Coming Out Model

Sexual Identity: The Cass Model Adapted
Lora Wiens, Clinical Psychologist

Most LGBTQ people go through a complicated process of identity development and coming to terms with who they are. The following model developed by Vivienne Cass (1979) * describes a process from identity confusion, to comparison, then tolerance, acceptance, pride and finally identity synthesis. The “Additional factors for religious conservatives” section was added by Dr. Lora Wiens. While there might be applications to other religious people with conservative beliefs about homosexuality, these observations were written in the context of American Christendom. Related to this, this model is based on observations and the input of LGBTQ people impacted by American Christendom--it is not based on a controlled research study. Finally, this model assumes that it is positive to self-identify as LGBTQ and to come out. Some Christian conservatives may well disagree with this assumption and may reject this model on this basis.

While this model was developed for lesbian and gay people, the process may be similar for bisexual and transgender people. At this point, Dr. Lora Wiens has not had the opportunity to gather information from transgender people with a religious conservative background and so this model may not fully reflect that experience. It is important to keep in mind that not all LGBTQ individuals go through all the stages, that they may not do it in order, and that they may not clearly fit in any one stage at a particular time. Dr. Lora Wiens welcomes the input of all clinicians and/or LGBTQ people with personal experience of these issues. Please contact me at

  1. Identity Confusion: “Could I be LGBTQ?” Person is beginning to wonder if “homosexuality” is personally relevant. Denial and confusion are experienced.
  • Task: Who am I? Accept, Deny, Reject
  • Possible Responses: Will avoid information about LGBTQ people; inhibit behavior; deny homosexuality (“experimenting,” “an accident,” “just drunk”); judgmental attitudes and actions toward people who identify as LGBTQ are common in this stage. Men may separate emotional involvement from sexual attraction and/or involvement. Women may have deep friendships with women that are not explicitly sexual, though intensely emotional.
  • Additional factors for religious conservatives: This stage may be lengthened for someone in a conservative Christian community when people who identify as LGBTQ are viewed as outside of the community. There is often heightened shame about same-sex attractions and behaviors as they are viewed as sinful. Same-sex attractions are generally labeled as “temptation” rather than as part of identity. The denial can take the form of overspiritualizing. For example, some may view their more emotional, minimally sexual attachments to the opposite sex with as a more “pure” or “godly” form of love than the strong sexual attractions their peers report. Related to this, people committed to abstinence before marriage may believe they are less sinful for not desiring to have sex with their opposite sex partner before marriage.
  • Possible Needs: People at this stage may explore positive and negative judgments. They may need permission to be uncertain regarding sexual identity. They may find support in knowing that sexual identity and behavior occurs along a spectrum. Religious conservatives may find it helpful to know that others in their community “struggle” with “same sex attractions.”

