For every person, identity exploration and formation is a crucial developmental process. There are different levels of identity formation, sometimes occurring in different orders and during different time frames depending on the person. This is also a life-long process. The influence of societal norms on identity formation is very strong, and can affect the Identity formation process.
For the LGBT person, coming out is a life transition. Every LGBT youth faces the struggle of coming out of the closet. The process of “Coming out of the Closet” is one of the most significant processes in the lives of LGBT people because many LGBT people believe this to be the period in time in which they were discovering their true selves. Coming Out is a period of recognition, acceptance, expression and discovery, for ones self, and the people in their world. Due to this importance, some LGBT people view their coming out experience as a very personal and deeply meaningful experience in their life journey. They are faced with questions of their own sexuality and gender identity and also have to question whether their friends and family will be supportive. In our heterosexist society, it is assumed that you are heterosexual unless you say otherwise. For some of the LGBT population sexual identity development occurs simultaneously with their race, gender & religious identity development. In 1979, Cass published the first model of homosexual identity formation and revolutionized our understanding of sexual minority persons. Her six-stage model has become the classic outline for the study of homosexual identity formation (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996).
According to the Cass identity model, the stages are identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis. These stages might occur simultaneously, skip a step, or even regress.
The first stage in the Cass model is Identity confusion. This is “Characterized by feelings of turmoil, in which one questions previously held assumptions about one’s sexual orientation.” The person asks, ”Could I be gay?” The person’s first realizes gay thoughts, feelings, and attractions. The person may feel confused and starts to ask “Who am I?”. If same-sex attraction occurred, the person may make excuses for the behavior (“I was drunk” “It was a mistake” ect.) In some cases the Person may think that being gay is wrong and undesirable, correct but not okay for the individual or correct and okay for the individual. The importance of this stage is the acknowledgement and the questioning. This is vital and helps move on to the next stage.
The second stage of the Cass model is Identity comparison. This stage is “Characterized by feelings of alienation in which one accepts that possibility of being gay or lesbian and becomes isolated from non-gay others.” The person accepts the possibility that they may be gay and weighs the consequences of the information. This person will often engage in same gender romantic behaviors but will reject the label of gayness. During this stage the person might experience isolation and alienation from others. This is when they begin developing an identity as gay rather than straight. The person will often tell himself or herself, “this is just an experiment” and that just because they are testing the waters, does not mean that they will be with someone of the same gender. This stage is all about exploration, whether having a first intimate experience or emotional experience, it is about finding themselves.
The third stage of the Cass model is Identity tolerance “Characterized by feelings of ambivalence in which one seeks out other gays and lesbians but maintains separate public and private images.” The person begins to accept the probability that they are gay and starts to seek out LGBT social connections. This makes the person Experience some relief because they are addressing emotional needs. They are now getting more support from others. This makes them Realizes being gay does not mean they cannot have a “normal” life therefore causing greater self-esteem.
The fourth stage of the model is Identity acceptance this is “Characterized by selective disclosure in which one begins the legitimization (publicly as well as privately) of one’s sexual orientation.” The person realizes they are gay and begins to accept their identity in a positive way. The person will have increased contact with the gay community. In this stage the person will become more comfortable with being scene in LGBT social settings. The person Begins to view being gay as “normal” and begins choosing to “pass as gay”. During some cases the person may choose to selectively disclose identity. This usually does not include immediate family members.
The fifth stage in the Cass model is Identity pride. This stage is “Characterized by anger, pride, and activism in which one becomes immersed in the gay subculture and rejects non-gay people, institutions, and values.” The person now wants to disclose their identity and “who they are” to the world. The person is immersed in the gay community and tends to divide their social interactions into “Gay” and “Not Gay”. They now preferring being gay and feel Anger and frustration with homophobic and hetero-normative attitudes. Disclosing their Sexual identity is now more common.
The last and final stage according to the Cass model is Identity synthesis-this is “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.” The person incorporates their sexual identity with all other aspects of self. Their sexual identity becomes one factor of the “Who am I?” question rather then the entire identity. The person begins to integrate more relationships with straight people into their lives and recognizes other identities. “An individual may experience development in one process to a greater extent than another; for example, he or she may have a strong LGB social identity and an intimate same-sex partner, but not have come out as LGB to family (become an LGB offspring). Furthermore, depending on the con-text and timing, he or she may be at different points of development in a given process, such as when an openly LGB person enters a new work set-ting and chooses not to express his or her LGB identity.”
This model is one of the most commonly used models, and was the first model provided that did not see Homosexuality as a mental illness. These stages can vary from person to person, and some people will get stuck at one stage and never progress; others may even regress.