Vivienne C. Cass is a sex therapist and Psychologist that came up with an important model for gay and lesbian identity formation in 1979. While there have been plenty of valid criticisms of her model, it remains to still be a useful tool for homosexuals to reflect on their development. Reflecting on this model and the issues that are encountered in each stage of development has helped me understand my internal reality as a gay male. I’ve focused a lot in this blog on external realities primarily in social issues both within society and the gay community. But this pride month I thought I might write an internal reflection inspired by Cass’s homosexual identity formation model.
Vivienne C. Cass
Summarizing Cass’s Model and the Pride Stage
I have left some references about Cass’s model below for those interested in exploring it in more detail. For those looking for a light summery there is a Wikipedia link[i], for those wishing to have greater depth I’ll put in some academic references[ii] [iii](assuming you have access to academic databases). Essentially Cass purposed gay and lesbian individuals go through 6 stages of identity development. We often talk about the significance of “coming out” but our issues of identity do not simply stop there and are more complex than that. Each stage of development has its own tasks, challenges, and issues to consider. I personally am long pass the formative stages of telling heterosexual people who I am. If anything, I am closest to the 5th stage “Pride.” At this stage homosexuals are less concerned about how they are perceived by heterosexuals and gaining their acceptance, and more concerned about establishing and maintaining gay community exclusively around them. I’ve seen some media about Cass’s model that implies this stage can last nearly 10 years or potentially never really end once you’ve established yourself in it. However, it should be noted that not everybody fallows Cass’s model perfectly, and not everyone goes through all 6 stages to “synthesis” at the very end (nor do I feel they have to, to be fully fulfilled as a homosexual).
The 6 Stages
At the 5th stage of “Pride,” a sense of anger tends to be a common experience towards the heteronormative nature of society, sometimes even at heterosexuals themselves. For those of us that have watched Queer as Folk (American version) we all know that famous line from Bryan Kenny “There are only two kinds of straight people in this world. The ones that hate you to your face and the ones that hate you behind your back.” That’s an example of the kind of anger that can be common in this stage. There is a greater comfort around other homosexuals then there is around heterosexuals. The gay community is seen as the primary source of social support and community. People in this stage often intentionally distance themselves from heterosexuals in order to pursue and focus on homosexual community and relationships. I know this has been very true of me. Cass also recommends anger management during this stage as it’s a natural side effect of becoming less tolerant of heterosexism.
I have often advocated for the need of the “gay vacuum” effect of exclusive homosexual spaces. There are some things a homosexual will NEVER discover about himself, without a vacuum where heterosexuality is absent and homosexuality is normalized and accessible. I’ve seen it time and time again where we internalize the homophobia and heterosexism around us in statements like “I’m not like most gays…I only like guys, otherwise I am just like straight people…I don’t identify with the gay community.” I use to say stuff like this myself, having no idea how self-defeating and self-isolating these statements were. I would complain, complain, and complain about not having a boyfriend and not knowing any gay people that I liked. Yet held this internalized homonegativity that wanted straight people to feel comfortable with me by distancing myself from the gay community with damaging false beliefs about what the gay community was and what being gay meant in general. It wasn’t until I experienced a week-long retreat at a camp ground of exclusively around 180 gay men, where not a single heterosexual was in sight, that I came face to face with my own internalized homonegativity. Where I began to realize how my desire to feel comfortable around heterosexuals and to make them feel comfortable with me when I came out…ultimately caused irrational and self-isolating beliefs about the gay community. So few gay men ever experience that “gay vacuum” effect at depth where they are forced to acknowledge how indoctrinated they are by heteronormative society and how unnecessary that self-isolating and self-damaging inner voice is. I deeply believe more gay men need access to this experience, I’ve seen it time and time again in myself and in other homo-brotheren. Gay men need community exclusively with each other to put a mirror in front of ourselves and tear down our internal barriers to feeling connected to each other. Having allies is great and when we have a political rally I think they should be valued and welcomed, but when it comes to our social need to have community and relationship with each other…they can’t help us with this process specifically nor is it really about them. There is no point to being gay, without quality gay relationships in our life. We don’t get access to this through a hetero-dominant society, even when it is supportive.
