Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT+) or other gender and sexual minorities can have significant mental health issues – not just as a result of their sexuality or gender identity but also because of discrimination and isolation. These individuals may find themselves seeking case management, counselling, or other social work support services and it can be helpful to have a framework for understanding their coming out process.
Coming out is the process a lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB+) individual follows in order to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to those around them. It can be an intensely personal and challenging process.
Cass Identity Model
The Cass Identity Model was created by Vivian Cass in 1979 in order to better understand the coming out process for LGB+ individuals. It consists of 6 stages or phases that a person will proceed through. The six stages are:
Identity confusion is the very first stage of the model. In this stage, an individual is confused by their sexual identity and begins to become aware that sexual identities are a concept. They are possibly in early puberty and noticing individuals expressing their sexuality.
At some point though, the individual will experience thoughts or feelings regarding an individual of the same-sex that will make them wonder if they are actually LGB+. This might lead to a denial that the individual is LGB (repressing these feelings.)
In the Identity Comparison phase, the individual will ask themselves more openly if they are homosexual. They will confront the idea that they might be alone in their LGB+ experiences compared to those around them and the resulting social alienation or need to keep their LGB+ identity hidden. This is especially challenging for people living in repressive societies or communities where LGB+ identities are not tolerated.
Once the individual has reached Identity Tolerance, they have understood that they are firmly LGB. To those around them, they may be perceived one-dimensionally – as only homosexual. This can cause these individuals to seek out other LGB+ individuals and begin to build a support network.
Some individuals may continue to deny their identity and thus experience self-hatred, which may delay their coming out process and cause much distress.
Identity Acceptance is exactly what it sounds like. The individual has accepted themselves as an LGB+ individual. They make begin to make the LGBT+ subculture a larger part of their life. This can lead to an insulation of one’s support network as a differentiation is made between those people who are openly supportive of the individual’s LGB+ identity and those who tolerate their sexuality as long as it is not displayed openly. Limiting the role these other individuals play in the LGB+ person’s life serves to reduce distress and alienation.
The Identity Pride stage is the one most associated with LGBT Pride events. The person’s sexuality continues the pendulum swing from lack of awareness to tolerance to complete pride, overtaking the other aspects of their identity. The person may even dichotomize the world into an LGB area and a second, less important heterosexual category.
The understanding of heteronormativity may appear here as well, with the individual reminding others around them that the assumption they are heterosexual is a false one.
Finally, in Identity Synthesis the individual has come to the realization that their LGB+ identity is merely one part of them and does not dominate their life. It is one part, like their career, hobbies, ethnicity and other aspects are simply other pieces of the puzzle that makes them up. At this stage, they fully accept themselves and experience little or no distress as a result of their LGB identity.
Applying the Model
A Social Worker may apply the Cass Identity Model by noting where in the six stages their client seems to be and reading the primary literature to better understand the conflicts that may occur at each stage. This can help ensure interventions are targeted to the unique distress the client is experiencing and continue to deepen the therapeutic relationship by demonstrating a strong understanding of the client’s inner-pain.
The Cass Identity Model is a six-stage model that demonstrates a lot of value in understanding the coming out process as it relates to LGB individuals.
Dustin MacDonald is an experienced social services worker with experience in crisis intervention, data analysis and program management. He holds a Social Service Worker Diploma from Durham College and a Bachelor of Professional Arts in Human Services from Athabasca University.