This article focuses on ways that adolescents discover their sexual identity and how individuals and programs can foster resilience in gay/lesbian youth and make a positive difference in their lives.
Remembering back to childhood, where was the best place to hide? The place where you could hide in complete darkness from the terrors outside? You felt safe. You heard people walking by beyond the door. Your heart raced, anticipating detection. The steps retreated, and again you felt safe. They didn’t find you. You listened to voices; you looked for the light. You peeked out the door to make sure it was safe. You retreated into the darkness, until the time came for you to open the door wide ... to come out of the closet.
“Coming out of the closet” is a metaphor commonly used in the mainstream to describe the self-disclosure process of gays/lesbians. Keeping this imagery in mind can help each of us empathize with what gay/lesbian people experience as they discover/disclose their sexual orientation. The perception of safety is one of the most critical factors in when these adolescents choose to open the door of their closet.
The professional literature on gay/lesbian issues (e.g., DeCrescenzo,1994; Phillips, McMillen, Sparks, & Ueberle,1997; Savin-Williams, 1990) increasingly indicates the need for individuals and programs that serve gay/lesbian adolescents, especially around this crucial time of self-disclosure. In addition, the urgency of this need is emphasized by recent news headlines, such as the rise in hate crimes against gays/lesbians, the controversy over including gays/lesbians in anti-discrimination and personal freedom laws, and the backlash against portrayals of gays/lesbians in the media. Other research (e.g., Rubin, 1996; Wolin & Wolin, 1993) shows that resiliency relies on an emotionally and physically safe environment created by a significant individual, such as a parent, teacher, mentor, or friend.
These adults and professionals can foster resilience in gay/ lesbian youth by developing a comprehensive approach to working with them that encompasses a variety of strategies for meeting their varied needs during the coming-out process (Bass & Kaufman, 1996; DuBeau, 1998). Although gays/ lesbians are diverse, a framework can be helpful in understanding the commonalities in their coming-out stories. Cass (1984) provided such a framework by describing the coming-out process in these six stages:
Individual gays/lesbians come out at various ages and in various ways. Most individuals do not neatly progress from one stage to the next. Rather, individuals often oscillate between stages and recycle through the whole process in various situations during a lifetime. A variety of existing general strategies related to school environment, community resources, school resources, curriculum, and organizational policies can be implemented at the specific stages of the coming-out process. The discussion of these options below will help you connect the appropriate strategies with the needs of each individual.
Stage 1: Identity confusion
The assumption of heterosexuality is questioned during this stage. Individuals begin to have gay/lesbian thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Even if no one in your school or program has come out, it is important that a safe supportive environment is provided for all students who may be grappling with issues of sexual identity. Individuals in this stage of self-discovery may not acknowledge to others their thoughts about being gay/ lesbian. To meet the needs of these adolescents, you merely need to incorporate sensitivity to sexual minorities into your schools and programs through the following strategies.
Display gay/lesbian cultural symbols.
Let staff and students know that anti-gay comments and jokes are offensive and will not be tolerated.
Post “Gay/Lesbian Safe Space” placards in rooms and offices.
If you are heterosexual, understand the important role of speaking up and supporting respect for gay/lesbian students.
Use the words “gay” and “lesbian” in casual conversation without making it a big deal.
Review the telephone book for resources in the community. Contact the community resources for updated information. Check out whether the resource is appropriate for your particular students.
Make resources easily available to all students.
Include gay/lesbian issues in health classes and confirm that required readings include topics that are inclusive of related issues in a positive way.
Include books and projects that address gay/lesbian issues in class assignments.
Include gay-related current events during class discussions.
Implement lesson plans regarding homophobia in classes.
Include gay/lesbian issues in sexual harassment and antidiscrimination policies.
When hiring staff, inform them that you expect them to be respectful of all staff/students, regardless of sexual identity.
Provide staff development on the issues of gay/lesbian students and homophobia.
Help staff to become aware of their prejudices and how to deal with them.
Stage 2: Identity comparison
During this stage, the individual compares gay/lesbian identity to straight identity, including perceptions and expectations of others and self in terms of interpersonal relationships, marriage, children, and careers. Some adolescents experience social isolation and continued fears of coming out as a result of this comparison.