So that’s the important task of Cass’s 5th “Pride” stage. Seeking out gay community exclusively. This can be somewhat politically and social justice oriented, but more importantly its about developing homo-sexual/social relationships and less about disclosing your identity to straight people and trying to feel okay about that. In this process, you become more aware of how heterosexism and heteronormativity has impacted your own psyche. So OFCOURSE you’re going to feel anger towards the fact you had to deal with that, when you realize you really don’t “have to” passively accept it. You can start focusing on gay relationships and unapologetically seek them out. It causes you to face the reality of your sexual desires and feelings. It makes you focus on developing sexual, romantic, and even social connections that heterosexuals could never give you and you never are going to apologize for that birth right ever again. You’re going to respond to straight people saying “I’m not homophobic but…” by cutting them off and saying “…but you can stick whatever your about to say up your ass!”
My Pride and Anger
My entrance into my Pride stage was characterized a lot by cutting people out of my life. My identity was no longer about just wanting to be accepted by straight people, it was about wanting to unapologetically find and maintain gay relationships and community. Straight people couldn’t give me that even if they were trying to be supportive. After all they are heterosexual and not homosexual. I often found when I would attempt to find gay relationships they would often make it all about them. “Its hard for everyone to find relationships, not just homosexuals.” So when have you ever been in a public space where you had to assume everyone around you was gay and to assume someone is straight could get you heterophobically assaulted then? Have you ever been afraid to hold hands with a date in public out of fear you could be harassed or assaulted because your date is the opposite sex? Have you ever felt like there are so few heterosexuals around you that you have to use a mobile networking app just to feel connected to them? Not even just to date them, just to simply feel connected to them and feel like they are out there? Sure, heterosexuals have relationship problems too…but none of those problems are due to there being a lack of other heterosexuals around them. So I got tired of being silenced by those that could not relate. That couldn’t really appreciate or understand where I was coming from even when I tried to explain my perspective to them. My fuse got increasingly shorter, and my angry reactions to even the smallest microagression increased in intensity. My boundaries turned into a big gay, liberal, feminist, sex positive bubble that had no room for conservative, heteronormative, patriarchal, slut shaming bullshit.
I am not the only queer that has gone through this experience. I think it’s a natural part of our development. I may happen in different ways for different queer identities (ie someone who is Trans might not have the same exact microaggressions or social oppressions, but might be similar in that at some point they start cutting people out of their lives that remind them of or want them to be who they were before transitioning). It was a transformation for me, becoming an unapologetic homosexual and choosing to only be around people that could affirm that or that could support the process of gay socialization. But, especially after this last election cycle, I am beginning to see the wisdom of Cass recommending anger management to homosexuals in the Pride stage. I’ve seen, shared, and expressed a lot of anger with the LGBTQ community. I think anger is a legitimate expression of injustice and the oppressed, but it can easily become so common place that it stands in the way of social harmony in our community and personal resilience and well being.
Critical Issue: Internal Integration, Not Heteronormative Synthesis
I use to think of Cass’s 6th stage “synthesis” as it is described in some media being rather heteronormative itself. Why does someone “have to” reintegrate into heterosexual society to be a fully realized homosexual? Is it wrong to want to focus on gay relationships, community networking, and so on? If someone feels they are deeply defined by something they are passionate about, such as being an actor…why do they have to belittle that passion and social experience as “just another part of who I am?” Yes there are many other things beyond being gay that make up who I am…but why do I have to compartmentalize that part of me or separate it in any way from the totality of who I am? Especially if I have a deep passion, interest, and enthusiasm about it. I love homosocial experiences. I love watching other guys go through homosocial experiences and discover things about themselves. Watching them process things they never could otherwise, and discover a sense of community and connection with each other. Even when that experience comes with stressors and melodramas, I still love it. No different than would Barack Obama always attach importance to being a Politician. As would Patrick Stewart always see being an Actor as a defining part of who he is. If being gay has so much passion, experience, and meaning attached to it, I do not feel it’s fair to expect me to belittle it as “just another part of me” (as some people describe Cass’s model, though others word it differently) in order to be a wholistically integrated homosexual. I realize not all homosexuals feel this way, but not all homosexuals have nearly as much passion and emotional investment in their community either. That’s really the issue I have with Cass’s 6th stage in how some people define it as no longer seeing gay identity as a central and important part of oneself. But, that said, I do think there is some wisdom in at least getting to a place where the anger is processed and expressed in healthier ways. This is what I think we should take away as the important experience of the 6th stage. After all she does mention anger towards heterosexism “diminishes,” but does not “go away,” during the 6th and final “synthesis” stage. I take that as being better able to choose your battles. Being able to walk away from that microaggression you may not like, but decide its not worth the emotional energy and there are more important things you could focus on. Essentially being able to “respond” instead of “react.”
