Sexual Identity Development and Synthesis among LGB-Identified and LGB Dis-Identified Persons

By Yarhouse, Mark A.; Tan, Erica S. N. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Sexual Identity Development and Synthesis among LGB-Identified and LGB Dis-Identified Persons


Yarhouse, Mark A., Tan, Erica S. N., Pawlowski, Lisa M., Journal of Psychology and Theology


What are the key milestone events that facilitate sexual identity among persons who experience same-sex attraction? Do those milestone events lead to one outcome, or are multiple outcomes possible with respect to how sexual identity develops and synthesizes over time? This initial pilot study compared 14 religiously-affiliated persons who integrated their experiences of same-sex attraction into a lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) identity synthesis, with 14 religiously-affiliated persons who dis-identified with a LGB-affirming ideology and pursued an alternative identity synthesis. We identified influences that facilitated an individual identifying with LGB-affirming ideologies and the individuals/subcultures that embrace such ideologies, and influences that facilitated an individual dis-identifying with LGB-affirming ideologies and the individuals/subcultures that embrace such ideologies.

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Despite recent theories of sexual identity development and synthesis, very little is actually known about why some people who experience same-sex attraction integrate their experiences into a lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) identity by identifying with LGB-affirming ideologies, while others dis-identify with LGB-affirming ideologies. It is unclear whether specific milestone events lead to one outcome, or whether multiple outcomes are possible with respect to sexual identity synthesis.

Sexual identity is a "substructure of sexual functioning" that has been defined in a few different ways but with significant conceptual overlap (Althof, 2000, p. 247). It appears to entail one's biological sex (as male or female), gender identity (one's psychological sense of being male or female), sex role (degree to which one adheres to social expectations for one's sex), sexual orientation (the direction and persistence of one's experiences of sexual attraction), and intention or valuative framework (what one intends to do with the desires one has in light of one's beliefs and values) (Althof, 2000; Shively & DeCecco, 1977; Yarhouse, 2001).

Given these many dimensions of sexual identity, (1) it should come as no surprise to find that there are many theories as to how one comes to develop a sense of sexual identity. This research is at least initially indebted to Erikson's theory of psychosocial development and Marcia's work on identity development in adolescence, and it has come into its own in research on lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) identity development and synthesis.

One of the earliest theories (and perhaps most well-known) of what was then referred to as homosexual identity development and synthesis was developed by Cass (1979). In this developmental model, an individual who identifies as homosexual (or who would today identify as "gay") is believed to have gone through six stages: identity confusion (early connections between one's experiences of same-sex attraction and the topic of homosexuality), identity comparison (beginning to accept that one may not be heterosexual with respect to one's attractions), identity tolerance (admitting not the possibility but the probability that one has a homosexual orientation), identity acceptance (characterized by increased contacts with others who have identified with their experiences of same-sex attraction), identity pride (moving from acceptance to preference for one's same-sex attractions and identity) and identity synthesis (relinquishing any "us versus them" mentality toward heterosexually identified persons). Although these stages of identity formation may appear to be deterministic in their progression; Cass (1996) notes that this is a process of engagements between individuals and their sociocultural environments; thus, it is a "reciprocal interaction ... complex and multivariable as individual factors ... interact with biological factors ... and environmental variables" (p. 232). In spite of the variability of identity acquisition presented in her model, Cass posits that some individuals may "foreclose" on their LGB identities because dynamic interactions with their environments may "prevent the acquisition of a lesbian or gay self-understanding" (p. …

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