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Considerable research attention has been given to the development and adjustment of youth, however, relatively few studies have attended specifically to the psychosocial adjustment of sexual minority youth (i.e., youth who report other than exclusively heterosexual attractions and/or behaviors). (4) Compared to past generations, many gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents are recognizing, labeling and disclosing their same-sex attractions at younger ages, often around 10-12 years of age (D'Augelli and Hershberger, 1993; Savin-Williams, 1990, 1995). To facilitate the optimal growth and development of these adolescents, we must examine and understand the specific personal and social contextual factors that are associated with their psychosocial adjustment.
Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) provides a framework for conceptualizing how personal and social/environmental contexts interact in facilitating (or hindering) developmental outcomes. Bronfenbrenner's model posits the child at the center of multiple, interrelated systems. Individual development is conceptualized as a function of a range of proximal and distal influences. The most proximal sources of influence are individual biological and psychological characteristics of the youth. These proximal sources of influence, however, do not operate independently of the family, community, and cultural contexts in which they are embedded. To better understand the developmental outcomes of sexual minority youth, the current project examined both sexual minority and sexual majority youth, focusing on the interactions among sexual attraction status and other important developmental contexts.
Drawing on Bronfenbrenner's conceptual framework of interacting personal and environmental contexts, we postulated that sexual attraction status, sex, (5) and urbanicity would have interactive effects on important indicators of adolescent psychosocial adjustment. Biological sex is an important context that influences developmental outcomes. Identifying oneself as male or female, and being perceived as male or female, creates a social context or social status for the individual that shapes his or her experiences and his or her interpretations of those experiences (Devor, 1998). Likewise, discovering that one's sexual attractions are for same-sex individuals creates an interpersonal dilemma regarding the self-disclosure or "closeting" of sexual feelings that are still regarded and treated as "deviant" in our society. Thus, sexual attraction status, as well as sex, socially constructs a category that shapes developmental outcomes. Understanding the interacting influences of sexual attraction status and biological sex is an important research agenda that has received relatively little attention.
Even less attention has been given to the interacting influences of community and culture in understanding outcomes for sexual minority youth. We chose urbanicity as a measure of community influence for this study. Rural, urban, and suburban communities likely differ from one another in terms of economic, leisure, and social opportunities, access to mental health care and other services, and in the values and norms that are transmitted to youth (Stamm, 2003). In the following paragraphs, we briefly review previous findings regarding three important psychosocial outcomes (school belonging, self-esteem, and depression) and then hypothesize how these factors might vary in accordance with sexual attraction status, sex, and urbanicity.
A perceived sense of belonging and connection to others is a basic psychological need and fundamental human motivation. When this need is met, positive outcomes result; when this need is frustrated, individuals experience negative outcomes such as emotional distress, psychopathology, increased stress, and increased health problems (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Deci et al., 1991). A growing body of literature suggests that a perceived sense of belonging or connectedness to one's school is related to psychological adjustment factors, especially academic engagement and performance (see review in Osterman, 2000). That is, psychosocial and academic functioning is facilitated by a perceived sense of belonging, support, and acceptance from important peers and/or adults in adolescents' school contexts. Students who perceive a "caring school community" (Battistich et al., 1997) or who believe that their teachers promote mutual respect among all students (Anderman, 2002b) report a more positive sense of belonging. Without this sense of connectedness, students are at increased risk for becoming disengaged from school (Leithwood and Jantzi, 1999) and are thus more likely to drop out (Finn, 1989) and/or become involved in delinquent activities or substance abuse (Oetting and Donnermeyer, 1998).
School belonging may be particularly crucial to the psychosocial adjustment of sexual minority students. Too often, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (GLBTQ) youth must expend enormous amounts of physical and psychological energy aimed at "visibility management" (Lasser and Tharinger, 2003). Other researchers have documented that, for sexual minority youth, school environments, at best, foster not belonging, but invisibility, and, at worst, peer harassment, bullying, and aggression (Bontempo and D'Augelli, 2002; Garofalo et al., 1998; Hershberger and D'Augelli, 1995; Russell et al., 2001).
Perceived lack of social support in the educational environment is corroborated in GLSEN's (2000) national survey of GLBT youth in 32 states. Thirty-two percent of these students reported that they would be uncomfortable talking to any school staff member about sexual orientation issues. Likewise, compared to their heterosexual peers, sexual minority girls report less positive attitudes about school, less positive attitudes about their teachers, and more school troubles (Russell et al., 2001).
Others have noted that sexual prejudice towards gay individuals has been found to be particularly strong in rural areas (Herek, 1994; Moses and Buckner, 1980; Pratte. 1993), which are often more politically and religiously conservative than urban areas (Lindhorst, 1997; Rounds, 1988). Only one study has been conducted examining school belonging and sexual attraction status among rural adolescents. In this study (Rostosky et al., 2003) of 1,725 adolescents from rural Appalachian high schools, sexual minority youth were found to have significantly lower scores than sexual majority youth on an index of school belonging. Because of low numbers of sexual minority youth (n = 99) there was insufficient power for performing separate analyses for males and females. Therefore, using a national sample of adolescents, we examined school belonging for males and females in three sexual attraction groups in rural, urban, and suburban community environments.
Theory and research support the assumption that positive self-esteem serves a protective function for the development of resiliency and positive behavioral outcomes (Grotberg, 1994; Jessor, 1992; Masten and Coatsworth. 1998). For sexual minority youth, positive self-esteem and a positive view of their sexual orientation are crucial for optimal health outcomes (Hershberger and D'Augelli, 1995; Rosario et al., 2001); however, as a group, sexual minority youth have been found to have lower levels of self-esteem than sexual majority youth (Garofalo et al., 1998). Although some studies of sexual minority youth have demonstrated associations between adolescents' positive self-esteem and disclosure of sexual orientation (e.g., Boxer et al., 1999), other researchers have shown that high self-esteem does not seem to buffer sexual minority youth from stressful life events that resulted from being gay (e.g., Rosario et al., 1996). A more complex understanding of factors associated with self-esteem for sexual minority youth is a necessary step toward effective intervention with struggling gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents
Depression in adolescence has been found to be associated with aggression, antisocial behavior, school failure, anxiety, and poor peer relations (Kendall et al., 1989; Reinhertz et al., 1990; Strober et al., 1991; Yaylayan et al., 1992). …