Exposure to the variety of opportunities available to gays/ lesbians in all aspects of their lives is important for these adolescents. For example, the opportunities for gay/lesbian individuals and partners to adopt both gay/lesbian and straight children are increasing. Gays/lesbians are also choosing to have their own children. Some gays/lesbians have children from previous relationships. The possibility of your students having gay/lesbian parents is likewise increasing. The implications of these facts for your programming include introducing these opportunities to all students and collaborating with gay/lesbian parents. In addition to the strategies listed previously, the following can be implemented to meet the needs of adolescents in this stage.
Refer to dates, lovers, partners, or significant others rather than husbands, wives, girlfriends, and boyfriends.
When adolescents or parents are referring to relationships, keep in mind the possibility of either gender.
Make newsletters from gay/lesbian organizations available to all staff/students.
Bookmark or list Web sites that positively address gay/lesbian issues and concerns.
Provide books in the library that include gay/lesbian characters and issues.
Subscribe to informative gay/lesbian magazines.
Think about gay/lesbian issues when following guidelines for providing multicultural education.
Identify the contributions of gay/lesbian individuals throughout the curriculum.
Explore the realities/myths of gay/lesbian stereotypes.
Allow staff to come out as gay/lesbian.
Invite gay/lesbian parents to participate in your school’s PTA.
Stage 3: Identity tolerance
An individual begins to come out to and form relationships with other gays/lesbians during this stage and becomes increasingly comfortable with his or her gay/lesbian identity. These connections with others can reduce the feelings of isolation. A positive response from others is important for these adolescents as they first come out.
Usually, gays/lesbians privately disclose to a few close personal friends at first. Specific individuals who are open and safe must be identified and available to students searching for answers concerning their sexual identity. In addition to those listed for prior stages, the following strategies may be used to meet the needs of youth during this stage.
Make yourself open to and available for self-disclosures about sexuality, or refer adolescents to other positive staff.
Encourage open, honest discussions of gay/lesbian issues. Share freely about openly gay/lesbian family and friends.
Include gay/lesbian community members in your diversity panels.
Ensure that the school library includes a comprehensive gay/ lesbian studies section.
Provide books and movies with gay/lesbian themes and characters for student circulation.
Incorporate gay/lesbian themes into classroom discussions. Include gay/lesbian issues in adult/independent living courses.
Be a gay/lesbian mentor for adolescents or provide such mentors for students.
Ensure that your school demonstrates and celebrates diversity. Invite parents/families to sensitivity training.
Stage 4: Identity acceptance
During this stage, an individual further identifies as a gay/ lesbian and increases his or her links with the gay/lesbian community. These individuals are broadening the circle of people with whom they share their sexual identity. A caring environment, including supportive individuals, that validates the adolescents' sexual identity continues to be important in this stage. As the individual reaches out to more and more people, it is critical that the responses are positive and that the school culture is deeply supportive. The following strategies as well as some listed above can be implemented to serve adolescents in this stage.
Start a Gay-Straight Alliance Support Group.
Protect the right of students to express themselves through their identity exploration.
Contact the Gay Lesbian Straight Educator Network
Display posters/pamphlets/flyers from local and national agencies serving gay/lesbian youth.
Provide a forum in which adolescents can identify their sexual orientation.
Provide counseling to students who request help in sorting out the implications of their sexuality.
Establish disciplinary procedures to protect gay/lesbian students.
Link the gay/lesbian community and its resources to your classwork.
Incorporate gay/lesbian groups, agencies, and periodicals in community, culture, and civics education.
Include gay/lesbian-related news stories in current events. Visit community centers that address gays/lesbians as a field trip.
Include gay/lesbian topics in self-advocacy and personal safety discussions.
Develop partnerships and relationships with community organizations that serve gay/lesbian adolescents.
Defend your students and staff against homophobic responses from families, employers, and community organizations.
