Much research has been conducted on the development of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer (LGBTQ) identity, and the most prominent model is still from Cass (1979). The following stages again are only meant to be a sketch of the path that many people walk. Additionally, every time I write or teach this model, I am always brought to a deeper awareness of how powerful social support and existing culture structures can be in this progression. Also of note, this model also applies to women who identify as lesbians or as bisexual, but the wording here is changed since the focus of this website is on the psychology of men.
Confusion: the person is in a stage of questioning his sexual identity, and ultimately from this stage the person will either accept, deny, or reject the answers they find to their questions. Since this is often the first stage that people go through, the socio-political factors in their culture can play an enormous role in how the confusion is experienced. In an environment of acceptance and exploration this can be a more comfortable self-discovery process, whereas for others it can bring destructive feelings of shame.
Comparison: the person accepts the possibility that he might be gay, bisexual, or transgendered (when one’s gender identity does not match with one’s biological identity). In this stage the person can experience some degree of social isolation, again depending on the environment that he/she exists in. Some common elements of this stage are compartmentalizing sexual identity, and maintaining a heterosexual identity other than they sexual behavior, and focus on attraction to individual people rather than a broader range of people.
Tolerance: the person recognizes the psychological and emotional needs in identifying as gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and seeks out other people in the LGBTQ community for support. This stage leads to a decrease in the social isolation of the previous stage and begins a deeper sense of integration of sexuality into one’s larger identity.
Acceptance: the person accepts his identity as part of the LGBTQ community, and makes increasing social contact. It is important to note the semantic difference between “tolerance” of the previous stage and “acceptance”, and this change makes up the essence of this stage transition. Other parts of this stage include trying to fit in and be accepted by the LGBTQ community and enters deeper into the process of “coming out”.
Pride: the person moves from acceptance to pride in his identity and comes out to most people. Often this stage is accompanied with some intense in-group attitudes and occasionally some hostility toward the homophobic dominant culture.
Synthesis: the person completes his identity by making his sexual identity an integrated part of self rather than the dominant feature of his identity. The anger toward heterosexism becomes somewhat reduced, although for most people there is a permanent awareness of how their culture discriminates against them.
There are a variety of other factors that are also related to the process that are unique to GBTQ men’s lives. The following is only a brief overview, but they are all important to consider in identity development at each stage.
GBTQ men often have to deal with some form of homophobia, which is a bias against their sexual identity. This can be seen from overt media portrayal of negatively stereotyped fictional characters, but also in overt workplace and social discrimination, and at worst in hate crimes. Homophobia is often one of the major barriers to navigate for people to move into acceptance of their sexual identity, and it is one of the major frontiers of social activism in a variety of parts of the United States.
Sexual Choice Bias
A specific form of homophobia is choice bias, which is the belief that GBTQ men have a choice in their sexual interest. Bisexual men often have more difficulty with this since bisexuality is often viewed by the larger culture as “a phase” or that the person “can’t make up his mind.” Gay men encounter the same issue when they are faced with the idea that they choose to be attracted to men, the underlying assumption being that they must have some form of dysfunction to be making that choice (Wester, 2007).
Additionally, up until very recently, interest in changing one’s sexual orientation was considered a valid mental health diagnosis, and there are still groups that attempt to practice “conversion therapy” to help this change. A recent example of this was when anti-gay evangelical Christian pastor Ted Haggard was found to have a male lover. He underwent some form of conversion therapy and claims that he has now changed. Fortunately, part of the changing socio-political climate in the US is due to greater understanding of there being an underlying genetic structure to sexual orientation.
One of the major tasks for a non-heterosexual person is “coming out” which is the process of disclosing their sexual orientation. Family culture, level of others’ knowledge of sexual diversity, and others’ level of affirmation toward LGBTQ people are key factors in this process, which can range from smooth and supportive to destructive and wounding. Often people seek support in the LGBTQ community before they go through this process, and although much change is being made, many people still have very difficult experiences in this disclosure, particularly from close family members.
- Brammer (2004). Diversity in Counseling. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Cass (1979). Homosexual identity develop.
- Wester (2007). Male Gender Role Conflict and Multiculturalism: Implications for Counseling Psychology.