Identity Development of Homosexual Youth and Parental and Familial Influences on the Coming out Process

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ABSTRACT

This paper examines the literature on identity development of homosexual youth, and parental and familial influences on the coming out process. Research indicates that homosexual adolescents who have a close relationship with their parents and families tend to come out at a younger age and to experience more positive identities than do those who have a poor relationship.

The psychological literature on homosexuality has shifted from a focus on pathology to an emphasis on the formation of a positive and nonpathological identity (Dank, 1971; Sullivan & Schneider, 1987). Recently, there has been interest in the homosexual coming out experience (Coleman, 1982; Troiden, 1989). Research is demonstrating that parents and families are influential in this process (Cramer & Roach, 1988; Newman & Muzzonigro, 1993; Parish & McCluskey, 1992; Savin-Williams, 1989).

THEORIES OF IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT

Theories on the formation of a homosexual identity and the coming out process have outlined stages through which an individual passes (Cass, 1979; Troiden, 1989). A person can be in more than one stage at a time, as well as return to a previous stage.

According to Zera (1992), Cass (1979) was the first to articulate a model of homosexual identity. Cass proposed that individuals go through six non-age-specific stages: (1) identity awareness--the individual is conscious of being different; (2) identity comparison--the individual believes that he or she may be homosexual, but tries to act heterosexual; (3) identity tolerance--the individual realizes that he or she is homosexual; (4) identity acceptance--the individual begins to explore the gay community; (5) identity pride--the individual becomes active in the gay community; and (6) synthesis--the individual fully accepts himself or herself and others.

Troiden (1989) has postulated that an individual goes through four stages in the formation of a homosexual identity: sensitization, identity confusion, identity assumption, and commitment. Unlike Cass (1979), Troiden's stages are age-specific. In the sensitization stage, beginning before puberty, the individual has homosexual feelings or experiences without understanding the implications for self-identity. In the identity confusion stage, which usually occurs during adolescence, the individual realizes that he or she may be homosexual. In the identity assumption stage, the individual comes out as a homosexual. Coming out usually occurs first in the homosexual community, with attempts at coming out in the heterosexual community, if any, following. In the commitment stage, the individual adopts a homosexual lifestyle.

Sullivan (1984) has proposed that, during preadolescence, lesbians and gay males do indeed perceive themselves to be different from their peers, although this difference is not usually understood in terms of homosexuality. Such youths go through an initial stage of ignoring same-sex feelings, followed by a period of actively suppressing these feelings. When they are emotionally and socially ready, they may begin to deal with the coming out process.

Coleman (1982) described five developmental stages: pre-coming out, coming out, exploration, first relationships, and identity integration. In the pre-coming out stage, individuals know something is different about themselves, but are not conscious of same-sex feelings. In the second stage, coming out, individuals have admitted to themselves that they have homosexual feelings, although they may not have a clear understanding of their sexuality. Individuals then move into the exploration stage, where they experiment with their newly recognized sexual identity. There are three developmental tasks that individuals face in this third stage: they must develop interpersonal skills for meeting those of similar sexuality; they need to develop a sense of personal attractiveness; and they must learn that sexual activity does not in and of itself establish healthy self-esteem. …