      2.  Identity Comparison: At this stage, the person starts to think that maybe he or she
              could be LGBTQ. Any same-sex attractions are acknowledged. Self-alienation
              becomes isolation.
  • Task: Deal with social alienation
  • Possible Responses: At this stage, a person may begin to grieve for losses and the things s/he perceives s/he will have to give up by embracing their sexual orientation. Some people accept a lesbian, gay definition of behavior or same-sex attractions but maintains “heterosexual” identity of self. Sexuality may be compartmentalized and seen as separate from most if not all relationships, social roles, and life experiences. Some people during this stage tell themselves “Everyone is bisexual” or “It’s only temporary” or “I’m just in love with this particular woman/man.”
  • Additional factors for religious conservatives: During this stage, conservative Christians acknowledge that they are indeed LGBQ or may see themselves are heterosexual people who struggle with “same sex attractions.” This realization is frequently accompanying by feelings of depression, self-loathing, and despair. Some deal with the isolation of this stage by becoming a member of an “ex-gay” group or other support group for people with similar “struggles.” They also may seek out other LGBQ people committed to celibacy or straight supporters who share their theological stance.  Many Evangelicals will respond to their awareness of their sexuality by reading biblical arguments for and against “homosexual behavior.” Finally, people with conservative religious backgrounds may begin to develop a LGBTQ-affirming sexual morality. This can be challenging as homosexuality is sometimes paired by the conservative church with all things "other" such as promiscuity, infidelity, prostitution, pederasty, bestiality, and other "sinful" behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. When religious conservatives start to act on their sexual attractions, they may figure that since they are sinning by seeking sexual/romantic contact with someone of the same sex, nothing else matters. This reasoning can lead to promiscuity, unsafe sexual behaviors, and/or drug and alcohol abuse. When LGBQ Christians "give into" the "temptation" of engaging in sexual/romantic behavior with someone of the same-sex or even fantasize about these actions, they often experience guilt and self-recrimination followed by spiritual purification practices (confession, repentance, prayer, etc.). This pattern can be especially devastating psychologically and spiritually for gay and lesbian Christians who have chosen to marry someone of the opposite sex, making every choice to act and even fantasize in line with one's sexual orientation even more immoral and worthy of shame: the sin of homosexuality is paired with infidelity and fears of losing one's spouse and children. 
  • Possible needs: During this stage, it is very important for each person to develop his/her own definitions which for some  religious conservative may mean identifying as someone with “same-sex attractions” rather than identifying as LGBQ.  Supportive people will not label the person going through this stage but support their process of self-identification. People at this stage benefit from getting accurate information about sexual identity, LGBTQ resources, and encouragement to talk about the loss of heterosexual life expectations. Theological resources are needed for religious conservatives starting at this stage. Religious conservatives may also need support and/or guidance to begin to develop a LGBTQ affirming sexual morality.

       3. Identity Tolerance: “I’m not the only one.” Accepts the probability of being LGBTQ and 
             begins to recognize corresponding sexual, social and emotional needs.
  • Task: Decrease social alienation by seeking out other LGBTQ people.
  • Possible Responses:  At this stage, a person begins to have language to talk and think about the issues. They usually start to seek out LGBTQ culture (positive and negative). They may accentuate the differences between LGBTQ people and heterosexuals. Bisexuals may identify as lesbian or gay to simplify their understanding of their identity. Some people try out a variety of stereotypical roles.
  • Additional factors for religious conservatives: Some conservative Christians solve the problem of isolation by developing community with other LGBTQ people that share their beliefs and are either committed to celibacy or are involved in an attempt with others who are seeking ‘healing’ for their sexuality. Others spend some time in this stage via ignoring or compartmentalizing their conservative belief system. People in this group are in danger of returning to stages 1 and 2. Still other conservative Christians stop practicing their religion during this stage out of the belief it is destructive to them and begin to seek out alternative spiritualities or begin to identify as non-religious. Finally, some begin to form less conservative beliefs about homosexuality through religious practices such as prayer and finding credible pro-gay arguments in the Bible. People in the final two groups would benefit from seeking out positive LGBTQ role-models with similar belief systems.  
    • Possible Needs: Be supported in exploring own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as external heterosexism. Receive support in finding positive LGBTQ community connections. It is particularly important for the person to know community resources. It is especially important for people with conservative religious backgrounds to get credible information through books and other media on ways to integrate their developing faith and sexual identities. Role models of LGBTQ people with a healthy integration of their spirituality and sexual identity can be critical because LGBTQ religious conservatives often arrive this stage feeling alienated from both their religious community and the LGBTQ community.

