Gay and Lesbian Development

Gay and Lesbian Identity Development Model  (Cass Identity Model)

COMING OUT is a life-long process of exploring one’s sexual orientation and LGBTQ identity and sharing it with family, friends, co-workers and the world. It is one of the most significant developmental processes in the lives of LGBTQ people. Coming Out is about recognizing, accepting, expressing and sharing ones’ sexual orientation with oneself and others.

Stage 1: Identity Confusion

This is the “Who am I?” stage associated with the feeling that one is different from peers, accompanied by a growing sense of personal alienation and feelings of turmoil. The person begins to be conscious of same-sex feelings or behaviors and to label them as such. It is rare at this stage for the person to disclose inner turmoil to others.

Developmental Task: Who am I? – Acceptance, Denial, Rejection.

Possible Responses: Will avoid information about other LGBTQ individuals; inhibit behavior; deny homosexuality (“I was experimenting,” “it was an accident,” “I was just drunk”).  Males: May separate emotional involvement and sexual contact; Females: May have deep relationships that are non-sexual, though strongly emotional.

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


Stage 2: Identity Comparison

This is the rationalization or bargaining stage where the person thinks, “I may be a homosexual, but then again I may be bisexual,” “Maybe this is just temporary,” or, “My feelings of attraction are simply for just one other person of my own sex and this is a special case.” There is a heightened sense of not belonging anywhere with the corresponding feeling that “I am the only one in the world like this.”

Developmental 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 sexuality.  Accepts LGBTQ 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 nothing issue).


Stage 3: Identity Tolerance

The person begins to contact other LGBTQ people to counteract feelings of isolation and alienation, but merely tolerates rather than fully accepts a LGBTQ identity.  The feeling of not belonging with heterosexuals becomes stronger.  Individual may maintains separate public and private images.

Positive contacts can have the effect of making other gay and lesbian people appear more significant and more positive to the person at this stage, leading to a more favorable sense of self and a greater commitment to a homosexual self-identity.

Developmental Task: Decrease social alienation by seeking other LGBTQ.

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 LGBTQ 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.

Stage 4: “Identity Acceptance”

There is continued and increased contact with other gay and/or lesbian people in this stage, where friendships start to form. The individual thus evaluates other lesbian and gay people more positively and accepts rather than merely tolerates a LGBTQ self-image.  The earlier questions of “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” have been answered.

Coping strategies for handling incongruity at this stage include continuing to pass as heterosexual, and limiting contacts with heterosexuals who threaten to increase incongruity (e.g. some family members and/or peers).  The person can also selectively disclose a homosexual identity to significant heterosexuals.

Developmental 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 expectations. 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.

Stage 5: “Identity Pride”

The individual develops an awareness of the enormous incongruity that exists between the person’s increasingly positive concept of self as lesbian or gay and an awareness of society’s rejection of this orientation.  The person feels anger at heterosexuals and devalues many of their institutions (e.g. marriage, gender-role structures, etc.) The person discloses her or his identity to more and more people and wishes to be immersed in the gay or lesbian subculture consuming its literature, art, and other forms of culture.  For some at this stage, the combination of anger and pride energizes the person into action against perceived homophobia producing an “activist.”

Developmental Task: Deal with incongruent views of heterosexuals.

Possible Responses: Splits world into “gay” (good) and “straight” (bad).  Experiences disclosures with heterosexuals (repeated ‘coming outs’), as he or she is less willing to blend in.  May over identify gay community 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 of sexual identity. Resist being defensive!

Stage 6: “Identity Synthesis”

Characterized by clarity and acceptance in which one moves beyond the dichotomized worldview to an incorporation of one’s sexual orientation as one aspect of a more integrated identity.  May also involve intense anger at heterosexuals — the “them and us” attitude that may be evident in stage 5 — softens at this stage to reflect a recognition that some heterosexuals are supportive and can be trusted.  However, those who are not supportive are further devalued.  There remains some anger at the ways that lesbians and gays are treated in this society, but this is less intense.  The person retains a deep sense of pride but now comes to perceive less of a dichotomy between the heterosexual and gay and lesbian communities.  LGBTQ identity becomes an integral and integrated aspect of the individual’s complete personality structure.

Developmental Task: Integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is one 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.

Possible Needs: 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.

Adapted from Vivian Cass (1979, 1984, 1990). In Ritter and Terndrup (2002)

Handbook of Affirmative Psychotherapy with Lesbians and Gay Men