The Cass Identity Model, formally the Homosexual Identity Formation Model is a 6-stage process for “coming out.” It describes the stages that an individual may go through as they come to terms with their sexuality, both internally and externally. The six stages are as follows:
- Identity Confusion
- Identity Comparison
- Identity Tolerance
- Identity Acceptance
- Identity Pride
- Identity Synthesis
These are explored in more detail below:
During this first stage, individuals receive information about LGBT identities, which most people consider personally irrelevant to themselves. At some point, some people will experience thoughts, feelings, or physiological response (arousal) that leads them to ask themselves if they may be LGBT.
This stage may involve significant confusion and concern, as there is a conflict between one’s view as heterosexual and the thoughts they are experiencing. Cass notes the question “If my behaviour may be called homosexual, does that mean I am a homosexual?” This leads to the broader “Who am I?” conversation.
The result of this first stage is one of 3 reactions:
- If the individual recognizes they are LGBT and likes this, no attempt is made to change their behaviour
- If the individual recognizes they are LGBT and dislikes this, they may deny their identity and become homphobic (“moral crusader”) – this can lead to a self-hating identity
- If the individual believes their behaviour is incorrect and also dislikes it, they may respond by redefining it as non-homosexual behaviour. Cass gives the example of a prisoner, or other groups where men who have sex with men may occur without needing to label it
During Identity Comparison the individual begins to ask themselves if they’re homosexual. This is the first tentative acceptance of a potential LGBT identity. In Identity Comparison comes the need to tolerate social alienation and belief that they are different (and potentially, alone.)
Two major potential reactions to Identity Comparison result:
- The individual recognizes they are different and is not bothered by this – the result is that they devalue the judgemental opinions of others
- The individual recognizes they are different and does not like this. They redefine the meaning of their sexuality (e.g. I am only homosexual with this person) or otherwise denies the meaning of their sexuality
In the identity tolerance stage, the individual has moved towards understanding they are homosexual. They no longer maintain their state of turmoil or identity confusion but may feel more alienated because those who see them as heterosexual struggle to see them otherwise.
At this stage meeting other LGBT individuals helps reduce the feelings of alienation and isolation is helpful in moving through this stage to identity acceptance. The opposite of this, is an alienation from the community and continued self-hatred.
At the end of this stage the individual can firmly say “I am a homosexual.”
In the Identity Acceptance stage, the individual has further normalizing and validating contacts with others in the LGBT community and the LGBT subculture begins to be a larger part of their life.
It’s noted here that there may be a clash between the LGBT individual who wishes to live their life “openly” gay, versus the heterosexual individuals in their life who may tolerate their sexuality but not wish it to be displayed openly. This may result in insulation of the individual from intolerant friends and other methods to limit their exposure to them.
In Identity Pride, the pendulum has swung far to the right, and the individual may dichotomize the world into two categories, a significant LGBT category and an insignificant heterosexual category. Pride also results in the devaluation of heterosexual institutions and values like marriage and sexual roles.
Heteronormativity appears at this stage as well, with Cass noting the slogan “How dare you presume I’m heterosexual” representing the LGBT individual’s desire to make their homosexuality aware to those around them, at the expense of recognizing heterosexual identities in their life.
Identity Synthesis is the six and final stage. In this stage, the individual’s sexuality becomes just another part of them, and it no longer dominates or defines them. Just as a heterosexual individual doesn’t see the world through just the lens of their heterosexuality (as opposed to ethnic, cultural, gender, or other lenses), nor does the synthesized LGBT individual. The coming out process is complete.
Research on the Cass Identity Model
Kenneady & Oswalt (2014) conducted a comprehensive review of the literature and found a number of other models that closely matched the Cass model, in addition to research supporting its application in the form of questionnaires and other assessment tools. They highlight four major critiques of the model:
- It is linear and may not represent the process in reality
- There is only a focus on gay and lesbians, not on bisexual or trans individuals
- Sexual identity development is assumed to be gender-free, with no difference between men and women
- There is nothing addressing racial or ethnic impacts on sexual identity development
Degges-White, et. al. (2000) noted that the model was developed primarily in interviews with gay men, and its utility with lesbian women may be limited. Degges-White herself followed up in 2005 with the Adolescent Lesbian Identity Formation Model to address some of these weaknesses.
Gervacio (2012) compared the Cass Identity Model with the Fassinger (1998) model and found that although both required updates to respond to changing social attitudes they were effective in describing the experiences of gay and lesbian individuals.
Zubernis, et. al. (2011) also used the Cass Identity Model along with Chickering’s Model of College Student Development to demonstrate how lesbian and gay college students can be assisted in the coming out process.
Cass, V.C. (1979) Homosexual Identity Formation: A theoretical formation. Journal of Homosexuality. 4(3). 219-236
Degges-White, S., Rice, B., & Myers, J. E. (2000). Revisiting Cass’ Theory of Sexual Identity Formation: A Study of Lesbian Development. Journal Of Mental Health Counseling, 22(4), 318.
Degges-White, S. E., & Myers J. E. (2005). The Adolescent Lesbian Identity Formation Model: Implications for Counseling. Journal Of Humanistic Counseling, Education & Development, 44(2), 185-197.
Fassinger, R. E. & Miller, B. A. (1996). Validation of an inclusive model of sexual minority identity formation on a sample of gay men. Journal of Homosexuality, 32(2), 53-78.
Gervacio, J. (2012). A Comparative Review of Cass’s and Fassinger’s Sexual Orientation Identity Development Models. Vermont Connection, 3350-59.
Kenneady, D. A., & Oswalt, S. B. (2014). Is Cass’s Model of Homosexual Identity Formation Relevant to Today’s Society?. American Journal Of Sexuality Education, 9(2), 229-246. doi:10.1080/15546128.2014.900465
Zubernis, L., Snyder, M., & Mccoy, V. A. (2011). Counseling Lesbian and Gay College Students through the Lens of Cass’s and Chickering’s Developmental Models. Journal Of LGBT Issues In Counseling, 5(2), 122-150 29p. doi:10.1080/15538605.2011.578506