          4. Identity Acceptance: “I will be okay.” Accepts, rather than tolerates, LGBTQ self-image. 
                 There is continuing and increased contact with the LGBTQ subculture.
    • Task:  People in this stage must deal with the inner tension of no longer subscribing to society’s norm and attempt to bring congruence between private and public view of self.
    • Possible Responses: Accepts LGBTQ self-identification but may compartmentalize “gay life.” Some people reduce contact with heterosexual community. Some attempt to “fit in” and “not make waves” with LGBTQ community. During this stage, “coming out” to people outside the LGBTQ community begins for many people. There is reduced anxiety about being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as “gay.”
    • Additional factors for religious conservatives: Conservative Christians often take longer to “come out” to anyone due to messages in their religious communities and often immediate families. When gay and lesbian Christians who have chosen celibacy choose to come out, they may feel they are between two worlds (e.g. Christians who identify as "ex-gay" and LGBTQ people who are accepting) and face a unique problem among all LGBTQ people--trying to come to grips with a future empty of a romantic partner. People who decide to leave ex-gay groups may need a heightened level of support as sometimes people in ex-gay groups sever relationships with those perceived to have “fallen into temptation.”  They are especially at risk for censure from other conservative Christians and conservative family members. In the face of this rejection, two responses are common: 1) Rejecting the religious community and its beliefs as a source of pain and oppression or 2) Grieving being mislabeled by community as “sinning” or “not a true believer” when one still self-identifies as Christian.
    • Possible Needs: People in this stage need support in making decisions about where and when to come out. They will need an extra support after coming out to important people if the reaction is negative. Religious conservatives may need extra support in prepared to deal with the many theological objections to their choice people in their former religious community may voice. LGBTQ Christians who choose celibacy may benefit from the support and acceptance of LGBTQ people who have chosen other paths, even though this might make them anxious. Many people in this stage are still grieving the loss of what they perceived that they life would have been like as someone who is heterosexual. They are still continuing to combat internalized “homophobia,” sometimes accentuated when they receive a negative reaction from others after coming out.

           5. Identity Pride: “I’ve got to let people know who I am!” People in this stage may become
                  immersed in LGBTQ culture with less contact with the heterosexual community. There
                  can be an Us-Them quality to political/social conversations with people who are in this
    • Task: To maintain a positive identity as LGBTQ while confronting the anger and defensiveness that can arise in relationship to heterosexuals, especially those who are not affirming.
    • Possible Responses: Splits world into “gay” (good) and “straight” (bad). Experiences more tension in relationships with heterosexuals as he or she is less willing to “blend in.” Identifies LGBTQ subculture culture as primary or sole source of support; mostly or all gay friends, business connections, social connections.
    • Additional factors for religious conservatives:  At this point, many people with a conservative religious background have either joined a mostly LGBTQ-affirming religious congregation or are in the process of developing a different faith identity. It is also common to shift to a faith-identity that focuses on a personal relationship with God or alternate spirituality while minimizing the need to participate in any faith community. Religious people outside of LGBTQ-affirming religious congregations are viewed negatively.  People in this stage are usually angry at people of their former religious communities and can be defensive when interacting with them.
    • Possible Needs: People at this stage may need help developing skills for coping with reactions and responses to the disclosure of sexual identity. They need ultimately to recognize that while anger is understandable and an appropriate response to heterosexism, defensiveness may alienate potentially supportive people. Supportive heterosexual people can help by trying to understand this anger and responding non-defensively and non-judgmentally.

           6. Identity SynthesisPeople in this stage develop a holistic view of self. Self-definition
                 broadens and is less focused on sexual identity.
    • Task:  To integrate being LGBTQ into the rest of one’s identity.
    • Possible Responses: Continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity and reactivity. They can identify varying levels of homophobia in straight and LGBTQ people rather than viewing it as all or nothing. LGBTQ identity is integrated with all aspects of “self.” People now feel OK to move out into the larger community and not just stay in the LGBTQ subculture. Feelings of pride continues but with less defensiveness. Bisexual individuals may feel more comfortable self-identifying as such rather than giving into pressure to join either the “gay” or “straight” subculture.
    • Additional factors for religious conservatives:  During this stage, former religious conservatives are able to dialogue with people of that religion with minimal defensiveness. People with religious beliefs may feel comfortable moving outside of a mostly gay church to churches with more straight people. A positive faith identity is formed based on the person’s current expression of religion or spirituality.
    * Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.

    All adaptions to Cass' original model related to religious conservatives are copyright to Dr. Lora Wiens. Nothing can be copied without written consent of the author. Copyright © 2011.