SEXUAL IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT

Sexual Identity Development Process:  Observations by Michele O’Mara, PhD

CURIOSITY

A distraction develops. Sometimes this occurs in childhood, during puberty, young adulthood, or even after a heterosexual marriage.  This can be repressed, denied, or otherwise delayed, or perhaps right on time, whenever that is. This stage is marked by awareness and an increased focus on one’s attractions and feelings. Sometimes it’s a feeling of difference; sometimes it is a new sensation, awareness, distraction, or other experience that piques one’s interest 

EXPLORATION

During this period of active exploration, a person moves from simply being curious, to actively gathering info from his or her environment, and seeking out information and connections that relate to being gay 

THE UNDOING

From the beginning, we are all conditioned to believe we are heterosexual; this is the “norm.” When evidence begins to accumulate that heterosexuality does not fit perfectly, disclaiming heterosexuality is often an easier next step than claiming bisexuality or same-sex attractions.

CLARIFICATION

Clarification usually occurs once a person has had a defining experience. This can be a physical experience, an emotional experience, or a combination of the two. Sometimes a person can fall in love (whether requited or not), or become consumed by a new attraction that serves as confirmation of his or her sexual identity.

INTERNAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

This is the stage of sexual identity development where a person decides, yes, I am attracted to at least one person of the same gender. This acceptance may involve telling close friends, family, dating, or committing to a new relationship(s), or it may simply involve a personal shift into a new way of seeing oneself.

BRIDGING

Once a person has accepted his or her attraction to at least one person of the same gender, the next step in sexual identity development is to integrate this identity with rest of life (work, family, friends, etc). Some people bridge their identity with the rest of their lives entirely, others are selective about with whom they will share this new information.

LOSS OF FILTER

Once a person has accepted his or her sexual orientation and integrated their professional, personal, and family lives, there is a gradual lessening of censorship about one’s sexual orientation. Eventually, life is viewed as life. It’s not a gay life, or a lesbian life, or a bisexual life, it’s just a life, without funneling first through a “gay” or “bisexual,” or “pansexual,” etc. lens)

*REASSESSMENT

Some people experience an intermittent re-assessment of their sexual orientation and feelings of same-sex attractions. Sexuality is being seen as more fluid, less stable than it was once thought, and people are not as inclined to cling tightly to one specific sexual orientation as much as they are inclined to cling to the truth of who they are and how they feel, whatever that may be.

Coming Out Stages: 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.” It has been my observation that many people never get past stage four – how about you?

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 Seaseme 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 stagethree.

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.

So where do you fall in these stages?

The Kindest

Lana was telling a funny story when her wife, Autumn interrupted her to make sure she told the correct the time of day that this thing she was talking about happened. (Not that it changed the story).  Lana rolled her eyes and continued with the story.  Autumn left to get some snacks for halftime and when she came back, Lana criticized her for bringing a mustard packet for her hot dog.  “Why, after ten years together, would you think I’d want  mustard on my hotdog?” (Autumn has had two hotdogs in their lives together, and she couldn’t remember how she liked them.  She wanted to be safe, not sorry).  Have you ever been around a couple like this?

Often in relationships, we like to be right. Sometimes it feels like a win.  And yet, how can that be – if we are right, the one we love must be wrong.  Does it really feel good to believe that someone we love is wrong? Either we both win, or we both lose.  It’s never one of each.

When is the last time you were in competition with your partner to see who could be the kindest? When did you last think to yourself, I‘m going to allow her to have her opinions without having to insert mine? When did you last censor yourself to ensure that only loving and kind words crossed your lips? When did you last go out of your way to do something that made her feel loved, or special or a priority, or important, or valuable to you?  Leave her a love note, just because.  Offer to rub her back, just because.  Take her to that fancy restaurant you don’t really like, just because she does.

What we all want most is acceptance, attention, approval, affection, appreciation, freedom and security.

Unfortunately, we often go about getting these things in all the wrong ways.

We complain when we don’t get appreciation, “You didn’t even notice that I painted the entire exterior of our house, rebuilt the engine in our car, cooked a 12-course meal, and mowed the lawn while you were at work today.”

We distance when we don’t get attention. “Honey, I’ll be late tonight – don’t wait up.”

