By Andrew Mach, NBC News
The University of Iowa has become the first public university in the U.S. to include a question about students' sexual orientation in their application for admission.
As of Dec. 1, students applying to the university have the option of answering: "Do you identify with the LGBTQ community?" Students may also mark "transgender" instead of only male or female when noting their gender on their applications.
With the changes, the university became the first public university and second college in the U.S. to ask applicants such demographic questions. Elmhurst College, a private college in suburban Chicago, was the first U.S. college to include questions involving sexual orientation on its application last August.
"LGBTQ students are important members of our campus community, and we want to provide them with an opportunity to identify themselves in order to be connected to resources and to build networking structures," the university's chief diversity officer, Georgina Dodge, said in a press release. "What we've heard from students, especially LGBT students, is that they don't find out about support services and organizations until they've been here for a year or two, unfortunately. This allows us to do some more personal outreach."
"This is a question whose time had come," added Michael Barron, Iowa admissions director. "We think this will cause them to look more closely at the university because we value that part of who they are. We want students to feel we are receptive to and sensitive to their lifestyle and their description of themselves."
The move was heralded by gay rights advocates.
It reflects "a growing paradigm shift in higher education to actively recognize out LGBT youth populations and to exercise greater responsibility for LGBT student safety, retention and academic success," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an organization that promotes creating a safer college experience for LGBT students, in a press release.
The questions will give the university, which enrolls more than 30,000 students, information to determine incoming students' needs, track retention rates, potential interest in campus programs, and to offer support resources, university officials said. The optional question appears in a section of other optional questions asking students about family connections to the university, parents' educational background, interest in ROTC programs, and interest in fraternities and sororities.
The admissions office will immediately email students who identify as LGBT with links to information on housing options and campus resources that may interest them, Barron said.
Dodge said the applicants' responses would be stored confidentially in the university's records. She said that student groups who wanted to reach LGBT students, for instance, could ask the university to send them a mass email — but the recipients' identities would not be released.
Dodge said that university administrators recognize that not everyone who is LGBT will choose to identify, but the university's goal is "to create an environment where all personal identities are celebrated, and increased visibility is certainly one way to help eliminate stigma."
According to school officials, the University of Iowa was the first U.S. public university to admit men and women on an equal basis, the first state university to officially recognize the LGBT community, and the first public university to offer insurance to employees' domestic partners.
In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Iowa's marriage laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the state's constitution, making the state the first in the Midwest to allow gays and lesbians to wed.
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