Stage Models of Transforming an Identity

Stage models provide a useful description of the process by which some people come to call themselves gay or lesbian. The models also suggest a way of looking at how substance use and recovery interact with being gay or lesbian and with the ways people experience their sexual identities. Bisexual and transgender people may have some of the same issues and problems during recovery and learning to accept themselves. The available coming out models do not address the issues of transgender individuals, although some models discuss gender roles while addressing sexual orientation (DeCecco & Shively, 1985; Bockting & Coleman, 1993). Fox (1995) addresses the development of bisexual identity. In general, it is a false assumption that bisexual, transgender, gay, and lesbian processes are parallel, even when some similarities are noted.

Stage models are general guides to help counselors understand the coming out process; however, there are several points to remember. The models are not linear, and people do not necessarily move through them in order. One stage is not better than another, and people should not be seen as more advanced and mature if they are in a later stage.

William Cross (1971), an African-American psychologist, created one of the first models describing how a person with a stigmatized identity undergoes an identity transformation and then learns to manage and integrate this new identity. His stage model described the process by which a “Negro” recovered from the effects of discrimination by transforming internalized racist cultural values and attitudes and developed a positive identity. Similarly, Cass (1979) proposed a model for the process by which gay men and lesbians transform their stigmatized identities from negative to positive.

A number of other models exist, usually with four or five stages and with some variations in focal point (Coleman, 1981/1982; Kus, 1985; Sophie, 1985/1986; Troiden, 1988; Woodman, 1989). For example, whereas Cass (1979) focused on ego functioning, Hanley- Hackenbruck’s (1989) model examined superego functioning and the ways people changed their superegos from critical to ambivalent to accepting of themselves. McNally (1989) interviewed lesbian recovering alcoholics and proposed a model that described how lesbians transform their identities from active alcoholic to sober ones, how they came to feel positive about themselves as lesbians, and how their alcohol abuse and recovery interacted with the stages of developing a sexual identity. It is also noteworthy that these stage models resemble Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente’s (1994) stages-of-change model, a model originally developed to determine treatment readiness.