The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Conceptualizing the Impact of Historical Time On LGBT Populations

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 10:45 AM
Executive Center 3A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
James I. Martin, PhD, Associate Professor, New York University, New York, NY
Background and Purpose

This presentation will explain why a historical perspective is important for research on LGBT populations, and it will provide a conceptual framework for research that takes into account the passage of time.  People’s identities, roles, and developmental trajectories are impacted by historical events and social changes.  These changes have been particularly dramatic for sexual and gender minorities.  Prior to the Stonewall Riots LGBT people were outlaws on the fringes of American society, while they are now joining the mainstream.  Same-sex sexual behavior was a felony in every state until 1962, with the last sodomy laws not repealed until 2003; until 1973 homosexuality was also considered a mental illness.  Laws against crossdressing used to be widespread; at the time of the Stonewall Riots it was illegal for a man to wear more than three articles of women’s clothing in New York City.

Today the presence of open LGBT adolescents in schools is common, along with the availability of support and the threat and actuality of violence against them.  Geographical LGBT communities may be experiencing structural decline, while virtual communities are increasingly popular.  There is an accelerating proliferation of new identities constructed around combinations of sexual object choice and gender.  Without taking into account the varying conditions that LGBT people have experienced over time, as well as the period in which research is conducted, findings will reflect a default essentialist position that narrows our understanding of LGBT lives and gives insufficient direction for the design of interventions.

Structure of the Presentation

This presentation will explain the concept of historical time, which refers to the experience of historical events and social changes over time, and it will explain why it is relevant to research on LGBT populations.  Next, the presentation will explain the operationalization of historical time as cohort and period effects.  A cohort effect is the enduring impact of particular social conditions on a group of people who experience them during a developmentally important period of time.  A period effect is the impact of historical events or social conditions on society regardless of cohort.  It is important to differentiate between these effects because they represent different causal explanations for human problems and suggest different intervention strategies.

The presentation will then consider particular challenges to examining cohort and period effects in research on LGBT populations.  A primary challenge has to do with defining cohorts.  Research tends to examine birth cohorts because social conditions during childhood are thought to have especially enduring impact on development.  But among LGBT people other periods of development, such as coming out, may be more salient.  How to define cohorts based on time of coming out is difficult because one must identify the historical periods when social conditions are likely to have been different in relevant ways.  The presentation will also consider challenges in differentiating between cohort and period effects, and research design and analytic strategies for doing so will be discussed.