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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, May 24, 2024

Tufts considering expanding options for gender identity on Common App supplement

A screenshot of the current options for one's gender identity on the Tufts Common Application.
The Undergraduate Admissions office is considering expanding available gender identity options on the Tufts’ supplement to the Common Application for next year's admissions cycle.

According to Edward Pickett III, associate director of Undergraduate Admissions, the Admissions office has been in discussion with LGBT Center Director Nino Testa (G '13) and Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Provost Mark Brimhall-Vargas regarding these potential changes, which he said may be decided upon after it finalizes admission decisions for the class of 2020.

According to Testa, if the changes are implemented, they will be modeled off the gender identity questions asked on Tufts’ First-Year Experience Survey, and will debut when the application goes live for the class of 2021.

On the general component of the Common Application, only two options are given for applicants in regards to gender identity: male and female. Currently, the Tufts supplement provides three options: male, female and other, Testa said.

According to Lauren Conoscenti, a senior research analyst at the Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation (OIRE), this year's First-Year Experience Survey was distributed to first-year students in early March and asked about student's gender identity in a different way. Conoscenti said that the OIRE uses consistent wording on questions in surveys throughout the academic year but typically reevaluates the gender identity question with sources such as the LGBT Center and the Women’sCenter during the summer.

Conoscenti explained that this year's survey asked a two-part question about gender identity: “Do you identify as transgender?” for which the potential answers included "Yes," "No" and "I prefer not to answer" and “What is your gender identity?” for which the potential answers included "Woman," "Man," "Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming," "An identity not listed here" — a fill-in-the-blank option was provided — and "I prefer not to answer."  

This two-part question reflected a change from last year's First-Year Experience Survey in which students were asked to select their gender identity from the following options: "Woman," "Man," "Transgender," "Transgender Woman," "Transgender Man," "Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming," "Other" with room for specification and "I prefer not to answer."

According to Testa, questions in the First-Year Experience Survey were modeled off a list of suggested best practices for asking sexual orientation and gender on college applications proposed by the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals.

Testa said that the wording on the Admissions supplement will differ from the consortium's recommendations in that instead of listing a full list of gender identity options, including options such as "trans man" and "trans woman," it will feature a second part of the question asking if the applicant identifies as transgender.

The Tufts admissions supplement, unlike the first-year survey, will not include a fill-in-the-blank-option for students to write in a more specific gender identity, according to Testa.

First-year Parker Breza, the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate LGBT community representative, said he would have liked to see a fill-in-the-blank option listed on the application.

“For a lot of students, even those categories are not representative of their true identity,” he said. “It can be traumatic for students to be forced into a box that doesn’t represent them.”

While the expanded options will only be for the undergraduate admissions application as of now, the possibility of eventually adding them to the applications for Tufts’ graduate schools is being considered as well, Testa said.

According to Testa, the wording change was brought about when Ray Bernoff, a transgender student, expressed his concerns about these gender identity options in a Facebook post, after taking the first-year survey in the spring of 2015.

Bernoff, who is also a Daily photographer, said his complaints stemmed from the normalization of cisgender identities.

“The thing that bugged me about the first-year survey was that the options were 'male,' 'female,' 'trans male' and 'trans female,' implying that trans people who identify within the binary aren’t the same as cis people who identify within the binary,” Bernoff, a sophomore, said. “The survey was not confusing for cis people, because they just chose whatever gender they were. But for trans-people, there were two options that were correct.”

Testa read the post and, working with Tufts OIRE, decided to solve the problem by splitting the question into two for this past year’s survey.

“To push against that idea that cis people are 'normal' and [transgender] people are something other than normal, you’d have to list cisgender and transgender,” Testa said. “But the fact is that most cisgender people don’t know that vocabulary, so you wouldn’t get good data if you ask someone if they’re a cisgender male. So we decided to pull out that question and say, ‘do you identify as transgender, yes or no?’”

Breza said he felt a change was necessary because the way Tufts currently addresses gender identity on its supplement is “pretty limited.”

“It forces you to choose a binary category or choose ‘other,’ which is just not representative of one's gender identity whatsoever,” he said.

According to Brimhall-Vargas, who joined Testa in advocating for these changes, the expanded gender identity options are key in creating an inclusive community at Tufts

“It conveys to prospective applicants and their families that Tufts is aware of the needs of trans identified students and works toward being equitable and inclusive,” he wrote in an email to the Daily. “I believe that this conveys to the campus that we are moving in the right direction around inclusion generally.”

According to Breza, the decision was an obvious next step in an effort to make sure all of Tufts’ programming has the best practices for LGBT students. He explained that TCU Senate passed a resolution last Nov. 1, calling for Tufts to allow students to select their gender pronouns in university systems.

“This seemed like an extension of that project, just trying to codify everything pretty uniform across our systems," Breza, who co-authored the November Senate resolution, said.


Breza said that one of the main reasons he pushed to expand the gender identity options is to expand the data Tufts would have on LGBT applicants.

“When we code gender, it allows us to get a better idea of how our university is supporting trans students...” he said. “I think that being able to look at four-year graduation rates for LGBTQ students, the retention rates, different demographics like queer people of color and looking at how we’re supporting people at the most intersections of identity as possible is really important. Because right now I think the administration doesn’t have an idea of how well they’re supporting LGBTQ students, and this data would help move us towards seeing how they’re doing on campus.”

However, Conoscenti explained in an email to the Daily that Tufts SIS cannot code fill-in-the-blank answers to make them useful for data collection.

Breza said he thought the coding issue was “sort of an excuse” but added that the questions are a major improvement. 

“It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a step in the right direction, and something that will continue to be revisited,” he said.

Conoscenti said that the OIRE administers surveys such as the first-year one in order to provide the university with data to help it make decisions.

The data will show a need for increased resources for a community that Testa says is growing.

“I can anecdotally say that the number of non-binary students has gone up by a good number since I’ve been at Tufts, but it would be nice to have some numbers I think,” he said.

Bernoff said that data is especially needed for transgender students, in order to better allocate resources for the community. These expanded options are also an important step in Tufts’ outreach to potential transgender-identifying applicants, according to Breza.

Tufts likes to pride itself on being a very LGBT-friendly school, and a big part of actually living up to that is accepting LGBTQ students and specifically starting to do intentional outreach to trans students,” he said.

Testa said that the benefits of collecting more specific data outweigh concerns about not offering enough options for identity.

“To make the data useful, there are certain ways that we need to do it," he said. "That’s the point, to have a practical use. We hope that the way we ask the questions, of course, always make people feel seen, respected, validated in their identities — but we don’t presume we’ve made a comprehensive list.”

Brimhall-Vargas also emphasized the importance of collecting data on transgender applicants and future students.

“It provides crucial information to parts of the campus that need to know to support the student such as resident life,” he said.

According to Testa, while the possibility of including a question about sexual identity on the admissions supplement was also discussed, the question “is not on the table for next year.”

Breza said he advocated for questions about sexual identity to be included, but that there were concerns over problems arising when potential closeted applicants had to answer it. This same concern is applicable to transgender students as well, according to Bernoff, who acknowledged that it’s a tricky issue.

“I think confidentiality is really important,” he said. “There’s this constant tension between information collection and making sure you’re accommodating trans students as much as you can and making sure they're visible while recognizing that some trans students may not be able to be visible because they can’t tell anyone.”

CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article inaccurately represented the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals' recommendations by stating that these recommendations including asking students if they are cisgender. Also, the Daily previously used the terms "transmale" and "transfemale," rather than "trans male" and "trans female" in a quote from Ray Bernoff. The Daily regrets these errors.