By Faye Z. Belgrave, PhD (Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University) and Sarah J. Javier, MS (Doctoral Candidate, Virginia Commonwealth University)
Through a very complete body of research, the field of psychology has established that a person’s identity is composed of several different parts. However, psychological research projects often only focus on one or two aspects of identity. As we move towards a more complete picture of human behavior, we must remember to keep in mind that the intersections of identity are a vital piece of that picture.
“Intersectionality” is a term that is coming to the forefront in psychological research. It encompasses race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and other intersecting, categorical dimensions that describe groups of people. For example, think about different parts of your identity. You may describe yourself as a single, older, African American female who makes a modest income. Or perhaps you are a young, White male who identifies as gay. These different parts of our identities make us who we are, and professionals interested in intersectionality have come to understand that these different components of identity are integral to why individuals do the things they do.
Intersectionality in National Data Sets
Data collection on the intersections of identity and how they affect health is of utmost importance. By examining combinations of identities (e.g. Gender X Race, Race X Sexual Orientation, etc.), researchers can more completely understand why some groups do better on certain health outcomes than others.
For instance, research on the intersecting identities of Race X Gender yields findings that there are different outcomes among African American males compared to, not only White males, but also African American females, including lower levels of academic achievement and higher levels of incarceration. These data can then be used to create culturally and identity-appropriate programs to decrease disparities and promote wellness among African American males.
But data aren’t perfect. And often, these identities get lost, even in well-known national data sets. For example, because it is politically charged, sexual orientation may be omitted completely from national data sets, based on the idea that children and adolescents should be protected from this information. However, research indicates that sexual orientation may develop anywhere between middle childhood and early adolescence, and being a sexual minority is associated with a host of worsened physical and mental health disparities (e.g., higher levels of suicidality, depression, substance use, risk for sexually transmitted infections, etc.). What’s more, not asking these questions limits the amount of research that can be done in exploring how sexual orientation intersects with other identities.
Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey
On August 11, 2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sexual minority youth data from the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey (YRBSS). The YRBSS is a survey collected from millions of 9th through 12th grade students in the continental U.S. bi-annually. The survey asks questions about a diverse array of health behaviors, including violence, sexual activity, sexually transmitted infections including HIV infection, alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, and physical activity.
One key feature of the YRBSS is its inclusion of identities in asking these questions. For instance, the survey asks items on race, gender, grade, and includes the following items on sexual orientation:
“During your life with whom have you had sexual contact?” with response items being I have not had sexual contact, females, males, or females and males; and
“Which of the following describes you?” with response items being heterosexual (straight), gay or lesbian, bisexual, or not sure.
The 2015 report yielded startling findings, including that more than 40% of LGB students seriously considered suicide, while 30% attempted suicide in the past year. According to the 2015 report, LGB students were more than five times more likely than individuals identifying as heterosexual to report using multiple illegal drugs.
Research that can come from this report includes how the intersection of sexual orientation and other identities (i.e., race/ethnicity) affect these outcomes, if at all. Individuals at intersections of identity in adolescence are especially at high risk for mental and physical consequences, and intersecting identities may be a vital component to risk for these consequences. Thus, the YRBSS is setting a precedent as one can now explore different aspects of identity and their relation to health outcomes in an adolescent population.
Data from the YRBSS may also help us understand whether certain intersections of identity act as protective factors that will help to combat negative health outcomes. Potential data analyses may in fact find that being at the intersection of a marginalized group may be correlated with being less likely to engage in certain negative health behaviors. For instance, African American adult females on the whole have been shown to smoke cigarettes at lower rates compared with both African men and White women. With the YRBSS, researchers can determine if this is true at a younger age, and whether this varies by grade, gender, sexual orientation, or any combination of these identities.
What We Can Do
Acknowledge different parts of individuals’ identities. Too often, we make assumptions about individuals based on surface-level interactions. It is important to acknowledge that new individuals you may meet may have different parts of their identity that can’t just be seen on the surface.
Use existing resources from APA. APA recently released a Resolution on Data about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity that speaks to the importance of collecting data from diverse groups in national surveys. Behavioral health professionals can use these tools, as well as others, to make the case for conducting research on underserved populations.
Fill in the gaps. One major limitation of the YRBSS is that it does not ask questions on gender identity. Researchers should examine these kinds of gaps in data collection so that yet another aspect of identity can be used in studies to improve the outcomes of people of different gender identities.
Be an advocate. Parents of underserved children, teachers, and allies of the LGBT community can help to advocate for these individuals and push their members of Congress to pass legislation that helps to improve the lives of the LGBT population.
American Psychological Association, Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents. (2008). Resilience in African American children and adolescents: A vision for optimal development. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/cyf/resilience.html
American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.pdf
American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Educational Disparities.(2012). Ethnic and racial disparities in education: Psychology’s contributions to understanding and reducing disparities. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/resources/racial-disparities.aspx
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-risk behaviors among students in grades 9–12 — youth risk behavior surveillance, selected sites, United States, 2001–2009. MMWR, 60. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss60e0606.pdf
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Faye Belgrave, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work is focused on cultural factors (gender, ethnicity, age) that affect the health and wellbeing of African American youth and young adults.
Sarah Javier is a doctoral candidate in Health Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests include developing culturally tailored prevention programs for underserved populations.
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