Unique study compares health of LGB age groups
by Matthew S. Bajko
A unique study enrolling participants in the Bay Area is comparing the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in three distinct age groups.
The Generations Study is affiliated with the California Center for Population Research at UCLA and is funded by a five-year $3.4 million federal grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
In conjunction with the Generations study, researchers at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, Columbia University and the Fenway Institute at Fenway Health are looking at similar health issues in various age groups of transgender people.
Researchers involved in the project say it is the first to take a historical approach to examining how different generations of LGBT people have been impacted by both discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and the advancement of rights won by the LGBT community during their lifetimes.
"No study has been done like this before," said Phillip L. Hammack, an associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Psychology at UC Santa Cruz who is one of the Generations study's seven investigators. "The vast majority of research on LGBT people doesn't take a historical perspective. What I mean is, for example, most research out there focuses on people's experience in the moment."
When it comes to examining the stress people have experienced due to being LGBT, Hammack, 39, who is gay, said most research hasn't been designed to look at whether there is variability based on the time periods in which people grew up.
"Sometimes the emphasis is on where people grew up in different parts of the country. A key part of LGBT people's experience depends on when they grew up and when they were born," said Hammack, who is also the director of the Politics, Culture, Identity Lab at UC Santa Cruz. "The assumption is all LGBT people experience some of the same issues. We assume growing up in different historical contexts is going to affect how people function psychologically and think about their identity and health."
In addition to the team at UC Santa Cruz, researchers from UCLA, UCSF, the University of Arizona, Columbia University, and the University of Texas at Austin are working collaboratively on the Generations study, which was launched in September 2014. The study's principal investigator is Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., a Williams Distinguished Senior Scholar for Public Policy at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA's School of Law.
"We are looking to assess how improvements in the social environment of LGB people, such as the expansion of same-sex marriages, affect the life and health of LGB people and what implications these changes may have to policies such as the delivery of social and health services," stated Meyer last year in a news release announcing the study.
The Generations study is recruiting LGB participants from three distinct age groups. The youngest, what the researchers have designated as the Equality Generation, were born in the 1990s and are now 18 to 25 years old.
"These young LGBT people, the Equality Generation, have grown up with the struggle for marriage equality primarily as the major social issue or civil rights issue during their lifetime," said Hammack.
The second generation in the study was born mostly in the 1970s and is in their late 30s or early 40s today. The researchers are calling them the AIDS Generation because they came of age when the LGBT community's main focus was on preventing HIV and securing funding for programs to care for those living with HIV or AIDS.
The third age group are LGB people in their 50s and are being referred to as the Post Stonewall Generation because they came of age following the 1969 riots that occurred at the New York gay bar called the Stonewall Inn.
They benefited from the LGBT civil rights movement that came after Stonewall, noted Hammack, and the social changes it ushered in. But they also lost more people, whether friends or loved ones, to AIDS than the younger generations.
"With this older generation we think of the year 2003 being really significant. It was the year the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and was also the year Lawrence vs. Texas struck down sodomy laws," said Hammack. "This generation was in their 40s at that time. We think it may have changed the nature of their middle adulthood experience. They had gone through the AIDS era and now are experiencing the equality era in their middle age."
The data for the Generations study is coming from two different sources. In-person interviews lasting up to three hours are being conducted with 180 people – 60 from each generational cohort – in the Bay Area; Tucson, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and the New York City region.
Starting in January, another group of 700 LGB people from across the country will be surveyed via telephone by polling company Gallup. They will be asked to take part in a second telephone-based survey in 2018; both surveys will likely take about an hour to complete.
"This study is needed, from my perspective, because the knowledge we have about LGBT people is rapidly becoming dated," said Hammack. "Social change is happening so quickly for LGBT people. Not only do we need to update our knowledge, we also need to change our research designs so they take into account social change."
In response to the Bay Area Reporter 's request to interview people who have participated to date, Hammack said the study's Institutional Review Board would not allow him to disclose any of the actual participants.
Instead, the B.A.R. was allowed to speak with Erin Toolis, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student who is a lead interviewer and project coordinator for the study. Toolis, 29, who is straight and earning a Ph.D. in social psychology, has conducted 30 of the 38 interviews with Bay Area LGB participants in the study.
The questions they are asked range the gamut, said Toolis, from delving into participants' life stories and how they understand their identity to what community they belong to and how are their sex lives and personal relationships. Questions also probe how (or if) they access health care, what stresses they face, and how they are coping.
"I have been really touched by how invested people are and wanting to take part in something to help the community address the issues they are facing," said Toolis.
The interviews are often "really revealing," she said, about not just the inequality, difficulties and injustices people have faced during their lifetimes but also on how they have overcome those challenges and persevered.
"It can be really heartbreaking," Toolis said. "One really positive thing is how people channel that into a desire to stand up when they see things that are wrong and stand up for people who are different from themselves."
Toolis demurred when asked about differences she has noticed between the age groups since the study is ongoing. Though she did say that the fight for marriage equality has been a constant theme.
"With a lot of people, marriage equality comes up in almost all the interviews. It is definitely on people's minds," said Toolis, adding that, "in all the interviews people talk about how there is still so much progress to be had. This is certainly not the end."
LGB people from the Bay Area are still needed to take part in the in-person interviews. The researchers are particularly interested in talking to people in the older Post Stonewall Generation as well as Native American and Alaskan Native LGB people from any of the three age groups.
Those who qualify for the study will receive $75 after completing the survey process.
For more information about the Generations study, and to fill out an eligibility survey online, visit http://www.generations-study.com/. Those interested in taking part can also call (408) 479-4608.