While LGBT people are grappling with their sexual and affectional orientation, they are also discovering their identity as sexual and cultural minorities-members of a targeted group within our society. Just as the identities of black Americans are shaped by both African-American culture and societal racism, the identity development of LGBT Americans is influenced by their identification with gay culture and community and the climate of societal heterosexism (Levine & Evans, 1991). Just as important, the sexual identity of heterosexual students is shaped by an environment that is characterized by a fear of homosexuality, the denigration of gay persons and cultures, and either the invisibility or outright oppression of gay relationships.
Neither a heterosexual nor an integrated bi/homosexual identity can be formed in the context of acceptance and complicity with a heterosexist world view. Persons beginning to question whether they are heterosexual may react differently as they begin the journey toward a homosexual identity formation, described by Cass (1979). During the first stage of homosexual identity formation, which Cass called identity confusion, an individual has a growing awareness of sexual/affectional feeling, thoughts, and/or behavior toward persons of the same sex and begins to personalize information about homosexuality. Owing to previous acceptance of the societal heterosexist ideology, the individual experiences considerable inner turmoil. Feelings are generally not shared with anyone.
Cass’s second stage, identity comparison, can also be seen as taking place within the context of passive or active acceptance of heterosexist messages. In this stage, students may seek to rationalize their feelings and/or behaviors and, due to their continuing reluctance to discuss their feelings with others, may experience strong feelings of isolation. Even as a student begins to gather information about homosexuality and seek contacts with other gay people, he or she is likely to continue to see heterosexuality as “right” and “normal” (Cass, 1979).
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans in the passive manifestation of the acceptance stage may attempt the following: act straight to gain approval, self worth, jobs, housing, and privileges; avoid interaction with other LGBT persons and issues including the confrontation of homophobic jokes; and repress feelings. The active manifestations of the acceptance stage, on the other hand, display a clear rejection and devaluation of everything “gay,” just as for black persons in this stage there is a “rejection and devaluation of all that is black” (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). Student behaviors might include: attempts to choose to be heterosexual through dating and even marriage; hyper-heterosexuality; a search for a “cure”; and participating in gay bashing or becoming an anti-gay moral crusader.
For both homo/bisexual and heterosexual students in the acceptance stage, it is most important that negative stereotypes of homo/bisexual persons and damaging myths about homosexuality are confronted and that the campus environment is made into as safe and affirming an environment for LGBT students as possible. If we are talking about college students, important possible interventions at this stage include the creation of an LGBT Concerns Task Force and the development of a climate report; an educational effort involving staff training and residence hall programming, campus-wide programming, speakers bureaus, and the inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum; formulation of a strong institutional non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation; authoritative and prompt response to incidents of hate speech, harassment, violence, and anti-gay bias on campus; and improved campus counseling and support services for LGBT students. (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992)
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the identity tolerance and identity acceptance stages of homo/bisexual identity formation are similar in description to the target group members in the passive resistance stage of the Racial Identity Development Model (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). Target group members in passive resistance are often concerned that more active resistance will result in a loss of “benefits” (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). LGBT students in identity tolerance and identity acceptance often present themselves as “straight” within the larger society.
Even if individuals choose to disclose their identity selectively, care is taken not to create too many waves (Cass, 1979). LGBT persons in identity tolerance may seek out contacts with the LGBT communities. Nevertheless, while there is generally a high need for positive LGBT role models and positive experiences of LGBT culture and community in daily life, these students remain in the closet. Owing to the pressures of leading such a double life, LGBT students in the tolerance and acceptance stages of sexual identity formation--like target group members in the passive resistance stage of Racial Identity Development--may choose to have less contact with the gay world (Cass, 1979; Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). Throughout these stages, and particularly in identity acceptance, the conflict between self and heterosexual others is felt to be at an intense level by the homo/bisexual student (Cass, 1979).
As one moves into the identity pride stage of sexual identity formation, one also moves into a more active resistance (Cass, 1979). Hardiman and Jackson (1992) describe active resistance as the “antithesis of the acceptance stage of development” (29), which is characterized by anger and pride. For the LGBT student in active resistance, the world appears to be divided into gay (valued) and straight (devalued), and there is a rejection of the norms, values, and institutions of the heterosexual establishment (Cass, 1979; Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). In identity pride and active resistance, there is often more disclosure of identity in nongay environments, and energy is focused on being clear about who one is not as well as who one is (Cass, 1979; Hardiman & Jackson, 1992).
