Although changes in sexual identity are possible over time, very little research has examined such changes B and none among both male and female youths. In this report, we found evidence of both considerable consistency and change in GLB sexual identity over time. Youths who identified as gay/lesbian prior to baseline were overwhelmingly consistent in this identity. In contrast, many youths who identified as bisexual or as both gay/lesbian and bisexual prior to baseline later identified as gay/lesbian. These findings suggest that, although there were youths who consistently self-identified as bisexual throughout the study, for other youths a bisexual identity served as a transitional identity to a subsequent gay/lesbian identity.
At the individual level, we found three patterns of sexual identity over time: consistently gay/lesbian, transiting from bisexual to gay/lesbian, and consistently bisexual. Of the youths, 72% consistently identified as gay/lesbian or bisexual over time. This finding of consistency is similar to past research (Diamond, 2000
: 70%), despite differences between the two samples on gender, ethnicity, recruitment site, and length of follow-up.
Youths who changed sexual identities were hypothesized to report experiencing psychosexual and sociosexual milestones of identity formation more recently than youths whose sexual identity remained consistently gay/lesbian. For the psychosexual milestones, we found no support for this hypothesis at the multivariate level, given both nonsignificant differences and small effect sizes. One explanation for the null findings is that psychosocial factors (e.g., a family with strong anti-gay attitudes, experiences of ridicule, greater internalized homophobia) may delay some youths from developing a consistent GLB identity or may lead some youths to adopt a bisexual identity before identifying as gay/lesbian. For the sociosexual milestones, however, we found that among the consistently gay/lesbian youths more time had passed since they experienced sociosexual milestones than was the case among consistently bisexual youths or youths who transited from a bisexual to gay/lesbian identity.
Consistent with social psychological theory regarding congruence among affect, cognition, and behavior, and as hypothesized, we found that changes in sexual identity were significantly and strongly associated with current sexual orientation and sexual behaviors. The differences in sexual orientation and sexual behavior between consistently gay/lesbian youths and youths who transited to a gay/lesbian identity suggest that, even after adopting a gay/lesbian identity, discrepancies between the new identity and subsequent sexual orientation and behavior continue to exist. Indeed, the observed decrease in the magnitude of these differences over time suggests that even after the adoption of a gay/lesbian identity, transited youths continue to change their orientation and behavior to match their new sexual identity. The findings of congruence between sexual identity, orientation, and behavior appear, at first, to contrast with previous research on adults that has found that many individuals with same-sex attractions and behavior do not identify as GLB (Laumann et al., 1994
). However, among those in the Laumann et al. study who did identify as GLB (as do these youths), even higher levels of congruence were found.
Changes in sexual identity were hypothesized to be associated with corresponding changes in aspects of the identity integration process. Indeed, we found that consistently gay/lesbian youths differed from youths who transited between bisexual to gay/lesbian identities. The differences indicated that even after youths self-identify as gay/lesbian, a great deal of change may continue to take place in many aspects of sexuality. Thus, acceptance, commitment, and integration of a gay/lesbian identity is an ongoing developmental process that, for many youths, may extend through adolescence and beyond.
As hypothesized, consistently bisexual youths scored significantly lower than consistently gay/bisexual youths on most markers of identity integration. These data may indicate that consistently bisexual youths take a longer period of time to form and integrate their sexual identity than do consistently gay/lesbian youths. The data also may indicate that consistently bisexual youths experience more cognitive dissonance than consistently gay/lesbian youths. Clearly, more research into the similarities and differences between bisexual and gay/lesbian youths is needed, with follow-up of samples through adolescence and perhaps into adulthood.
Considerable interest has been expressed in potential gender differences in sexual identity development (e.g., Dubé & Savin-Williams, 1999
; Rosario et al., 1996
; Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2000
). We found that female youths were significantly more likely than male peers to identify consistently as gay/lesbian than to change identities. These findings challenge past research suggesting that the sexual identity of females is more fluid than that of males (e.g., Baumeister, 2000
; Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995
; Peplau, 2003
; Rust, 1993
). However, because studies of change in sexual identity have been conducted among single-sex samples of females (e.g., Diamond, 2000
; Sophie, 1986
), any observed changes may have generated an impression of plasticity, when such a hypothesis could not be tested without comparable data on males. Another indicator of the fluidity hypothesis would be a higher prevalence of bisexuality among female than male youths. However, we found that female youths were no more likely to self-identify as consistently bisexual than were male youths. This finding, although at odds with some cross-sectional findings (Dempsey et al., 2001
; Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2000
), is consistent with other cross-sectional findings (Narring et al., 2003
). In addition, we found no gender differences in the relation between sexual identity and aspects of sexual identity formation or integration. These findings indicate a similar process of sexual identity development between male and female youths. Because the current study is the first, to our knowledge, to have data on changes in sexual identity over time among both male and female youths, we advocate for more longitudinal research on gender differences in sexual identity.
The study findings are tempered by potential study limitations. First, our sample was recruited from gay-focused organizations and, therefore, the extent to which the findings generalize to a more heterogenous sample of GLB youths is unknown. However, given that the youths in the current sample were no more consistent in their sexual identity than lesbian and bisexual youths recruited from both gay- and non-gay venues (Diamond, 2000
), we do not believe this to be a major limitation. Second, the size of the sample was modest. However, it had sufficient power to detect a medium effect and it was much larger than past research studies on changes in sexual identity (e.g., Diamond, 2000
; Sophie, 1986
). Furthermore, the nonsignificant results had effect sizes that were quite small, demonstrating their unimportance. Finally, we followed the youths prospectively for a single year. However, because the developmental task of adolescence is identity formation and integration (Erikson, 1950
) and because adolescence extends through approximately age 25 in the United States (e.g., Jessor, Donovan, & Costa, 1991
), we advocate that future research follow individuals through their twenties, allowing researchers to obtain a more thorough understanding of the process of sexual identity development. Our data, although limited to a one-year follow-up period, lend support and provide a rationale for the importance of longitudinal assessments of sexual identity development.