The Effects of Traditional Family Values on the Coming out Process of Gay Male Adolescents

By Newman, Bernie Sue; Muzzonigro, Peter Gerard | Adolescence, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Traditional Family Values on the Coming out Process of Gay Male Adolescents


Newman, Bernie Sue, Muzzonigro, Peter Gerard, Adolescence


Adolescence is a time of self-discovery (Cates, 1987; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Newman & Newman, 1984; Schickedanz, Hansen, & Forsyth, 1990). Adolescents continue to individuate as they integrate accumulated and newly discovered roles, role expectations, and identities into a core sense of self (Condry, 1984; Erikson, 1963; Harrison & Pennel, 1989; Marcia, 1980; Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart, 1992; Waterman, 1982). For some, this is particularly difficult because they must recognize and integrate a homosexual identity. The process of developing a lesbian or gay identity is frequently called "coming out" and has been widely studied among adults since the 1970s.

Until recently, little has been known about gay and lesbian adolescents. However, research has begun to explore a number of important topics, including how to work with adolescents confused about their sexual orientation (Schneider & Tremble, 1985-86), how stigmatization affects lesbian and gay youth (Hetrick & Martin, 1987), gay youth suicide (Gibson, 1989), and how comfort with being lesbian or gay predicts a youth's self-esteem (Savin-Williams, 1989b). Two areas which have seldom been studied are how an adolescent's racial identity and traditional family values influence the coming out process.

Research indicates that coming out may begin in childhood, adolescence, or at any stage of adulthood (Cass, 1979; Cates, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Reiter, 1989; Troiden, 1989). For many, the process begins during adolescence (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Gibson, 1989; Schneider & Tremble, 1985-86). Several authors point out that, in the last two decades, the age of coming out has dropped noticeably and that an increased number of lesbians and gays are recognizing their sexual orientation during adolescence (Gibson, 1989; Herdt, 1989; Troiden, 1989).

Stage theories suggest that the coming out process includes a gradual acceptance and integration of a gay identity (Cass, 1979; Cates, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Troiden, 1979, 1989). A number of studies reveal that those who begin the process in childhood seem to experience a feeling of "difference" (Gibson, 1989; Herdt, 1989; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Troiden, 1979); this has also been labeled as "sensitization" (Troiden, 1979, 1989). Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith (1981) found that although many in their heterosexual sample also reported feeling different as children, a higher percentage of their homosexual sample recalled these feelings and often expressed reasons for feeling different that varied from those of the heterosexuals. In Troiden's (1979) study, gay male adults retrospectively reported a sense of alienation, gender inadequacy, and less opposite-sex interest as children than did other males. Sensitization may be an important part of the coming out process, even though the child in most cases does not understand what the feelings mean. Sensitization may set the groundwork for the acquisition of a homosexual identity by preconditioning gay youth to the idea that they are unlike many of their peers.

During puberty, adolescents experience dramatic biological, physiological, cognitive, psychological, emotional, and social changes (Cates, 1987; Gibson, 1989; Newman & Newman, 1984; Schickedanz et al., 1990; Sroufe et al., 1992). One of the most important changes is a growing awareness of their sexuality (Cates, 1987; Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 1990). Physical and emotional maturation causes increased sexual and affectional attraction toward others; gay adolescents often experience their first same-sex attraction at this time (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Cates, 1987; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Troiden, 1979, 1989).

During puberty, many lesbians and gays begin to recognize that they may be homosexual (Cates, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Reiter, 1989; Troiden, 1979). …

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