Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17443 Milestone Consequences, Resilience, and Multiple Identity Management: Findings From a Mixed Method Study of Sexual Minority Youth

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 4:00 PM
Latrobe (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Colleen M. Fisher, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background and Purpose: Understanding the unique sexual identity development process of sexual minority youth is essential for social workers to develop culturally relevant and developmentally appropriate services for this population. Research suggests that the timing and sequence of key developmental milestones (e.g., first same-sex attraction) are related to myriad health and mental health outcomes for sexual minority youth including suicide (Savin-Williams & Ream, 2003), victimization experiences (D'Augelli, 2003), risky sexual behaviors (Dube, 2000), and low self-esteem (Maguen et al., 2002). Yet, much of the research in this area is limited by a reliance on self-administered surveys and a conceptualization of sexual identity development as a relatively linear process with "coming out" as its natural and defining end product (Tilsen & Nylund, 2010). Investigating the complex, fluid trajectories unique to each individual requires a nuanced research approach (Diamond, 2008; Elia & Eliason, 2010) and utilization of both quantitative and qualitative methods (Paradis, 2009). This study uses the Life History Calendar (LHC), an innovative mixed method approach, to investigate the ways in which youth experience key developmental milestones as they explore their sexual identities.

Methods: As part of a larger study, a convenience sample of 189 adolescents was drawn from youth attending an LGBT community center in a large Midwestern city. A sub-sample of key informants (n=16) were recruited for participation in an LHC interview which collected both quantitative and qualitative data. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Quantitative data on the timing and sequence of developmental milestones were analyzed using Stata (version 9). Coding of transcripts was done by two independent coders using inductive content analysis. Coders then met to compare codes until a consensus was reached; then themes and sub-themes were developed independently and compared and contrasted across coders. Results: Study participants ages 15-20 (X =18.4) were predominantly youth of color (75%) and gay identified (56.25%), with four youth (25%) identifying as transgender or questioning their gender identity. Quantitative results indicate wide variation in the developmental pathways of youth in this sample. For example, a majority of the sample reported two (n=8), three (n=3), or four (n=1) distinct self-label phases (e.g., evolving from bisexual to gay to questioning) with a series of disclosure or "coming out" experiences associated with each self-label. Three sets of themes were identified from qualitative data: (1) milestone consequences, (2) resilience, and (3) multiple identity management. Examples of each theme and milestone sub-theme will be discussed as well as the ways that these themes represent the underlying experiences of sexual identity development.

Conclusions and Implications: Study findings suggest important differences in the ways youth understood, experienced, and reported each of the developmental milestones. Research assessing only the first occurrence of a milestone event may not adequately capture the developmental process of sexual minority youth. The LHC method may offer a promising alternative to traditional assessment methods while engaging youth in the data collection process and providing a deeper understanding of the complex, timed, and evolving developmental process of sexual minority youth.

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