Abstract: Exploring the complexities of sexual identity development: Use of the Life History Calendar with sexual minority youth (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

13510 Exploring the complexities of sexual identity development: Use of the Life History Calendar with sexual minority youth

Friday, January 15, 2010: 9:00 AM
Golden Gate (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Colleen M. Fisher, PhD , University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Assistant Professor, St. Paul, MN
Background and Purpose:

Research suggests that the timing and sequence of sexual identity development (SID) milestones are related to myriad health and mental health outcomes for sexual minority youth including suicidal ideation and attempts (e.g., Savin-Williams & Ream, 2003), victimization experiences (e.g., D'Augelli, 2003), internalized homophobia (Dube & Savin-Williams, 1999), risky sexual behaviors (Dube, 2000), and low self-esteem (Maguen et al., 2002). Extant research on SID among sexual minority youth has typically relied on self-administered surveys to assess SID milestones. Yet, the limitations associated with these surveys hinder our ability to accurately measure, predict, and prevent these important outcomes. Further, recent criticisms of extant research in this area have called for developmental milestones to be measured more precisely, to investigate milestone sequence and context more fully, and to move beyond the conventional approach of comparing mean ages.

In the current study, the utility of using a Life History Calendar (LHC) to assess SID trajectories was explored using a sub-sample of youth from a larger study on HIV risk and SID. The LHC was used to (a) check the accuracy of survey milestone data, (b) explore the LHC's precision in recording developmental trajectories, and (c) explore the LHC's usability with youth respondents. It was hypothesized that the LHC would yield higher quality data on SID trajectories compared to the survey.


A convenience sample (n=189) of sexual minority adolescents was drawn from youth attending an LBGT community center in a large Midwestern city. All youth completed a self-administered survey which included items SID characteristics and experiences. An ethnographic approach was then used to select a sub-sample (n=16) for participation in a second interview using a Life History Calendar. Two SID trajectories were created for each youth: one based on survey data and the other from LHC data. Trajectories were analyzed to determine level of agreement between the two assessment methods as well as on four additional SID measurement dimensions: accuracy, precision, complexity, and context.


Study participants were African American (44%), Caucasian (32%), Latino (12%) and biracial (12%) with a mean age of 18.38 years. Gender identity among this sample was 69% male, 19% male-to-female (MTF) transgender, and 12% female. Results indicated only modest agreement between the two methods (i.e., youth's reports of milestone timing varied by as little as .04 years to as much as 15.0 years). Additionally, results suggest that the LHC yielded higher quality data compared to the survey on all four dimensions. The LHC facilitated more accurate recall of milestone attainment ages, allowed for greater specificity in measurement of milestone ages, assessed additional trajectory characteristics beyond the commonly measured milestones, and accommodated key contextual information surrounding each milestone.

Conclusions and Implications:

Study results suggest that social work researchers should consider the LHC as an alternative to traditional surveys for assessing SID trajectories. Better measures of SID and the resulting higher quality data will lead to increased ability to predict and prevent important health and mental health outcomes related to SID for sexual minority youth.