Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Helping Gay and Lesbian Students Integrate Sexual and Religious Identities

Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Helping Gay and Lesbian Students Integrate Sexual and Religious Identities

Article excerpt

This article explores the impact of sexual and religious identity on college student development, examining developmental models and discussing how counselors can assist gay and lesbian students with integrating these 2 personal identities. Treatment approaches are presented, and the article concludes with an examination of ethical and professional considerations.


For many students, the formative years of college present a time of personal exploration and development, including transitions into independence, exploration of social relationships, career decision making, and myriad new choices and experiences (Barret & Logan, 2002). These expected developmental demands can be further complicated by the presence of additional identity challenges, particularly when portions of one's identity are in conflict (American Psychological Association [APA], 2011; Cates, 2007; Love, Bock, Jannarone, & Richardson, 2005; Zubernis & Snyder, 2007). For students who are exploring sexual identity while also navigating faith and religious identity, this process can be even more challenging. These students may feel that they must either choose their faith, which can represent an important social support system as well as an integral component of their identity, or pursue their sexual identity development (Frame, 2003; Love et al., 2005). The courage needed to transition into unfamiliar and new, ambiguous, interpersonal contexts will often delay personal acceptance of a gay or lesbian identity, with students sometimes denying same-sex attraction or accepting it as one's cross to bear (Cates, 2007; Frame, 2003). College counselors should thus be aware of the intersections of identity processes and be prepared to assist clients in the process of development through the lens of both sexual identity and faith.

This article explores the intersection of sexual and religious identity in die college student population, highlighting unique challenges of development and potential interventions. Although there are many dimensions of sexual identity, for ease of writing and analysis, this article focuses on those students who identify as gay or lesbian, as well as those who are in the process of questioning a gay or lesbian identity. It is also acknowledged that religious identifications are vastly diverse. Readers are encouraged to reflect on how these concepts might manifest across diverse client populations. The following sections include an overview of sexual and religious identity development to provide context for the intersection of these often seemingly conflicting identities.

Sexual Identity Development

There are several popular models for gay and lesbian identity development (McCarn & Fassinger, 1996; Troiden, 1989), but the Cass (1979) model is one of the most well known. The Cass model portrays developmental stages that do not necessarily follow a linear progression but can be revisited throughout the life span. The six stages of this model consist of identity confusion, comparison, tolerance, acceptance, pride, and synthesis. These stages demonstrate how clients move through personal acceptance of sexual identity, pursue connection and community with others, and respond to discrimination and attitudes from the larger society. The model can be particularly useful when working with college students to normalize their experiences and provide a model for future development.

The first stage of the Cass model is identity confusion. During this stage, students will experience attraction to members of the same sex and will struggle with the question, "Am I gay?" This stage can result in internal conflicts and turmoil, as students recognize that being gay would mean being different and experiencing isolation from the heterosexual culture (Barret & Logan, 2002; Zubernis & Snyder, 2007). Compounding this stage, in the case of religious individuals, is the belief that homosexuality is sinful and condemned by their faith (Dessel, Bolen, & Shepardson, 2011; Frame, 2003; Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010; Levy & Reeves, 2011; Ritter & O'Neill, 1989). …

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