LGBT Americans in active resistance may find the fight against heterosexism to be all consuming and may have difficulty devoting time to class work that is seen as irrelevant (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). LGBT students in this stage may also be focused on “challenging and confronting” (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992) the following: closeted professors, staff, and peers; persons who identify as bisexual or refuse to claim an identity; and non-angry members of the community. These students may be highly confrontational in addressing discrimination within the university.
They also tend to denigrate all that is “straight” and glorify all that is “gay” (Cass, 1979; Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). Possible manifestations could include the adoption of new mannerisms, a radical shift away from societal expectations (i.e., gender or sexual norms), and the rejection of “traditional” and “family” values. Negative responses from heterosexual persons and/or society only serve to confirm their dichotomous perception (Cass, 1979).
For both dominant and target group members, redefinition begins to occur when individuals seek self definitions that are based less on reaction to and rejection of being defined by a heterosexist society (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). Heterosexual persons coming out of the resistance stage are struggling to accept a positive heterosexual self-identity and dominant group identification after having devalued everything about heterosexuality. They must be able to redefine heterosexuality in a way that is not dependent on heterosexism (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992).
LGBT persons, on the other hand, withdraw their attention from a primary concern with their interaction with dominant group members and the rejection of dominant society. LGBT students in this stage may tend to “self segregate” in an attempt to limit their interactions to other LGBT students as much as possible (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). In this stage, focus on LGBT culture is less a reaction to the dominant society and more an attempt to find a meaningful identity in the history, traditions, language, customs, and values of their community (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992). Students may work toward the creation of programs, housing, LGBT centers, and safe zones where they can increase meaningful interaction with other gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992).
Many of the programs and curricular changes appropriate in the resistance stage continue to be important to students in the redefinition. In addition, LGBT students in redefinition may find campus programs, events, courses, and opportunities specifically designed to address issues of importance to the LGBT community of particular appeal. Heterosexual students in this stage may be especially interested in campus programming that addresses male and female gender identity, responsible sexuality, women’s and/or men’s issues, gender communication, spirituality and sexuality, broad issues of discrimination and oppression, and other topics that support them as they redefine their identity as heterosexual individuals. In addition, the creation of opportunities for heterosexual and LGBT students on campus to dialogue with one another about issues of concern may help ease the transition to internalization.
The movement from the redefinition to the internalization stage--identity synthesis in the Cass (1979) model--is in large part dependent upon an LGBT individual’s experience of positive reactions and support from significant heterosexual others (Levine & Evans, 1991). There is a growing awareness that the world is not strictly divided along sexual orientation lines and an increase in interest in forming connections with straight allies and other targeted minorities.
There is an “ability to consider other identity issues” (Hardiman & Jackson, 1992) and a recognition that whereas their identity as a sexual minority is a critical aspect of themselves, it is not the only facet of their identity. Exactly how large a part a person’s identity as gay, lesbian, or bisexual plays in his or her total identity varies for every individual and may change over a lifetime. Unfortunately, the achievement of the internalization stage by LGBT students is made extremely difficult by the pervasive heterosexism of the campus environment.
An awareness of the sexual and target/ dominant group identity development process for both heterosexual and homo/bisexual students in the context of a heterosexist environment can be helpful on multiple levels. Persons working with LGBT people can have a better understanding of the challenges of each developmental stage and the particular supports that might be necessary whereas persons working with the dominant heterosexual population can realize the adverse effects of a heterosexist ideology on the sexual identity formation.
The broader perspective offered by the combination of sexual identity development models and dominant/target group identity development models like Hardiman and Jackson’s (1992) Racial Identity Development Model can also better enable faculty and staff to see the complexity of the identity formation process. LGBT students are not only in the process of forming a sexual and affectional identity; they are simultaneously becoming aware of their minority and targeted social status, becoming acquainted with a minority culture, and rejecting aspects of the culture into which they were born. With an understanding of the beliefs and behaviors students may make manifest in each of the stages of sexual identity development, administrators, faculty, and staff can better respond to the inevitable conflicts between target and dominant group members, as well as the in group conflict that can arise as students are at different stages in their identity development.
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