Gay and Lesbian Identity Integration Model
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.
In the first stage, identity confusion, the person is amazed to think of themselves as a gay person. “Could I be gay?” This stage begins with the person’s first awareness of gay or lesbian thoughts, feelings, and attractions. The people typically feel confused and experience turmoil.
Possible responses can be: to avoid information about lesbians and gays; inhibited behavior; self-denial of homosexuality (“experimenting”, “an accident”, “just drunk”, “just looking”). Men often keep emotional involvement separated from sexual contact; women often have deep, strongly emotional but non-sexual relationships.
The possible needs can be: the person may explore internal positive and negative judgments; will be allowed to be uncertain regarding sexual identity; may find support in knowing that sexual behavior occurs along a spectrum, receives permission and encouragement to explore sexual identity as a normal experience (like career identity and social identity).
The second stage is called identity comparison. In this stage, the person accepts the possibility of being gay or lesbian and examines the wider implications of that tentative commitment. “Maybe this does apply to me.” The self-alienation becomes isolation. The task is to deal with the social alienation.
Possible responses can be: the person may begin to grieve for losses and the things they give up by embracing their sexual orientation (marriage, children). Therefore, they may compartmentalize their own sexuality—accept lesbian/gay definition of behavior but maintain “heterosexual” identity.
The possible needs can be: will be very important that the person develops own definitions; will need information about sexual identity, lesbian, gay community resources, encouragement to talk about loss of heterosexual life expectations; may be permitted to keep some “heterosexual” identity (as “not an all or none” issue).
In the third stage, identity tolerance, the person comes to the understanding they are “not the only one”.
The person acknowledges they are likely gay or lesbian and seeks out other gay and lesbian people to combat feelings of isolation. There is increased commitment to being lesbian or gay. Therefore, the task is to decrease social alienation by seeking out lesbians and gays.
Possible responses can be: beginning to have language to talk and think about the issue; recognizing that being lesbian or gay does not preclude other options; accentuates difference between self and heterosexuals; 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).
The possible needs can be: to be supported in exploring own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as internalized homophobia. So, it is important individuals receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections. Above all, it is particularly important for the person to know community resources.
The identity acceptance stage means the person accepts themselves. The person attaches a positive connotation to their gay or lesbian identity and accepts rather than tolerates it. There is continuing and increased contact with gay and lesbian culture. The task is 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 can be: accepts gay or lesbian self-identification; may compartmentalize “gay life”; maintains less and less contact with the heterosexual community; attempts to “fit in” and “not make waves” within the gay and lesbian community, begins some selective disclosures of sexual identity, more social coming out; more comfortable being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as “gay”; more realistic evaluation of situation.
The possible needs can be: continue exploring grief and loss of heterosexual life expectation, continue exploring internalized homophobia (learned shame from heterosexist society); find support in making decisions about where, when, and to whom to disclose.
In the identity pride stage, sometimes the coming out of the closet arrives, and the main thinking is “I’ve got to let people know who I am!” The person divides the world into heterosexuals and homosexuals, and is immersed in gay and lesbian culture while minimizing contact with heterosexuals. Us vs. them quality to political/social viewpoint. The task is to deal with the incongruent views of heterosexuals.
Possible responses include: splits world into “gay” (good) and “straight” (bad); experiences disclosure crises with heterosexuals as they are less willing to “blend in”; identifies gay culture as sole source of support, acquiring all gay friends, business connections, and social connections.
The possible needs can be: to receive support for exploring anger issues, to find support for exploring issues of heterosexism, to develop skills for coping with reactions and responses to disclosure to sexual identity, and to resist being defensive.
The last stage in Cass’ model is identity synthesis: the person integrates their sexual identity with all other aspects of self, and sexual orientation becomes only one aspect of self rather than the entire identity.
The task is to integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is an aspect of self.
Possible responses can be: continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity, or allows trust of others to increase and build. 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.
If you are struggling with issues related to sexual orientation or the “coming out” process, click here to see why finding a counselor who understands the needs of the LGBT community is so important.