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Theories and Models of Development

The Cass Model:Using Theory to Understand Gay and Lesbian Identity Development

There are many different models and theories used to describe sexual orientation development among Lesbian and Gay individuals. However, because each person has their own unique story, there is no particular model or theory that can describe all people and their development. Each person develops due to many various life factors and experiences. Some factors and experiences are still not yet account for within theory and research. Some factors, influences, and experiences include ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, ability, etc. Because there are some many differences, be prepared for these differences among the students and individuals that you meet and interact with.

One of the foundational theories of gay and lesbian identity development was developed in 1979 by Vivian Cass and is one of the most widely reference psychosocial model. Cass described a process of six stages of gay and lesbian identity development. The stages help explain a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and therefore help us know how to provide support.  While these stages are sequential, some people might revisit stages at different points in their life.  Following are brief descriptions of the six stages. 

Remember that models are generalizations, and may not completely describe any one individual’s experience. Not everyone will move through all of the stages. However, understanding theories and models does provide some explanation of an individual’s identity development and helps us predict some of the development they have ahead of them in order to support them.  

1.  Identify Confusion: “Could I be gay?”  This stage begins with the person’s first awareness of gay or lesbian thoughts, feelings, and attractions.  The person typically feels confused and experiences turmoil.

Task: Who am I? – Accept, Deny, Reject.

Possible Responses: 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: May explore internal positive and negative judgments.  Will be permitted to be uncertain regarding sexual identity.  May find support in knowing that sexual behavior occurs along a spectrum.  May receive permission and encouragement to explore sexual identity as a normal experience (like career identity, and social identity).

2.  Identity Comparison: “Maybe this does apply to me.”  In this stage, the person accepts the possibility of being gay or lesbian and examines the wider implications of that tentative commitment.  Self-alienation becomes isolation.

Task: Deal with social alienation.

Possible Responses: May begin to grieve for losses and the things she or he will give up by embracing their sexual orientation.  May compartmentalize their own sexuality.  Accepts lesbian, gay definition of behavior but maintains “heterosexual” identity of self.  Tells oneself, “It’s only temporary”; I’m just in love with this particular woman/man,” etc.

Possible Needs: 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 (it is not an all or none issue).

3.  Identity Tolerance: “I’m not the only one.”  The person acknowledges that he or she is likely gay or lesbian and seeks out other gay and lesbian people to combat feelings of isolation.  Increased commitment to being lesbian or gay.

Task: Decrease social alienation by seeking out lesbians and gays.

Possible Responses: Beginning to have language to talk and think about the issue.  Recognition 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).  May try out variety of stereotypical roles.

Possible Needs: Be supported in exploring own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as external heterosexism.  Receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections.  It is particularly important for the person to know community resources.

4.  Identity Acceptance: “I will be okay.”  The person attaches a positive connotation to his or her gay or lesbian identity and accepts rather than tolerates it.  There is continuing and increased contact with the gay and lesbian culture.

Task: 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: Accepts gay or lesbian self-identification.  May compartmentalize “gay life.”  Maintains less and less contact with 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.

Possible Needs: Continue exploring grief and loss of heterosexual life expectation.  Continue exploring internalized “homophobia” (learned shame for heterosexist society.)  Find support in making decisions about where, when, and to whom he or she self discloses.

5.  Identity Pride: “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-them quality to political/social viewpoint.

Task: Deal with incongruent views of heterosexuals.

Possible Responses: Splits world into “gay” (good) and “straight” (bad).  Experiences disclosure crises with heterosexuals as he or she is less willing to “blend in.”  Identifies gay culture as sole source of support; all gay friends, business connections, social connections.

Possible Needs: Receive support for exploring anger issues.  Find support for exploring issues of heterosexism.  Develop skills for coping with reactions and responses to disclosure to sexual identity.  Resist being defensive!

6.  Identity Synthesis: The person integrates his or her sexual identity with all other aspects of self, and sexual orientation becomes only one aspect of self rather than the entire identity.

Task: Integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is an aspect of self.

Possible Responses: Continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity.  Allows trust of others to increase and build.  Gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of “self.”  Feels all right to move out into the community and not simply define space according to sexual orientation.

Sources:

  • Cass, V. C. (1979).  Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model.  Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.
  • Abilock, T. (2001). USF Safe Zone Ally Manual, unpublished document.

 

 

Becoming Bisexual

Understanding one’s identity as bisexual involves the rejection of both a purely heterosexual and homosexual identity.

Remember that models are generalizations, and may not completely describe any one individual’s experience. Not everyone will move through all of the stages. However, understanding theories and models does provide some explanation of an individual’s identity development and helps us predict some of the development they have ahead of them in order to support them.  

  • Stage 1: Initial Confusion

This first stage in bisexual identity development is characterized by considerable confusion, doubt, and struggle. A person discovers their sexual attraction to both sexes as unsettling, disorienting, and sometimes frightening.  Much confusion stems from attempting to understand one’s self as either gay or straight (one or the other).

  • Stage 2: Finding and Applying the Label

For many, simply discovering the term “bisexual” serves as a turning point in their identity development. For others, a major step forward occurs as one realizes that sexual experiences with both sexes are desirable, or that one’s continued and on-going feelings for both sexes does not require making a choice between them. Individuals begin to seek encouragement and support from other bisexuals, organizations, and community.

  • Stage 3: Settling into the Identity

Individuals become more self-accepting and less concerned with the negative attitudes of others about their bisexuality. They surround themselves with friends and community who are supportive of their sexual orientation.

  • Stage 4: Continued Uncertainty

This stage is unique to bisexual identity, with intermittent periods of doubt and uncertainty regarding one’s sexual identity despite a strong self-identity as bisexual. This may be due to a lack of social validation for bisexuals, coming from both the heterosexual and homosexual community, as well as the ever-changing circumstances of one’s relationships.

Adapted from The Off Pink Collective. (1988). Bisexual lives.  London: Off Pink Publishing.