Just like people from ethnic/racial groups and women, members of the GLBTIQ community develop their identities over time which involve stages of growth and development. One model of GLBTIQ identity and the coming out process for many LGBTIQ persons is the CASS* model of stages of identity development. It is important to note that these stages are not necessarily linear, but flexible and dynamic. Individuals may fluctuate as they experience the stages based on where they are in their own life, as well as who they are with and their feelings of safety.
In this first stage, the person is amazed to think of themselves as a gay person. "Could I be gay?" This stage begins with the person's first awareness of gay or lesbian thoughts, feelings, and attractions. The people typically feel confused and experience turmoil. Possible responses can be: to avoid information about lesbians and gays; inhibited behavior; self-denial of homosexuality ("experimenting", "an accident", "just drunk", "just looking"). Men often keep emotional involvement separated from sexual contact; women often have deep, strongly emotional but non-sexual relationships.
In this second stage, the person accepts the possibility of being gay or lesbian and examines the wider implications of that tentative commitment. "Maybe this does apply to me." Possible responses to this can be that the person may begin to grieve for losses and the things they give up, or what they perceive they give up, by embracing their sexual orientation (marriage, children). They may compartmentalize their own sexuality - accept lesbian/gay definition of behavior but maintain "heterosexual" identity. Persons may tell themselves, "It's only temporary"; "I'm just in love with this particular woman/man"; etc. Such individuals will need information about sexual identity, lesbian, gay community resources and be encouraged to discuss the loss of heterosexual life expectations. The person may be permitted to keep some "heterosexual" identity (as "not an all or none" issue).
In the third stage the person comes to the understanding they are "not the only one." The person acknowledges they are likely gay or lesbian and seeks out other gay and lesbian people to combat feelings of isolation. There is an increased commitment to being lesbian or gay. Possible responses include the person beginning to have a dialogue with others to talk and think about the issue, accentuate the difference between themselves and heterosexuals and seek out lesbian and gay culture (positive contact leads to more positive sense of self, negative contact leads to devaluation of the culture, which in turn stops growth). The person may try out variety of stereotypical roles. The possible needs during this stage can be a need to be supported in exploring one's own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as internalized homophobia. It is particularly important for the person to know about community resources and receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections.
The fourth stage involves the person accepting themselves, "I will be okay." The person attaches a positive connotation to their gay or lesbian identity and accepts rather than tolerates it. There is continuing and increased contact with the gay and lesbian culture. Possible responses include the acceptance of gay or lesbian self-identification, compartmentalization of a "gay life" and maintain less and less contact with heterosexual community. The person may begin some selective disclosures of sexual identity or even a more social form of coming out. They are more comfortable being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as "gay." Some possible needs may be to find support in making decisions about where, when, and to whom to disclose.
In the fifth stage, the person divides the world into heterosexuals and homosexuals, and is immersed in gay and lesbian culture while minimizing contact with heterosexuals. There is an "Us-them" quality to political/social viewpoint. The task is to deal with the incongruent views of heterosexuals. Possible responses in this stage include splitting the world into "gay" (good) and "straight" (bad), experiencing disclosure issues with heterosexuals as they are less willing to "blend in" and identifying gay culture as sole source of support, acquiring all gay friends, business connections, social connections. The possible needs can be to receive support for exploring anger issues, to find support for exploring issues of heterosexism, to develop skills for coping with reactions and responses to disclosure to sexual identity and to resist being defensive.
The last stage in Cass' model is identity synthesis. The person integrates their sexual identity with all other aspects of self, and sexual orientation becomes only one aspect of self rather than the entire identity. The task is to integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is an aspect of self. Possible responses can be continuing to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity, or allowing trust of others to increase and build. Gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of "self."
*Cass, V. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4 (3), 219-235.