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All About Coming Out

Should a Student Conceal Her Lesbian Identity in College Application Essays?

Our daughter is a senior in high school and quite comfortable with her lesbian identity. We support her 100 percent, but we know the world is not always so tolerant. As she’s writing her college application essays this fall, she’s “coming out” in them — and we think that’s a bad idea. You just never know who’s reading these essays, so why risk revealing your orientation to someone who might be biased against you? We’ve strongly suggested she think over the ramifications of what she’s doing, but she doesn’t seem to have any doubt about it. Deadlines are approaching and we are at an impasse. How can we persuade her to keep some things private if they might hurt her chances of admission?” –Anonymous

I can see why for boomer parents this situation could be an especially tough call, since our own experience colors our point of view. When our generation applied to college, gays and lesbians kept their sexual orientation under wraps — for very good reason. For example, at Duke University, my alma mater, “the Duke of older times was saturated with homophobia,” its president, Richard H. Brodhead, said in a speech this fall. He acknowledged “evidence of official intolerance and active repression of homosexuality at Duke from the 1960s,” and noted the national context: “It would be hard to describe today how deeply entrenched prejudice on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity was in this country at this time. Homophobic prejudice was everywhere, with its aggressive mockery and crude repression.” Applicants could hardly be faulted for concealing what was then a possible cause for expulsion.

But times have changed. It is notable that Dr. Brodhead made his remarks at the opening of a new Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, in the heart of Duke’s campus.

Today’s youth also have different feelings about personal privacy than our generation does. Boomers who understand and accept the many variations in sexual identity may see no need to broadcast it to the world, or to make it the focus of a college application essay.

But a high school senior today has come of age amid a torrent of texts and posts that bare everything (sometimes literally). So I find two questions within your question: First, will this affect my child’s chances of admission? And second, whether or it does or not, what is the best stance for you to take?

For the first, I asked a number of current L.G.B.T. undergrads how they had handled this issue on their college applications. One current student told me: “In the end, I didn’t include any mention of that aspect of my identity in my essays. I didn’t want to have even the slightest chances of affecting my chances of admission.” Others said they believed that coming out in their essays had played a part in their being rejected by schools they should have gotten into. Still others thought that by coming out they could increase the odds of admission at a school committed to a diverse student body.

I also called an expert, Christoph Guttentag, who is Duke’s dean of admissions and has read more than 50,000 essays. He replied that if a school has antigay policies or is generally L.G.B.T.–unfriendly (usually religious colleges), then he recommends putting a lid on your sexual orientation or gender identity. Otherwise, he told me, “When students present themselves as who they are, it’s rewarded in the admissions process. Authenticity is perhaps the attribute we see too rarely.”

On a more practical level, however, whatever your daughter says in her essay it’s not difficult for an admissions officer to learn about her sexuality. According to a 2013 Kaplan Test Prep survey, 31 percent of college admissions officers said they had visited a prospective applicant’s social media page — up 5 percentage points from a year ago. Even a cursory online search could reveal that an applicant has started a straight-gay alliance at their high school or posted a blog about the challenges of coming out, said Seppy Basili, a Kaplan vice president.

Are you confused yet? I don’t blame you — college admissions is a difficult, high-stakes game with rules that are opaque to the players (even more so than in our day). To make things more complicated, it’s the second part of your question that is the one with more profound implications.

Here’s why: There’s a big difference between sharing too much (which kids today admittedly do), and actively concealing something.

The Common App invites applicants to share “a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it.” I can think of several such topics that may feel core to a high school senior. If your daughter had been adopted, had had a life-altering accident, or were biracial, would you discourage her from writing about it? I doubt it. As one gay student told me, “My parents did something similar and it gave me a sense of shame, that there was something wrong with me that needed to be hidden.”

In the end, the strategic question probably can’t be definitely answered — nor may it be the best one to ask. In 20 years will she remember what her essay was about? I doubt it. As one mother wrote me, “In the end it actually matters very little what she decides to write in her application, but it matters a lot if she starts to think that her parents want her to hide who she is from the world.”

Clearly you’ve given your daughter a strong sense of self and the confidence to be who she is, even if the world is not as tolerant as we’d all hope. Sure, one of a parent’s jobs is to worry, but after 17 or so years you can’t be there for every important decision in life. So, please reconsider what message you are sending to her when you ask her to conceal her identity.

Originally published in The New York Times, December 3, 2013

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