We pick fights when we don’t get affection. “You never touch me anymore.”

We accuse when we don’t feel a sense of security. “Why are you late?”

We withhold when we don’t get approval. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

We deceive when we don’t feel a sense of freedom. “I wasn’t out with my friends, I was working late.”

If this describes you, I have one question for you: “How’s that working for you?”

Behind every complaint is a desire.

Try this handy little trick. Every time you find yourself about to say something hurtful, do something cold or unfeeling, throw out some “fightin’ words,” or anything else not covered by the umbrella of kindness, challenge yourself to identify the good thing that you do want.  Think about what you desire.

Instead of complaining, say “I’d love to show you some things I did today because it’s important to me that you know how much pride I take in our home…”

Instead of distancing, call home and say, “Any chance we can spend some quality time together tonight if I can cut out of here on time because I want to feel connected to you again.”

Instead of accusing or fighting, say “I’ve missed you, and I’m glad you are here now.”

Instead of withholding or deceiving, be honest. Tell him what you are feeling, tell him what your desire is. Let him in. You didn’t partner with him to shut him out.

If you set your sights on being the kindest, most thoughtful, affectionate, appreciative, accepting and approving partner, I guarantee that your relationship will be a happier place, even if your partner doesn’t change one bit.

Keep it simple, kindness works like magic.

Lana was telling a funny story when her wife, Autumn interrupted her to make sure she told the correct the time of day that this thing she was talking about happened. (Not that it changed the story).  Lana rolled her eyes and continued with the story.  Autumn left to get some snacks for halftime and when she came back, Lana criticized her for bringing a mustard packet for her hot dog.  “Why, after ten years together, would you think I’d want  mustard on my hotdog?” (Autumn has had two hotdogs in their lives together, and she couldn’t remember how she liked them.  She wanted to be safe, not sorry).  Have you ever been around a couple like this?

Often in relationships, we like to be right. Sometimes it feels like a win.  And yet, how can that be – if we are right, the one we love must be wrong.  Does it really feel good to believe that someone we love is wrong? Either we both win, or we both lose.  It’s never one of each.

When is the last time you were in competition with your partner to see who could be the kindest? When did you last think to yourself, I‘m going to allow her to have her opinions without having to insert mine? When did you last censor yourself to ensure that only loving and kind words crossed your lips? When did you last go out of your way to do something that made her feel loved, or special or a priority, or important, or valuable to you?  Leave her a love note, just because.  Offer to rub her back, just because.  Take her to that fancy restaurant you don’t really like, just because she does.

What we all want most is acceptance, attention, approval, affection, appreciation, freedom and security.

Unfortunately, we often go about getting these things in all the wrong ways.

We complain when we don’t get appreciation, “You didn’t even notice that I painted the entire exterior of our house, rebuilt the engine in our car, cooked a 12-course meal, and mowed the lawn while you were at work today.”

We distance when we don’t get attention. “Honey, I’ll be late tonight – don’t wait up.”

We pick fights when we don’t get affection. “You never touch me anymore.”

We accuse when we don’t feel a sense of security. “Why are you late?”

We withhold when we don’t get approval. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

We deceive when we don’t feel a sense of freedom. “I wasn’t out with my friends, I was working late.”

If this describes you, I have one question for you: “How’s that working for you?”

Behind every complaint is a desire.

Try this handy little trick. Every time you find yourself about to say something hurtful, do something cold or unfeeling, throw out some “fightin’ words,” or anything else not covered by the umbrella of kindness, challenge yourself to identify the good thing that you do want.  Think about what you desire.

Instead of complaining, say “I’d love to show you some things I did today because it’s important to me that you know how much pride I take in our home…”

Instead of distancing, call home and say, “Any chance we can spend some quality time together tonight if I can cut out of here on time because I want to feel connected to you again.”

Instead of accusing or fighting, say “I’ve missed you, and I’m glad you are here now.”

Instead of withholding or deceiving, be honest. Tell him what you are feeling, tell him what your desire is. Let him in. You didn’t partner with him to shut him out.

If you set your sights on being the kindest, most thoughtful, affectionate, appreciative, accepting and approving partner, I guarantee that your relationship will be a happier place, even if your partner doesn’t change one bit.

Keep it simple, kindness works like magic.

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