“The unprecedented growth of the gay community in recent history has transformed our culture and consciousness, creating radically new possibilities for people to come out’ and live more openly as homosexuals”(Herdt 2). Before the 1969’s Stonewall riot in New York, homosexuality was a taboo subject. Research concerning homosexuality emphasized the etiology, treatment, and psychological adjustment of homosexuals. Times have changed since 1969. Homosexuals have gained great attention in arts, entertainment, media, and politics. Yesterday’s research on homosexuality has expanded to include trying to understand the different experiences and situations of homosexuals (Ben-Ari 89-90).
Despite the transition, little consideration has been given to understanding the growing population of gay adolescents. 25% of American families are likely to have a gay child (Hidalgo 24); In the United States, three million adolescents are estimated to be homosexual. Yet, American society still ignores gay adolescents. Majority of children are raised in heterosexual families, taught in heterosexual establishments, and put in heterosexual peer groups. Gay adolescents often feel forced by parents to pass as “heterosexually normal” (Herdt 2). As a result, homosexual teens hide their sexual orientation and feelings, especially from their parents. Limited research conducted on gay young adults on disclosure to parents generally suggests that disclosure is a time of familial crisis and emotional distress. Very few researchers argue that disclosure to parents results in happiness, bringing parents and children closer (Ben-Ari 90).
The debate over homosexuality as nature or nurture dominates most topics about homosexuality. People often confuse the nature/nurture issue with the development of gay identity. In fact, the nature/nurture argument plays a small, insignificant role concerning gay youths (Walling 11). Homosexual identity is the view of the self as homosexual in association with romantic and sexual situations (Troiden 46) Many researchers have either discussed or created several models or theories concerning the development of homosexual identity. However, the most prominent is Troiden’s sociological four-stage model of homosexual identity formation. Dr. Richard R. Troiden describes the development of homosexual identity in four stages: sensitization, identity confusing, identity assumption, and commitment. During the stages of homosexual identity development, many gay adolescents encounter many preconceptions and assumptions regarding homosexuality. These assumptions are presumption of heterosexuality, presumption of inversion, and recognition of stigma (Herdt 4-5).
Using Troiden’s model as a guide, the present paper examines the four stages of homosexual identity development as it affects both gay children and parents. Section one concentrates on the first two stages of homosexual identity formation and the ordeals gay adolescents and parents before disclosure. Section two explains the third and fourth stages of homosexual identity development. Finally, section three discusses parents’ reactions to the disclosure, and the relationship with their child thereafter.
The Pre-Disclosure Period
The first stage of homosexual identity development, sensitization, occurs before puberty. In the sensitization stage, gay adolescents experience feelings of being “different” and marginal from same gender peers (Troiden 50). Comments such as the following illustrate what boys feel during this stage:
I had a keener interest in the arts; I never learned to fight; I just didn’t feel
I was like other boys. I was very fond of pretty things like ribbons and
flowers and music; I was indifferent to boy’s games, like cops and
robbers. I was more interested in watching insects and reflecting on certain
things. (Durby 5)
However, during this time, children do not associate feelings as being homosexual or heterosexual; these categories have no significance to pre-teens (Troiden 52).
Gay youngsters and their parents encounter the presumption of heterosexuality. The heterosexual assumption starts during the sensitization stage; however, the effects can be longterm. The presumption of heterosexuals is the belief that being heterosexual is superior, “heterosexual ethnocentricity” Everyone is heterosexual; to be “different” is to be inferior (Herdt 5). American society has strict defined male and female roles. Conformity is highly valued. Going against conformity especially gender abnormality is viewed with derision and usually awarded with disgrace and contempt (Isay 30). What is important is the masculine/feminine dichotomy underlines heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy. Parents force gender conformity in elementary children and even pre-school children when children display nonconformist gender roles. Many parents fear that if their son is exposed to homosexuality or even the negative beliefs of homosexuality then their child might be recruited or seduced into the gay lifestyle (Taylor 41).
The sensitization stage can be a very difficult time for gay youngsters. Children who display nonconformist gender behavior are more likely to be pressure by parents and peers to change their behavior (Mallon, Helping 83). Feeling “different” and becoming self-alienated have been related to the heterosexual assumption. Among the most powerful causes are early homosexual and sexual encounters and disinterest in many of several gender conformist sorts, such as indifferent to the opposite sex or to sports. Gays tend to have their first sexual contact at an earlier age than heterosexuals do, although no evidence indicates prehomosexual boys develop earlier than heterosexual boys do. Researchers argue that unusual disinterest in girls or sports reinforce the social alienation of gays, because team sports and dating are key components of peer groupings (Herdt 6). One of the primary responses in feeling “different” is the decline of self-esteem because of the damaging isolation. Another response is to displace self-interest from sports and dating to intellectual or artistic feats. A third response is to engage in secret same-sex romantic relations (7).