Stage 5: Identity pride
The gay/lesbian individuals develop an understanding of how to feel a sense of self-worth, even when some people do not support them. As comfort with varied responses from others increases, the adolescent makes less of a distinction between his or her public and private selves. During this time, it is important for adolescents to have supported opportunities to reflect on personal experiences and to self-advocate for gay/lesbian rights. Gays/lesbians during this stage reveal their sexual identity to increasing numbers of people. The other person's process of acceptance will affect how the gay/lesbian may develop or terminate the relationship. In addition to the strategies listed above, the following can be implemented to meet the needs of adolescents in this stage.
Encourage staff and students to share personal gay/lesbian experiences in appropriate forums.
Publish staff and student accomplishments in gay/lesbian organizations/activities.
Announce upcoming gay/lesbian events as part of your community news.
Include gay/lesbian topics in family group/therapy discussions.
Provide opportunities for parents and family members to identify their own sexual orientation.
Ensure that class discussions can include relevant personal experiences.
Instruct students on making emotionally and physically safe decisions about self-disclosure.
Develop a strong sense of personal boundaries within your gay/lesbian students.
Invite gay/lesbian speakers into classrooms.
Never assume that someone is heterosexual based on his or her past or present behaviors.
Be prepared to help adolescents who are rejected by families or friends.
Stage 6: Identity synthesis
During this stage, the individual focuses on all aspects of self rather than just on sexual identity. The adolescent is more likely to socialize with peers based on common interests. An environment that highlights strengths, talents, and interests is important for these adolescents. The opportunity for identity synthesis is created by a celebration of all aspects of each life. Each person, whether staff or student, must recognize the ongoing process of maturation and interaction as humans. The following strategies, in conjunction with those listed above, can be used to meet the needs of adolescents in this stage.
Continue to work toward identity maturity among all staff and students.
Encourage participation in a range of community groups and organizations.
Include a variety of personal development resources for student use.
Ensure all interest-specific school clubs and organizations are open and sensitive to gays/lesbians.
Group the contributions of gays/lesbians with straight individuals based on common theme or content.
Help individual staff members develop an integrated personal and professional self.
Highlight gay/lesbian subgroups as a component of diversity/sensitivity training.
Schools often have programming to foster students' resiliency that focuses on building key relationships between youth and caring adults. Many of the strategies suggested for each stage of a gay/lesbian youth’s coming-out process likewise highlight the vital importance of an individual who is psychologically available to the adolescent forming his or her sexual identity. These strategies merely mirror what is already in place in most schools and programs related to other areas of the youths' lives.
But when implementing these strategies, we recommend that you focus on meeting the current needs of your students rather than on attempting to determine their stage of coming out.
While a supportive school culture is critical, the importance of one sensitive individual in the healthy development of identity cannot be overestimated. It was probably the soothing voice of one nurturing person who led you, as a child, out of your secret hiding place. And it can be your caring presence that leads some of your students out of their closets.
Bass, E., & Kaufman, K. (1996). Free your mind: The book for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and their allies. New York. Harper Collins.
Cass, V. (1984). Homosexual identity formation: Testing a theoretical model. Journal of Sex Research, 20, pp.143-167.
DeCrescenzo, T. (Ed.). (1994). Helping gay and lesbian youth: New policies, new programs, new practice. New York. Harrington Park Press.
DuBeau, T. (1998). Making a difference in the lives of gay and lesbian students. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 7, 3. pp.164-168.
Phillips, S., McMillen, C., Sparks, J., & Ueberle, M. (1997). Concrete strategies for sensitizing youth-serving agencies to the needs of gay, lesbian, and other sexual minority youths. Child Welfare, 76,3. pp. 393-409.
Rubin, L. (1996). The transcendent child: Tales of triumph over the past. New York. Basic Books.
Savin-Williams, R. (1990). Gay and lesbian youth: Expressions of identity. New York. Hemisphere.
Wolin, S. J., & Wolin, S. (1993). Resilient self How survivors of troubled families rise above adversity. New York. Villard Books.
This feature: Dubeau, T. and Emenheiser, D.E. (1999). Coming out resilient: Strategies to help gay and lesbian adolescents. Reaching Today’s Youth, 3, 4. pp.51-54.