Michele O'Mara

Am I Gay?

Filed By Michele O'Mara | September 11, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: coming out of the closet, sexual identity development, Vivienne Cass

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?


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Interesting.

Gives me an idea for a comparative model in trans experience.

This is really cool, thanks for sharing.

It looks about right for my life. I'm currently between steps 4 and 5, but I'm still in college. I couldn't imagine going through these stages as a middle-aged adult.

Personally, i got hung up in stage 4 because -like this list- everything i looked to for help framed orientation as binary. This made stage 2 especially difficult, being unable to feel acceptance in a hetero or a homo world. The feeling of living in two worlds or managing two lives does not go away if you belong in both - but people perceive you as one or the other. Or worse, when they patronizingly insist you belong on one side or the other, ignoring your self-determined identity.

I finally decided everything i heard (from all directions) was bullshit and to follow my heart.
I think that's the only stage we really need.

It's interesting. I don't remember too much of stages 1-3, Stage 4 reminds me of puberty, and I have some great, angsty diary entries from stage 5.

Can I say I moved on to stage 6? I work on two LGBT sites, I really ought to tone it down.

That's what I thought too, Alex. I can't make it to stage 6. Sexual orientation is a central part of my life - or I wouldn't be doing Bilerico! :)

For me the stages were confused because I first had to deal with sexual abuse that made relational sex repulsive. The abuse was so powerful I was almost 40 before it snuck into my consciousness--so powerful that I was almost 15 before going through puberty. Living in small town, deep South, I didn't know what gay was ( graduated from high school in 1963). Looking back I remember the drama teacher who lived in the adjacent county seat town that happened to have a university. Now I'm muddling between stage 4 and 5 with glimpses of 6. I hope I live long enough to see a more complete picture. My regret is that by the time I'd worked out the basics and yearned for a relationship, the old abuse stuff once again stood in my way.

what about members of the community who don't identify as gay or lesbian?

Identity confusion? I was fondling with other boys at 8; I knew very damn well what I wanted, and at no moment did I perceive myself as a heterosexual with weird gay fantasies breaking up the picture.

And, yeah, I suppose I'm stuck at stage 5. Maybe I'll evolve once this "first" world country gets over its wrestling with the issue of sexual orientation.

stage 4 it is; it took me so many years to get out of the quagmire of stage 1, but what a relief to finally get to 2 and then to progress to 3.

i'm so much more comfortable than even a few months ago, but it still takes time.

thank you for sharing, michelle.

I agree with those of you who find parts of this model insufficient. It certainly is binary and I see that as a flaw too. It also does not seem to take into account the changing climate, and while not-there-yet, our society exhibits a much improved attitude over that found 30 years ago!

I think more and more people are hitting stage one and heading straight for stage 4. I think a lot of people linger in stage 4 for a long time, if not forever. And I think PERCEIVED, and sometimes real, work fears (loss of employment)account for a lot of that, and fear of family losses account for a lot of the others who linger in stage 4.

For Alex and Bil who claim that their adovcacy work keeps them in stage 5, I'd disagree. The activism you do is a vocation, a passion - probably part of your life's meaning. Just as any human rights cause is born of anger around the injustice, it makes sense that your work would be fueled by anger. You are productive and engaging in life-changing work. And I, as I'm sure many others do, thank you for your hard, unpaid, efforts. That's different than the lesbian who spits out, "what are you looking at" as an innocent bystander glances her way while she and her girlfriend hold hands at the neighborhood grocery store. That, I'd suggest, is not productive.

I think there's a need for an updated model. One thing I see much less of is the need to separate from heterosexual society which seems to be a strong emphasis in Cass' model. Unlike Cass, I've also seen gay-identified men live for decades with other men and then fall in love with a woman (or vice-versa with lesbian-identified women marrying men after years of dating only women) which this model does not take into account. I've also seen people fly out of the closet - straight to stage 5 and then slowly back-track and start all over or change their minds completely.


Off the cuff, I'd say that what I see in my practice is something akin to this:

*curiosity (something feels different)
*exploration (info and/or experience gathering)
*non-identification as exclusively heterosexual
*clarification of how to understand (and in some cases label) self as a sexual person (gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc)
*internal peace-making (self-acceptance) with conclusions - may involve telling close friends, family, dating, or commiting to new relationship(s)
*bridging new identity with rest of life (work, family, friends, etc)
*loss of sexuality filter (life is viewed as life without funelling first through a "gay" or "bisexual," or "pansexual," etc. lens)
*some experience intermittent assessment of sexual orientation and feelings over time


How would you edit this? Remember, it's off the cuff.

I like your off-the-cuff version, it allows for much more fluidity and reads more like a natural progression than the original stages Cass listed (which sounded to me more like an obstacle course than an evolving awareness and identity). I especially like "non-identification" as part of the process. I think in our haste to wear a new nametag we may forget to keep exploring and inadvertently latch onto something that confines more than defines.

Thanks, Michele, for adding some extra thoughts and providing a companion list.

I like this one as well, as it sounds like it covers a wider set of experiences in a wider set of people.

Me... probably I am still stuck in stage 4 if we went by the old model (and hovering between the third, fourth and fifth in Michele's). :\ Doesn't help that I am not 100% sure what my sexual identity specifically is; I thought I was straight when I was little, then fell so hard for a girl I thought I was gay and certainly seemed to be for a number of years, now I'm starting to get attracted to certain men again... but still like women... and am not sure I would actually want to have sex with a man. Very, very confusing, and all I know is I'm not 100% hetero and I "prefer women".

I do know that I end up very uncomfortable though in situations where people feel the need to ask about my relationship status, particularly in respect to certain men, when I know I a.) prefer women and b.) really don't like people inquiring about my private relationships anyway. Also uncomfortable is when I have a customer at work or just flat out run into someone somewhere, who insists on talking about local politics including our local gay marriage ban... something I would have opposed even if I weren't less-than-hetero, but which my non-heterosexuality complicates considerably. :\ Or when men hit on me, sometimes to the point where I have to lie and say "I already have a boyfriend" to get them to back the heck off (why is it that when I felt "hetero", no cute boys ever came near me, but now that I like women more, almost no cute women go near me but I'm catnip to men? >_

Our local area tends to skew firmly conservative, and despite not being in the Bible Belt, you'd almost never know it; we have entire roads where 90% of the buildings are churches and chapels. And culturally, it shows. This is not particularly conducive to me being really open about my sexuality anywhere offline. :\ This probably accounts for a lot of the "stage 4" aspect.

I don't recall ever being confused like stage 1. I also have trouble with it being so binary. I've never really felt straight or gay since I was 12 and realized that I could be attracted to girls also. And I've never felt half one and half the other. Just not my experience. I have always experienced the same thing that other bi people experience where some people assume that I am straight and some gay people assume that I am gay. But that never had an effect on my own self concept so much as my view of the perceptiveness of others.
I much prefer the off the cuff one here but I will note that this newer one is informed by 30 years more community development. We also have to consider that some of us came from supportive backgrounds and did not have the whole 'living in a straight family who doesn't know' thing and may have in fact grow up around some queer relatives.