Once the feeling of being “different” occurs, another perception emerges, the presumption of inversion. In this perception, gay individuals have gender conflict because of their reversal of gender behavior. This conflict arises from the stereotype that if one is not heterosexual then you must be abnormal: the “invert” (Herdt 7). Gay adolescents lack “gay knowledge,” that is, there is an absence of a real positive knowledge of homosexuality identity. The inversion assumption is misrepresentation, which can cause serious damage to gay teens’ well being. Feeling abnormal, gay young males think that they must display characteristics of females in order to “fit in”, causing hyperfemininity in males (8).
Identity confusion is the second stage of homosexual identity formation. Gay males start to become aware that these feelings and behavior might be connected to homosexuality (Troiden 52). Gay teenagers experience inner confusion and ambiguity. Their identity is “stuck in the middle”: they no longer consider themselves as heterosexuals, yet they have not yet viewed themselves as gay. The early phase of identity confusion is described as:
You are not sure who you are. You are confused about what sort of
person you are and where your life is going. You ask yourself the questions “Who am I?,” “Am I a homosexual?,” “Am I really heterosexual?” (Cass 53)
By middle to late adolescence, gay teens start to begin perceives themselves as gay. Many homosexual describe this phase like the following:
You feel that you probably are homosexual, although you’re not definitely sure. You feel distant or cut off other people. You are beginning think that it might help to meet other homosexuals but you’re not sure whether you really want to or not. You prefer to put on a front of being completely heterosexual. (Cass 53)
Gay males respond to identity confusion by taking on one or more of the following tactics: (a) denial; (b) repair; (c) avoidance; (d) redefinition; and, (e) acceptance (Troiden 56). In denial, gay adolescents deny their homosexual feelings. Repair involves efforts to eliminate homosexual emotions. Homosexual tend to steer away from homosexuality in avoidance (57). The redefinition strategy is temporary; teens see their homosexual feeling as a phase that will pass. The final strategy is acceptance; teenagers recognize that they might be homosexuals and search for information about their sexual feelings (58)
The recognition of stigma faces gay teens around the time of the second stage of homosexual identity development (Herdt 10). Living in a homophobic society hinders many adolescents from following their homosexual identity (5). The reason why gay teens feel disgusted and shamed about being homosexual is society’s bias and stereotypical view on homosexuals. Some gay males report the first word they associate their sexual feelings with is not homosexual, but “cocksucker” (Troiden 58). The five tactics of dealing with identity confusion are really stigma-management strategies. All one has to do is turn the television to Jerry Springer and see the stereotypical super-effeminate homosexual parading on the stage; watch a movie about with homosexual, but dealing with homosexuals with AIDS; or, hear heated debates on the moral perversion of homosexuals from TV Christian evangelist. Gay adolescents have no positive gay role models. They are reluctant to consider themselves homosexual because that might mean being “super-effeminate-stricken-with-AIDS-doomed-to-hell faggot.”
Gay adolescents are not the only ones to notice that they might be homosexual; their parents are just as perceptive. Many gay youths suggest that their mothers seem to be aware of their identity confusion (Mallon, Wagon 40). One mother recollects on knowing:
I noticed Joshua was different “He’s artistic,” I told myself, uneasy with the other word that was running through my head: “effeminate” Like many parents, I fell prey to fears that my son’s difference meant he would grow up to be one of them, a homosexual. (Mallon, Wagon 40)
Gay men describe their fathers as distant during childhood; they lacked any bond to
them (Isay 32). A father may become unreceptive or detached when sensing his son may be homosexual. The fathers removal may be the reason why gay young males have poor self-esteem.
The Disclosure Period
The third stage of Troiden’s model is identity assumption. “In this stage, the homosexual identity becomes both a self-identity and a presented identity, at least to other homosexuals” (Troiden 59). Self-recognition and disclosure to others of their sexual preference first occurs here; signs of coming out. Along with self-recognition and disclosure, the characteristics of this developmental stage are: better self-acceptance of being homosexual, sexual activities, involvement in gay subcultures, exploration of different types of friendships and other relationships. While there is self-identification and better self-acceptance, full acceptance of being homosexual does not occur; it is tolerated (60). Cass describes people at this stage as follows:
You feel sure you’re a homosexual and you put up with, or tolerate this. You see yourself as a homosexual for now but are not sure about how you will be in the future. You usually take care to put across a heterosexual image. You sometimes mix socially with homosexuals, or would like to do this. You feel a need to meet others like yourself. (156)
Contact with other homosexuals is crucial at this stage. Negative initial contact with other homosexuals can be disastrous, resulting the novice homosexual to return to the experiences of stage two. However, positive initial contact with other homosexuals furthers the development and maturation of the novice homosexual. Positive contact helps reduce the feelings of being alienated or abnormal (Troiden 61).
