Understanding Sexual Minority Adolescents
Sexual orientation: What is it?
Sexual orientation is a sensitive issue that affects all stages of life in many settings, including the family, school, and workplace. In its most simple form, sexual orientation is defined by the direction of one's emotional and physical attraction. Someone who has a heterosexual orientation is attracted to members of the opposite sex, while someone with a homosexual orientation is attracted to members of the same sex. When someone is attracted to both sexes, she or he is considered to have a bisexual orientation. Many believe sexual orientation is a continuum--that these three categories are limiting and incomplete (Kinsey, et al, 1948; 1953). However, they do serve as a basis for understanding sexual orientation at its most basic level. The purpose of this publication is to educate staff and volunteers working in community-based settings about sexual minority or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) adolescents and the challenges they face.
Development of a homosexual orientation
There are several explanations for how a person develops his or her sexual orientation, particularly homosexuality. The following theory, developed by researcher Vivienne Cass, proposes that a homosexual identity develops in stages. The stages are as follows:
1) Identity confusion. An individual may feel "different" than her/his peers. The individual struggles with having a homosexual identity and either reject or accept this label for her- or himself.
2) Identity comparison. A person considers the possibility that she or he may be homosexual and examines their own thinking about homosexuality and heterosexuality. As a result, they decide whether having a homosexual identity is positive (homosexuality as good) or negative (denying this identity). For those who feel it is negative, they will remain at this stage until that feeling begins to change.
3) Identity tolerance. The person has begun to accept her- or himself as a homosexual and therefore seeks to know other homosexuals, who either accept or reject this person's connection to the group of other homosexuals.
4) Identity acceptance. The person fully accepts her/his own homosexual identity and her/his reference group. This person may find comfort in her/his identity, yet feel pressure to fit into majority culture. Due to perceived pressures from family members and peers as well as those within the work and school environments, they may continue to pretend to be heterosexual. This is referred to as "passing."
5) Identity pride. A person at this stage will share her/his pride in a homosexual identity with others and start to express her/his identity as a way to combat homophobia.
6) Identity synthesis. A person will fully include her/his homosexual identity into their lifestyle. At this stage a person continues to build an increasingly integrated homosexual identity (Cass, 1979; 1984).
Cass's stage-based explanation of how individuals develop a homosexual orientation is useful for several reasons. These stages: (1) show that developing a homosexual orientation is a process, not something that just happens overnight; (2) support the development of a homosexual identity as a positive developmental pathway, rather than an abnormality; and (3) demonstrate what adolescents may be experiencing at each stage, so adults and/or peers can better understand them. Furthermore, it is not assumed that the development of a homosexual identity only happens by a persons own choice. Instead, people who progress down this pathway are influenced by both individual dispositions (biological tendencies) and their environments (peers, family, community members) (Murphy, 2005). Decisions whether to accept this identity are made at each stage--ones that are not always easy to make--based on disapproval by important people in their lives.
Reprinted with the permission of the University of Florida. © 2008 University of Florida.
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