Healing Means a Healthier Relationship with Anger
I am sure some of my readers have seen the commentary that went viral by Lady Bunny the drag queen.[iv] While I do not think it’s realistic or fair to expect queers to stop getting angry and having the knit picky arguments we have, I do think she has a point. Are we letting knit picky battles over microagressions distract us from larger issues? Are those battles even worth fighting half the time? Maybe they are worth fighting in some situations, in which case by all means assert yourself. However, do you find yourself getting exhaustively angry all the time and you can’t just simply take a break from it and enjoy what good things we do have? Queers have a natural process of healthy development that they eventually get to a place where they assert themselves more and cut out toxic relationships that prevent affirmation and happiness in their experience. But with that process unresolved issues in our consciousness surface. After the extreme cultural polarization from the 2016 elections, I know it was getting hard to focus on bigger goals and keeping things in perspective. The cultural wars made me and so many of us so angry and reactionary. So much of my personal wounds festered and came to the surface. Now that I am going to grad school to become a counselor, I am having to challenge myself to monitor my emotional reactions to things and get them under-control. After all someday I may have a LGBTQ youth client who’s coming out, and I will have to work with their parents who may or may not need to process homophobic/transphobic feelings. I cannot be an effective counselor for either the queer youth or the parent if I react instead of responding and allowing it to be a process of slowly getting to a better place.
The anger I’ve carried for so long has been like a defense mechanism, trying to override the anxiety that is triggered by the traumas of my past. I think if most angry social justice queers are honest with themselves, they probably have a similar internal reality. My anger protected me, gave me the strength to assert boundaries and advocate for my needs, and helped me challenge toxic oppressive things I internalized. It was also very useful when I ran an LGBT organization and gave me the motivation to push an agenda to a school administration and get things done. There are times anger is useful and healthy, but there are also times that it’s just masking a deeper distress in your consciousness. Are you really doing yourself or others any service if you just let those wounds remain unhealed and unprocessed? We are so focused on the external realities (which are important and should be addressed) that we can neglect nurturing our internal realities. I am not a fan of shallow New Age approach that would tell you to just “think positive” and pretend like all your raw and very real human emotions don’t exist. I am not telling you that your (or my) anger is something to avoid or that you can easily just let it go. But I am saying to address where it is internally coming from and own it. Work on processing those emotions, if you doubt it will undoubtedly come out in other ways such as alcoholism, substance abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors. I can’t change the past, the homophobic bullies of my past have left a deep scar on me that will likely never go away. But I can treat and mend the wound…and though the scar will be there forever, hopefully it will become less tender and venomous over time. With such healing work, hopefully I can become a better person everyday, and be a more effective advocate for generations after me who need us to pass on the torch. Hopefully as Lady Bunny said, we should model the gay community, and the larger LGBTQ community as well, to be a community they’d be proud to be a part of. Is a community that only focuses on what there is to be angry (while ignoring what there is to be celebrated) really a community to be “Proud” of?
[ii] Journal of Homosexuality: “Homosexual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model” by Vivienne C. Cass, MPsych, MAPsS; 1979
[iii] The Journal of Sex Research: “Homosexual Identity Formation: Testing a Theoretical Model” by Vivienne C. Cass; 1984