The final stage in development of a homosexual identity in Troiden’s model is that of commitment. In the commitment stage, homosexuals adopt homosexuality as a lifestyle and feel comfortable. The gay youth enjoys satisfaction of being gay (Troiden 63). Within commitment are two elements, internal and external. In the internal dimension, sexuality and emotionality integrate, positive alteration in the conceptualization of gay identity occurs, and an increase of satisfaction and happiness emerges (64). The external characteristics are the effects of the internal dimension. Same-sex romantic relationships start, demonstrating the integration of emotionality and sexuality. The positive shift of the conceptualization of gay identity makes disclosure easier (65). Cass expresses this stage a positive and open stage:
You are prepared to tell almost anyone that you are s homosexual. You are happy about the way you are but feel that being homosexual is not the most important part of you. You mix socially with homosexuals and heterosexuals with whom you are open about your homosexuality. (156)
The Post Disclosure Period
Some parents adjust effectively to their child’s homosexuality; however, other parents are unsuspecting and reacting erratically, negative manner (Mallon, Wagon 36). The reason for such negative parental reaction to their child’s disclosure is the first thing most parents do is apply their negative and often mistaken conception of homosexuality to their own child (42). Living in a homophobic society can create family problems, because a homophobic society triggers negative reactions (36). Parents try and deal with “with guilt, anger, concerns for a child’s happiness in the years to come, religious issues, and any of the myriad of myths that are part of the parent’s own homophobic socialization” (Hidalgo 21).
The beginning reactions of parents to a child’s coming out relate to gay adolescents’ experiences in the second stage of homosexuality identity development, identity confusion. Parents go through stages of: (1) denial; (2) avoidance; (3) repair; (4) guilt; and, (5) rejection (1 42). Many parents constantly tell their child, “It’s just a phase.” The denial stage for parents is the redefinition period that gay adolescents undergo in identity confusion. Many parents tend to avoid the subject all together; parents want to talk about anything but it. However, homosexuals feel that they cannot communicate with their parents (Mallon, Wagon 44). Most parents send their gay child to therapy in hopes for a “cure.” (45). The notion of trying to cure their child is a reflection of their wishes than on his needs” (Hidalgo 24-25). Besides, most efforts of a “cure” fail (Mallon, Wagon 45).
Parents have been given wrong information about their role modeling, behavior, and parenting style that determined their child’s sexual orientation. Therefore, parents react negatively; they feel guilty (Mallon, Helping 83). They start to believe they were parents, asking themselves, “What did I do wrong?” (Mallon, Wagon 49). Parents should realize that there is no evidence that parents are responsible for their child’s sexual orientation (Hidalgo 24).
In many cases, the parents reject their child. Many homosexuals recount feeling like this when their parents rejected them:
When I realized that my own family couldn’t accept me, my own flesh and blood, I thought, why should I expect the rest of society to cut me any slack? I felt hopeless, disillusioned and worthless. My own family how could they do this to me, be so cold, so uncaring. It was as if they were saying they didn’t care if I died. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. (Mallon, Helping 84).
Rejection can be very brutal. Parents become emotional, verbal, and physical abusive to their child. The abuse can be so severe that juvenile court must step in (Abinati 161). Being kicked out from the home is another consequence of rejection by parents (Mallon, Wagon 83). Urban and rural Associate researchers discovered that many young male prostitutes are homosexual, and they are products of their families’ inability to accept their son’s homosexuality (Coleman 136).
It would be wrong to say that only negative outcomes occur when a child tells his parents he is gay. Many children feel that in order to establish an honest relationship with their parents then they must “come clean” to them. Ben-Ari’s research points out those adolescents who want to be open and honest with their parents receive that after disclosure. Parents are usually accepting after time their child’s sexual preference (107)
This paper has effort to generally show youths growing up gay. A number of issues have been presented involving gay identity formation, parental interaction, and disclosure. Homosexuality is a very controversial subject. By no mean does this paper try to say that it is “totally correct.” However, the paper does examine logical theoretical ideas of what gay adolescents endure, using and combining research and reports of other gay studies.