications: First, queer people tend to be born to straight people, so they don't necessarily have the community support from the beginning of their lives. Black people don't have to come out as Black to their families and face disapproval, rejection, eviction, or a host of other things that queer people sometimes do. Second, however, is that queer people are born all up and down the socioeconomic spectrum of society - queerness knows no class or race. So queer kids could come from extremely privileged households and not need one third of their college tuition paid for, or they could come from low-income households and require all kinds of financial aid if they want to pursue higher education.

This is not to say that I think that Elmhurst shouldn't offer this scholarship, or ask this question. I like both ideas, though I do hope that the already-privileged queer kids aren't the ones getting all the moneys. I think that the question itself is more important for the kids who can afford college without this scholarship, and may be just as important for those who do need the assistance. It signals that Elmhurst is a queer-friendly school, and that's no small thing. As the Campus Climate Index shows, not all institutions of higher education (even the public ones) are queer-friendly. Some, including my own institution, could use some work in these areas. Kids who are looking for a college where they can feel safe - and who isn't? - can take this into account, even if they check "no" or "prefer not to answer" on the application because they feel they can't be out at home. And given that institutions of higher education can too often be behind the times in dealing with diversity, instead of on the cutting edge, I think this is a really good shift toward remedying institutional queerphobia.


  1. Maybe this was done in part to help people who, despite coming from higher income families, have families who won't help them if they identify as LGBT? Since the way lovely financial aid works is that you are "dependent", and therefore reward is based on family income, until you are 25 no matter how long you've been paying for all of your own expenses, and how little your family ACTUALLY contributes. I would hope it would be used in conjunction with family and personal income, with an easy appeals situation to help people in the case I just described. The idea may need to have some kinks worked out, but overall I think that's a really great step, and wish it was offered all over.

  2. That's a really good point, Anya!