Gillings School research finds that gender-typical behavior does not predict sexual orientation

December 21, 2018

A recent longitudinal study from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is the first to examine changes in gendered behavior prospectively through multiple stages of development. These findings suggest that gender-typical behavior from adolescence to early adulthood is not predictive of sexual orientation.

Dr. Nicole Kahn

Dr. Nicole Kahn

Dr. Carolyn Halpern

Dr. Carolyn Halpern

Nicole Kahn, PhD, former doctoral student and now adjunct assistant professor of maternal and child health at the Gillings School, is lead author of the paper, “Is Developmental Change in Gender-Typed Behavior Associated With Adult Sexual Orientation?” which was published online Dec. 13, in the journal Developmental Psychology. Carolyn T. Halpern, PhD, professor and chair of the Gillings School’s Department of Maternal and Child Health, is a co-author.

The article uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), a large, nationally representative sample of more than 20,745 in-school adolescents in the seventh through 12th grades during the 1994-1995 school year. The team analyzed respondents’ answers to questions relevant to age, gender-typical behavior and their sexual orientation at three developmental stages – adolescence, emerging adulthood and early adulthood.

Halpern said this is an important addition to the growing research on gender conformity and sexual orientation because it covers a broader sample over a longer period of time.

“By using Add Health, we had access to a large, diverse, population-representative sample,” she said. “We were able to look at behavior prospectively from early adolescence well into adulthood, that is, information was collected from individuals as they were aging. This is important because there can be bias when one looks from adulthood back into the past to analyze their own behaviors and attitudes.”

The researchers used a model that examined change in adherence to gender-typical behavior, an innovative method that measures how much a person does or does not look like the other people in their cohort in terms of gender-typical behavior and attitudes. The content of questions in the survey changed at each developmental stage for relevance and age-appropriateness. For sexual orientation, at each stage, both males and females answered whether they considered themselves 100-percent heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly homosexual or 100-percent homosexual.

The team found that adherence to gender-typical behaviors varied widely both within and between sexual orientation groups, as well as over time, suggesting no strong relationship exists between changes in gender-typical behavior and sexual orientation, said Halpern.

“Documenting the great variability in gender expression over time that is evident for all these groups is important because we know that gender nonconformity, in terms of behavior, mannerisms, dress and style, can precipitate harsh treatment and negative perceptions that lead to discriminatory behavior and bullying,” she said. “Understanding and accepting this variation perhaps can help decrease discriminatory behavior.”


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Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@listserv.unc.edu.

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