Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

April 9, 2005

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity Development

By Molly Keeton, Ph.D.

Recently, there have been several articles on the Karuna web page about the coming out process. This article will look more in depth at the various stages of recognizing, identifying, accepting, and sharing non-heterosexual identity. I will be using the work of researchers within the field of psychology (Troiden, Cass, Coleman) who have attempted to summarize this process and identify its most common elements.

A model or summary can provide a framework for your experience(s), which helps to show that you are not alone and that your struggles have been an inherent part of the process, rather than some sort of personal inadequacy or weakness. However, it is very clear that not everyone’s experience can be fit into a model. In reading about these stages, keep in mind that they may or may not exactly apply to your life experience. If it is not helpful or comfortable for you to compare yourself to these models, then don’t. By no means should these models be used to stereotype, stigmatize or pathologize any individual’s process.

The models of GLB identity formation assume that identity development occurs through several stages over a period of time that varies by person. Identity development is a fluid process, and not all people will go through every single stage or go through them in any particular order. Although the lower stages generally must be achieved before the higher stages, not all people start at stage I. Also, GLB individuals are unlikely to go through these stages in a linear fashion. In fact, you might imagine the process more like a spiral lying on its side. As you move forward along the spiral, you will be cycling back through old stuff. So, individuals can cycle back through earlier stages at any time or even be in more than one stage at one time. For example, even a person who generally feels positive, accepting, and proud of their sexual orientation (stage IV) may have moments of shame, doubt, or fear of discovery (stage II).

Stage I – Sensitization

This first stage of non-heterosexual identity formation generally takes place before puberty. Oftentimes, GLB people look back on childhood and say they always just felt “different” or like they didn’t belong. Later they might attribute this to being gay/bisexual, but most do not identify it as such at the time (one study showed that only 8% of participants labeled them self as gay/bisexual during childhood). Sometimes this sense of not belonging can lead to childhood depression, anxiety, acting out with behavioral problems, physical illness, or even suicidal gestures.

Stage II – Identity Confusion

In the second stage, the GLB individual begins to identify and label their feelings as gay, lesbian, or bi-sexual. Because they always before assumed that they were or should be heterosexual, they may have difficulty reconciling this conflict. They may have a sense of cognitive dissonance, where their feelings or actions do not match their earlier beliefs (that they are straight, are supposed to be straight, or will be damned for not being straight). Just as the individual is beginning to get in touch with his/her true feelings, s/he is also coping with the stigma about being GLB, not having many positive GLB role models, and being surrounded by misinformation about GLB individuals. In stage II, the individual must begin to let go of the old identity or belief system before s/he has fully formed a new identity, which can be like letting go of one trapeze while falling through the air and waiting for the next trapeze to fly your way.

Given the obstacle of this, GLB individuals use different coping strategies while in stage II. A typical response is “denial,” or refusing to acknowledge GLB feelings or desires. They may also use “repair,” or attempting to get rid of the GLB feelings (it is in this stage that individuals might try to convert back to heterosexuality. Some may even seek conversion therapy, which is discriminatory and not condoned by the American Psychological Association). Another strategy for coping with GLB feelings includes “avoidance.” Avoidance can come in a variety of forms, such as trying to inhibit sexual feelings; avoiding any reminders of sexual attraction; avoiding the opposite sex so no one will notice their lack of interest; displaying homophobic attitudes to fool themselves or others; or abusing substances as a way to escape. A fourth basic strategy happens when one “redefines” their feelings/actions as isolated events or an experimental phase. Lastly, a GLB individual may >“accept” their non-hetero thoughts/feelings and begin the process of gathering positive information and support (stage III).

Stage III – Identity Assumption

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people make several crucial transitions in stage III. They begin to replace past negative beliefs about their sexuality with more positive and accepting ones. This is also a time of exploring the new culture(s), sexual experimentation and/or first relationships, and trying on of new roles, behaviors, and self-perceptions.

Initial experiences with other GLB individuals can be very influential. Negative experiences may lead to further denial of the GLB identity and ongoing homophobic attitudes. Negative experiences can also lead to means of coping that are not always constructive, including “capitulation,” or avoiding all same sex activity;“minstrelization” or adopting highly stereotypic behavior; “passing,” which leads to the stress of living a double life; and/or “group alignment,” or avoiding all reminders of heterosexuality by limiting involvement only to GLB communities.

On the other hand, positive experiences in stage III allow GLB individuals to learn about the GLB cultures and communities while finally finding a group to which they can belong. This may be the first exposure to positive GLB role models, who can teach healthy strategies for managing homophobia, encourage integration of the GLB identity with other identities (ethnic, cultural, religious, ability status, etc.), confront the tendency to see oneself only in a sexual way, and encourage pride.

Stage IV – Commitment

In this stage the individual comes to a greater acceptance of and comfort with their GLB identity. This stage is also sometimes called “integration” and is seen as a time when all identities are integrated into one self-image (for example, “I may be gay, but I am also a Catholic, a father, an attorney, and a republican). With this stage comes a greater sense of empowerment, satisfaction, pride, contentment, higher self-esteem, and more successful romantic relationships.

Because homophobia will continue to be a part of life for the gay, lesbian, bisexual person, 3 new strategies may replace past means of coping with stigma. These include “blending,” which occurs when the individual neither denies nor confesses their GLB identity. They may simply view this as irrelevant to certain situations and elect to not make it an issue. The second strategy is that of “covering,” or being out of the closet in some circumstances/social groups while concealing it in others. Given the potential danger in some situations, covering is an adaptive and, at times, necessary strategy. The third strategy is “converting,” where non-heterosexuality is seen as a valid lifestyle that evokes pride. Homophobia is recognized as a form of social oppression, and the individual works to educate the public in attempt to break down stereotypes and decrease discrimination.

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