It was 1979 and I was 13 when the beautiful new girl in school, with long brown hair and green eyes, approached the locker next to mine. Obviously struggling to satisfy the lock she was trying to open, she turned to me and said, "Hi." She told me her name and said, "I'm new here." Out of the blue, my entire body flooded with what felt like a million butterflies all trying to get out at once.
It was at that moment that I knew there was something very, very different about me.
Ironically, that same year psychologist Vivienne Cass unveiled a 6-stage model of sexual identity development for gays and lesbians which would prove to be very handy information for a budding young lesbian like myself. Sadly, however, her research was not on my 8th grade reading list and I was left to figure all of this out by myself.
This six stage model by Cass describes a progression of phases that gay men and women go through as they "come out." This model is very useful in helping clarify where you are in terms of your "coming out" process. Because the model was created 30 years ago, there are also some cultural changes (greater acceptance and greater visibility of gays and lesbians) that I believe impact how a person navigates their identity.
Here are the stages, see what you think.
Stage 1: IDENTITY CONFUSION
"Am I gay?" This is where it all begins... with the wondering. Confusion and a general lack of clarity are the most common experiences during this stage. This is a pre-coming out stage and it's unlikely that you share your feelings with anyone. You are faced with four options: deny, reject, accept, or do more research. If you choose to "accept," please advance to stage 3. If you choose to "deny" this, skip your turn and stay here until you change your mind. If you choose to "reject," head on back to heterosexuality. Those choosing "more research," progress to stage 2!
Stage 2: IDENTITY COMPARISON
"Yes, it's possible, I could be gay." This is the "one of these is not like the others" stage (from Sesame Street). This can be a very lonely, scary place - to not relate to your heterosexual peers, and to not have a network of gays and lesbians in place to normalize what you are feeling. During this stage you'll find yourself noticing what fits for you and what doesn't as it relates to your sexual orientation. There is a lot of fear, denial, and hope that this is just a passing phase. Once you begin to connect with, or learn about, other gays and lesbians you slowly move into stage three.
Stage 3: IDENTITY TOLERANCE
"I'm pretty sure I'm gay." The isolation of feeling different from your heterosexual peers tends to motivate you to get out (or get online) and meet other gays and lesbians. During this stage you are gaining clarity about your gay sexual orientation, but you are not too happy about it. You continue to censor and hide your feelings from most people, while seeking connections with "safe" (other gays and lesbians) people with whom you can relate.
Stage 4: IDENTITY ACCEPTANCE
"Yep, I'm gay alright!" As you begin to find your place among other gays and lesbians, you develop greater comfort in your skin and you find more comfort spending time around others like yourself. As a result, you start to distance yourself from a heterosexual identity, while often trying to maintain the appearance to those around you that everything is the same. This is a complicated place to be, and is often riddled with fear, sadness, and even depression because of the feeling of living in between two worlds. There is a lot of anxiety about what it would mean to step out fully into an openly gay identity. The stress of managing dual identities (passing as heterosexual in some environments, and not others) becomes stressful and overwhelming.
Stage 5: IDENTITY PRIDE
"I am gay and I'm proud of it." Responses in this stage can range from feelings of anger toward your perceived oppressor (heterosexuals), to greater comfort with being out in all areas of your life, without apology. This stage brings greater confidence about who you are, and while you continue to prefer the company of your gay and lesbian peers, you put less energy into censoring your life from others.
Stage 6: IDENTITY SYNTHESIS
"Being gay is just one important aspect of who I am." This final stage, for those who continue to take the necessary risks to be true to themselves, brings the gay or lesbian person full-circle. You can now function as if sexual orientation is not a central variable in life. Here you have integrated your sexual orientation with the rest of your life, you are able to make decisions, interract socially, and function in life without doing so through a filter of your sexual orientation. Your life is no longer about dealing with, concealing, censoring, or advocating for the right to be gay - it is about living, loving, and being with all of who you are.
It seems to me that more people are moving through the stages faster, and possibly skipping stages all together. Unfortunately, however, I do think that many gays and lesbians continue to struggle to get past stage four. What are your thoughts about this model - how does it apply to you?