Adoption of a gay/lesbian identity is a developmental process of recognizing, accepting, and ultimately affirming one's gay or lesbian sexual orientation that encompasses six stages.
STAGE 1: Identity Confusion – This stage is characterized by feelings of turmoil, in which one questions previously held assumptions about one's sexual orientation.
Task: Who am I? - Accept, Deny, Reject.
Possible Responses: The individual will avoid information about lesbians and gays; inhibit behavior; deny homosexuality ("experimenting," "an accident," "just drunk"). Males: May keep emotional involvement separate from sexual contact; Females: May have deep relationships that are non-sexual, though strongly emotional.
Possible Needs: The individual may explore internal positive and negative judgments. They will be permitted to be uncertain regarding sexual identity. They may find support in knowing that sexual behavior occurs along a spectrum. They may receive permission and encouragement to explore sexual identity as a normal experience (like career identity, and social identity).
STAGE 2: Identity Comparison – This stage is characterized by feelings of alienation in which one accepts that possibility of being gay or lesbian and becomes isolated from non-gay others.
Task: Deal with social alienation.
Possible Responses: They may begin to grieve for losses and the things she or he will give up by embracing their sexual orientation. They may compartmentalize their own sexuality. They accept lesbian, gay definition of behavior but maintain a "heterosexual" identity of self. They may tell themselves, "It's only temporary"; "I'm just in love with this particular woman/man"; etc.
Possible Needs: They will be very important that the person develops own definitions. They will need information about sexual identity, lesbian, gay community resources, encouragement to talk about loss of heterosexual life expectations. They may be permitted to keep some "heterosexual" identity (it is not an all or none issue).
STAGE 3: Identity Tolerance – This stage is characterized by feelings of ambivalence in which one seeks out other gays and lesbians but maintains separate public and private images.
Task: Decrease social alienation by seeking out lesbians and gays.
Possible Responses: They are beginning to have language to talk and think about the issue. They begin recognizing that being lesbian or gay does not preclude other options. They begin to accentuate the difference between themselves and heterosexuals. They seeks out lesbian and gay culture (positive contact leads to more positive sense of self, negative contact leads to devaluation of the culture, stops growth). They may try out variety of stereotypical roles.
Possible Needs: To be supported in exploring their own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as external heterosexism. They receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections. It is particularly important for the person to know community resources.
STAGE 4: Identity Acceptance – This stage is characterized by selective disclosure in which one begins the legitimization (publicly as well as privately) of one's sexual orientation.
Task: To deal with inner tension of no longer subscribing to society's norm, attempt to bring congruence between private and public view of self.
Possible Responses: They begin to accept gay or lesbian self-identification. They may compartmentalize "gay life". They maintain less and less contact with the heterosexual community. They attempts to "fit in" and "not make waves" within the gay and lesbian community. They begin some selective disclosures of sexual identity. There is more social coming out; more comfortable being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as "gay". The person begins to have more realistic evaluation of the situation.
Possible Needs: The person continues exploring grief and loss of heterosexual life expectations. They continue exploring internalized "homophobia" (learned shame for heterosexist society). They find support in making decisions about where, when, and to whom he or she self discloses.
STAGE 5: Identity Pride - Characterized by anger, pride, and activism in which one becomes immersed in the gay subculture and rejects non-gay people, institutions, and values.
Task: Deal with incongruent views of heterosexuals.
Possible Responses: The person splits the world into "gay" (good) and "straight" (bad). They experience disclosure crises with heterosexuals, as he or she is less willing to blend in. The person identifies gay culture as sole source of support; all gay friends, business connections, social connections.
Possible Needs: The individual receives support for exploring anger issues. They find support for exploring issues of heterosexism. They then develop skills for coping with reactions and responses to disclosure of sexual identity. The person resists being defensive!
STAGE 6: Identity Synthesis – The person is characterized by clarity and acceptance in which they move beyond the dichotomized worldview to an incorporation of one's sexual orientation as one aspect of a more integrated identity.
Task: Integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is one aspect of self.
Possible Responses: The individual continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity. They allow the trust of others to increase and build. Their gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of "self." They feel all right to move out into the community and not simply define space according to sexual orientation.
Possible Needs: They may continue to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity. They allow the trust of others to increase and build. Their gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of "self." The person feels all right to move out into the community and not simply define space according to sexual orientation.
Source: Adapted from Cass, V. Homosexual Identity Development, 1979.
The Stages of Coming Out
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