Cohort Differences in Identity and Development Among Sexual Minority Women
Visibility and acceptance of homosexuality has undergone significant transformations within the last half-century, imposing different constraints, opportunities and circumstances on the sexual identity development of sexual minority women. Conceived as a generally sequential progression through predicted "stages", previous research also suggests considerable variability between age groups and across racial/ethnic groups in the timing and sequence of developmental events. This study examined differences in identity development milestones and level of disclosure across three cohorts of self-identified lesbian and bisexual women. The author’s previous research defined cohorts by the era of lesbian history in which respondents achieved adulthood (age 18) - before Stonewall (1969); during Gay Liberation (1970-1984); 1985 and later (Rights). Hypothesized differences include earlier ages of coming out among younger, bisexually-identified women (as compared to older cohorts and those who identify as mostly lesbian) and higher levels of disclosure to family and non-family groups by lesbian-identified women (as compared to bisexuals).
A secondary analysis was conducted using merged data from the Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women and the Women’s Health, Identity and Lifetime Development studies. A convenience sample of women ages 18 years or older who self-identified as lesbian or bisexual was recruited for each study. The sample (N=552) is highly diverse in terms of age (M= 38.5; range 21-69 yrs.) and race/ethnicity (49% white, 28% Black, 18% Hispanic, 5% other). Most participants are well educated (58% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher) and working full-time (64.9%). Three cohorts (Pre-Stonewall [DOB: 1931-1951], Liberation [DOB: 1952-1966], Rights [DOB: 1967-1984]) and three groups of sexual minority women (bisexual, mostly lesbian, only lesbian) are included. Two- way, between groups MANOVA was used to investigate cohort and identity group differences in levels of disclosure to family and non-family groups and identity development milestones.
Disclosure scores to non-family and family groups indicated that bisexuals were least likely to disclose their identity across all cohorts. The only lesbian group scored highest on disclosure to both family and non-family members across all cohorts while individuals identified as mostly lesbian scored between the other two. Differences across cohorts included a greater likelihood of disclosure by members of the Liberation group, followed closely by members of the Rights cohort, with pre-Stonewall members disclosing the least. Findings related to identity milestones reflected similar yet more complex patterns of variability with cohort appearing as the more salient factor (compared to sexual minority identity) in differentiating identity development trajectories within this sample.
Conclusions and Implications
Clinicians, researchers and policy makers need to be cognizant of the diversity within the lesbian population if they are to strategically and effectively respond to the unique experiences and needs of women with varying developmental trajectories. For example, pre-Stonewall and Liberation cohort members had vastly different experiences with stigma, discrimination, and civil rights. As they age, each group will possess different levels of comfort and facility with visibility and self-advocacy. Each will require different strategies to assure that health, health care, housing, and other needs are appropriately and adequately addressed.