The XX Factor

University of Iowa Will Now Ask Incoming Students If They Are Gay

The University of Iowa’s sexual orientation question for incoming students is a big deal

Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images.

Gay rights progress: Nothing in 2012, besides adorable cat videos, has helped restore my faith in humanity as the clear turning of the tide in favor of gay marriage. But the year is not over yet, and there’s more joy to be had courtesy of this story about the University of Iowa including questions about sexual orientation on its forms for incoming students.

The move is in response to LGBT groups pointing out that asking the question can help the university know how many resources to allocate for queer students, which is a sensible, bureaucratic thing to do. But the move also signals a seismic shift in our culture: This is not a question that could have been asked of college students a few years ago.

Until recently, being out in high school just wasn’t a thing for most gay kids. College—i.e., an environment away from the repressive, homophobic culture of high school—was often where young men and women started to edge their way out of the closet. But the past few years have seen a surge, led by teenagers themselves, in kids coming out at younger and younger ages. Indeed, this may be the first generation where some gay kids (still probably a tiny minority) don’t really “come out” at all but simply just are gay.

The turning point appears to have been the spring and summer of 2010. That was the year that Constance McMillen’s Mississippi high school terminated the prom rather than allow her to bring a female date. The incident, which involved the community organizing a “secret” private prom that McMillen wasn’t invited to, turned into a national story of bullying and bigotry that resulted in McMillen’s schoolmates looking like monsters and McMillen getting to go on Ellen. That was the same summer that Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project, which allowed adults—first gay adults and then all adults—to speak to LGBT high-school kids directly about how high school sucks but that it will get better.

Now the University of Iowa is confident that enough of its incoming LGBT population is out to be meaningfully measured. There are sadly plenty of kids who still languish in the closet, afraid of parental disapproval and rejection from their peers. But what was once a near-universal period of hiding for queer youth is finally changing. Being able to take the date you actually want to the prom may not be as legally dramatic a sea change as gay marriage, but it represents something just as important.