Incorporating Historical Time Into Research On LGBT Populations
The impact of historical events and social changes on human development has been of interest to social scientists since the early 1970s, when Elder published the landmark book Children of the Great Depression. However, this perspective has rarely been applied to understanding the development and life courses of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). In social work research there is a general absence of attention to historical time as a predictor, covariate, or moderator variable even though the profession’s distinctive person-in-environment perspective would seem to make changes in the environment over time especially relevant. Two exceptions are Joe (2006), who included historical and age factors in an examination of changes in suicide among Black Americans, and Sarabia (2012), who examined whether the effect of aging on substance use among midlife women is modified by birth cohort.
Changes in the social environments of LGBT people over time are especially striking. It is only 9 years since same-sex sexual behavior became legal throughout the United States, and not quite 40 years since the American Psychiatric Association decreed that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness. Dramatic changes like these are likely to exert significant influence on the developmental trajectories of LGB people, as is the slow rise in the number of states that have legalized same-sex marriage; the same is true regarding passage of gender identity/expression nondiscrimination laws by states and localities for the developmental trajectories of transgender people.
Symposium Purpose and Format
The purpose of this symposium is to provide a conceptual framework for how and why historical time should be incorporated into social work research on LGBT populations, and to provide examples of recent research on these populations which have taken historical time into account. The first paper will present a theoretical examination of historical time as an influence on the lives of LGBT people and show how it is operationalized through the concepts of cohort and period effects. The second and third papers report on some of the first social work studies of LGB populations that examine the influence of historical time. The second paper presents findings from a study of cohort differences in disclosure patterns and identity development trajectories among lesbians and bisexual women, while the third paper reports on a study of cohort differences in coming out experiences among sexual minority women and men. These papers show not only how the passage of historical time is associated with differential developmental among LGB individuals, but also how researchers may use varying analytic strategies and definitions of cohorts in such studies.
Following these papers, there will be an opportunity to discuss a broader agenda for the incorporation of historical time into social work research on LGB and transgender populations, as well as ways in which such research can examine the influence of historical time with even greater complexity.