Understanding the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth is critical to promoting their healthy development and creating safe and supportive environments. Research shows that these youth may be at higher risk for bullying victimization, drug and alcohol use, and sexual risk behaviors.1
In recent years, several surveys, both national large-scale collections as well as smaller research studies, have included items asking about adolescents’ sexual orientations and gender identities. However, there are widespread concerns that the items included on these surveys do not accurately identify LGBT youth as such.2 Data from previous surveys suggest that many respondents may skip answering items pertaining to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, or may answer in unintended ways—for example, by mistakenly identifying as bisexual interpreting it to mean attraction to the opposite sex—due to their misunderstanding the items’ content.2,3
Adolescence is a time when youth become more aware of their sexual orientation and gender identity, which may be still developing. Those still working to understand their sexual orientation may not yet have a solidified sexual identity (as gay, for example), but may report same-sex attraction and/or behaviors. Someone who identifies as a gender different from their biological sex may not self-identify as transgender, if, for instance, they associate transgender status with hormonal or surgical transition, and they have not pursued that transition. Thus, collecting accurate data on these complex personal characteristics is particularly challenging. However, such data are critical for the development of targeted policies, programs, and practices.
To develop more valid and reliable measures of adolescent sexual orientation and gender identity, Child Trends, with support from the Arcus Foundation, convened a panel of researchers and practitioners with extensive experience assessing and/or working with LGBT youth. We then conducted cognitive interviews with a diverse set of youth to ensure students would understand and feel comfortable responding to tested survey items. Finally, we performed a field test of items resulting from the cognitive interviews by including them in the U.S. Department of Education’s School Climate survey in Washington, DC, administered during the 2016-17 school year with over 3,000 middle and high school students.
Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation? Mark one response.
Have you ever had a crush on a boy or a girl? Mark one response. (Middle school)
Who are you sexually attracted to? Mark one response. (High school)
What gender were you at birth, even if you are not that gender today? That is, what is the gender on your birth certificate? Mark one response.
What is your current gender identity, even if it is different than the gender you were born as? Mark one response.
This project is one of the first large-scale efforts to develop and test sexual orientation and gender identity items for use with middle- and high-school-aged adolescents. These items move the field closer to more consistent, valid measures and provide a foundation for better understanding the experiences of LGBT youth.
1. Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W., Shanklin, S., Flint, K., Hawkins, J., et al.(2015). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance-United states, 2015. Surveillance Summaries, 65(6).
2. Miller, K. (2012). Developing a “Perfect” Sexual Identity Measure. National Center for Health Statistics.
3. Saewyc, E. M., Bauer, G. R., Skay, C. L., Bearinger, L. H., Resnick, M. D., Reis, E., et al. (2004). Measuring sexual orientation in adolescent health surveys: evaluation of eight school-based surveys. Journal of Adolescent Health, 35(4), 345e., 341-315.