Cass Identity Model
The Cass Identity Model is one of the fundamental theories of gay and lesbian identity development, developed in 1979 by Vivienne Cass. This model was one of the first to treat gay people as "normal" in a heterosexist society and in a climate of homophobia instead of treating homosexuality itself as a problem. Cass described a process of six stages of gay and lesbian identity development. While these stages are sequential, some people might revisit stages at different points in their lives.
The six stages of Cass' model
In the first stage, Identity Confusion, 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.
The possible needs can be: the person may explore internal positive and negative judgments. Will be allowed to be uncertain regarding sexual identity. May find support in knowing that sexual behavior occurs along a spectrum. May receive permission and encouragement to explore sexual identity as a normal experience (like career identity and social identity).
The second stage is called Identity Comparison. In this 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." The self-alienation becomes isolation. The task is to deal with the social alienation.
Possible responses can be: the person may begin to grieve for losses and the things 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. Tells oneself, "It's only temporary"; "I'm just in love with this particular woman/man"; etc.
The possible needs can be: will be very important that the person develops own definitions. Will need information about sexual identity, lesbian, gay community resources, encouragement to talk about loss of heterosexual life expectations. May be permitted to keep some "heterosexual" identity (as "not an all or none" issue).
In the third stage, Identity Tolerance: 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. Increased commitment to being lesbian or gay. The task is to decrease social alienation by seeking out lesbians and gays.
Possible responses can be: beginning to have language to talk and think about the issue. Recognition that being lesbian or gay does not preclude other options. Accentuate difference between self and heterosexuals. Seek out lesbian and gay culture (positive contact leads to more positive sense of self, negative contact leads to devaluation of the culture, stops growth). The person may try out variety of stereotypical roles.
The possible needs can be: to be supported in exploring own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as internalized homophobia. Receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections. It is particularly important for the person to know community resources.
The Identity Acceptance stage means the person accepts 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. The task is to deal with inner tension of no longer subscribing to society's norm, attempt to bring congruence between private and public view of self.
Possible responses can be: accepts gay or lesbian self-identification. May compartmentalize "gay life". Maintain less and less contact with heterosexual community. Attempt to "fit in" and "not make waves" within the gay and lesbian community. Begin some selective disclosures of sexual identity. More social coming out; more comfortable being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as "gay". More realistic evaluation of situation.
The possible needs can be: continue exploring grief and loss of heterosexual life expectation, continue exploring internalized homophobia (learned shame from heterosexist society). Find support in making decisions about where, when, and to whom to disclose.
In the identity pride stage, while sometimes the coming out of the closet arrives, and the main thinking is "I've got to let people know who I am!". The person divides the world into heterosexuals and homosexuals, and is immersed in gay and lesbian culture while minimizing contact with heterosexuals. Us-them quality to political/social viewpoint. The task is to deal with the incongruent views of heterosexuals.
Possible responses include: splits world into "gay" (good) and "straight" (bad)—experiences disclosure crises with heterosexuals as they are less willing to "blend in"—identify 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: continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity, or allows trust of others to increase and build. Gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of "self". The person feels "all right" to move out into the community and not simply define space according to sexual orientation.
Criticisms of the model
Kaufman and Johnson (2004) argue that based upon more recent research, this model is less valid today than it was at its inception for several reasons:
- This model does not take into account socio-cultural factors that can impact identity development.
- The nature of the social stigma and its management practices have changed since the inception of the model.
- The linear nature of the model would suggest that anyone who abandons the model or fails to go through each of the six stages would not be able to be considered as a well adjusted homosexual, which may no longer be true.
- Vivienne Cass (1979, 1984, 1990). In Ritter and Terndrup (2002) Handbook of Affirmative Psychotherapy with Lesbians and Gay Men
- Stages in “Coming Out” Process
- Sexual Identity: The Cass Model - lgbt.unc.edu
- Jen Anderson and Mario Brown, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Identity Development - Druri university
- Diagram of Cass Identity Model by Joe Kort (PDF)
- Cass, V. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4 (3), 219-235.
- Kaufman, Joanne and Johnson, Cathryn (2004) Stigmatized Individuals and the Process of Identity, The Sociological Quarterly, 45 (4), 807-33