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social sciences

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Coming Out  
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Vivienne Cass, an Australian psychologist, was the first to create a model of homosexual identity formation. She used a series of clinical interviews to generalize her findings into a six-stage developmental model. Those stages are: (1) identity awareness, when the individual becomes conscious of the fact that he is different from his peers; (2) identity comparison, when the individual believes that he or she may be homosexual, but continues to attempt to "pass" as a heterosexual; (3) identity tolerance, when the individual realizes that he or she is homosexual in a heterosexist world; (4) identity acceptance, when the individual begins to explore the gay community, and also gay or lesbian identity; (5) identity pride, when the individual becomes active in the gay community to the point that accepting homosexuality and rejecting heterosexuality are his or her primary concerns; and (6) synthesis, when the individual fully accepts himself or herself and others as equal members of the community.

Since its inception in 1969, Cass's model has received wide acclaim and continues to assist clinicians with affirmative treatment of homosexual clientele. But it, like many of the models of this period, has been criticized for being too rigid and failing to encompass the new, dynamic understanding of sexual orientation.

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A model proposed by Eli Coleman in 1985 focuses more on the behavioral conception of homosexuality. According to Coleman, there are five stages: (1) pre-coming out, when a child acts out because he or she senses that he or she is not normal; (2) coming out, when the child, now an adolescent, discloses his or her sexual orientation; (3) exploration, when the adolescent becomes involved in the gay community, gets a sense of his or her position within this new social structure, and may begin having casual sexual encounters; (4) first relationships, when the young adult becomes tired of evanescent relationships and begins to place value on long-term meaningful relationships with same-sex peers; and finally (5) integration, an open-ended process that is marked by additional long term commitments, possibly leading to marriage.

A study by Dube and Savin-Williams determined that gay male adolescents progress along the following set of milestones of sexual maturity: awareness (10.0 years), sex with other males (15.4 years), self-labeling (15.8 years), disclosure (17.0 years), and first relationships (18.0 years). In terms of ethnic minorities, they also found that Latino men had the lowest age of awareness at eight and a half years old, with Asian American men having the latest sexual encounter with another man at seventeen. They also found that African-American men had sex with other men before identifying as gay, and Asian American men had sex with other men after.

Ultimately, however, coming out is a very subjective process, varying from person to person. Individuals may encounter a different hierarchy of steps, skip some steps entirely, or encounter something completely new and different. The glbtq community is in a state of flux as regards labelling, orientations, and gender identities.

Indeed, work by Lisa Diamond, who recently published a 5-year follow-up of a cohort of lesbian and bisexual women, questions the stability of presumably permanent sexual orientations. She found that many of the women in her study relinquished their lesbian and bisexual identities and later identified as heterosexual, despite their continuing willingness to engage in same-sex sexual relations.

Socio-Cultural Stressors and Reactions

Recent studies have placed the average age of coming out within the mid- to late-teens, with some precocious youth coming out even earlier. This is an astounding 10-year drop from prior studies, which reported that the average age of coming out hovered somewhere in the mid-20s. Of course, moderators such as geographic location, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, and other considerations serve as constant reminders that society plays a large part in the sexual development of all youth regardless of orientation.

Still, glbtq youth certainly have a number of concerns different from those of their heterosexual peers. In fact, in many parts of the world, coming out to families and peers can result in more than just a simple slap on the wrist. Legal and social penalties vary by culture, but can range anywhere from a seemingly nonchalant dismissal to death. Hence, adolescence is often a time of great stress for homosexual youth everywhere.

In the Western world, coming out to parents is one of the primary sources of anxiety and stress among homosexual youth. Because of their financial dependence, many youth fear negative reactions from their parents (that is, being cut off from financial aid). Others report fear of jeopardizing the quality of the parent-child relationship itself.

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