Five Stages of Coming Out
This is a summary by Paul Beeman of an article, “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process,” by Eli Coleman, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of Minnesota Medical School, from A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients, edited by John C. Gonsiorek, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1985.
Parents of gay children may gain deeper insight into their child’s homosexuality by understanding the five developmental stages of coming out.
This is according to Dr. Eli Coleman, psychologist, sex therapist, prolific writer, and professor at the Medical School of the University of Minnesota. He does not assume that all gays and lesbians go through these stages in order, nor that all complete all five stages.
Some may get locked into one stage and never progress. Even at the identity integration stage, coming out is a continuing process.
But there are developmental tasks inherent in each stage which need to be completed some time, in order ultimately to become fully self-actualizing and integrated. Here are the stages.
I. Pre-Coming Out
Some studies have found that core gender and sex-role identities are formed by age 3, thus sexual object choice is part of gender identity. If that is true, then heterosexuality and homosexuality are determined primarily during late infancy and early childhood, and may be identified at a pre-conscious level, or even a conscious level.
A child may grow up learning the family’s and society’s prejudices against being gay, while the child feels different, alienated and alone. Since individuals at this stage are not consciously aware of same-sex feelings, they cannot describe what is wrong. They may hide their feelings from themselves and others, suffer low self-esteem and depression, and only communicate their conflict through behavioral problems.
II. Coming Out
Individuals move into this stage when they acknowledge their homosexual feeling, which is the first developmental task of this stage. That may mean simply acknowledging a confusing homosexual thought or fantasy, without fully understanding or labeling what that means. Some studies indicate the median age fr this experience is from 13 to 18.
Once the feelings have been identified, the next task is telling someone, a vital function in beginning one’s self-acceptance. The confidant’s reaction has a powerful impact. If negative, it can confirm old prejudices and lower self-esteem. If positive, it can counteract old prejudices and permit individuals to begin accepting their sexual feelings and increase self-esteem. “But no one can develop self-concepts such as accepted, valued or worthwhile all alone.” Acceptance by a parent is an extremely powerful force for self-acceptance.
This stage of experimenting with a new sexual identity is akin to the heterosexual adolescent’s first major experience of sexual activity with others. However, most individuals with same-sex preference do not experience adolescence in their teenage years. There is a developmental lag in their sexual adolescence, which can be confusing or even frightening to persons who have otherwise matured intellectually, vocationally and financially.
The developmental tasks are: development of interpersonal skills to meet and socialize with others who have homosexual orientation; development of a sense of personal attractiveness and sexual competence, by becoming involved in sexual relationships; seeing themselves not only in a sexual way, but recognizing other needs, like affection and support.
A major stumbling block appears in the use of alcohol and drugs to ease the pain of rejection and the ever-present lack of self-esteem.
IV. First Relationships
After a period of sexual and social experimentation, exploration can lose its intrigue, and needs for intimacy and a stable, committed relationship then become important.
The developmental task is learning to function in a same-sex relationship in a predominately heterosexual society. First serious relationships can be characterized by intensity, possessiveness and lack of trust, and therefore they are often temporary, discouraging and can end as a way to relieve the pressure.
This is an open-ended, ongoing process that will last the rest of one’s life. Such an integrated identity usually takes from 10 to 14 years after the first awareness of same-sex feelings. New feelings will emerge; new relationships will be enjoyed. This stage is characterized by non-possessiveness, mutual trust, freedom, and greater success.
Some may choose not to enter long-term relationships, and thus are better prepared if they come to an end. Others make permanent commitments approximating true marriage.
The gay liberation movement has facilitated the process of acquiring a positive homosexual identity by providing more social support. Yet, Dr. Coleman concludes, positive reactions by family and influential individuals may have a greater impact than all the direct and indirect reactions of society.