ISSUE 107 DECEMBER 2007 BACK

lbgt youth

Coming out resilient: Strategies to help gay and lesbian adolescents

Tania DuBeau and David E. Emenheiser

This article focuses on ways that adolescents discover their sexual identity and how individuals and programs can foster resilience in gay/lesbian youth and make a positive difference in their lives.

Remembering back to childhood, where was the best place to hide? The place where you could hide in complete darkness from the terrors outside? You felt safe. You heard people walking by beyond the door. Your heart raced, anticipating detection. The steps retreated, and again you felt safe. They didn’t find you. You listened to voices; you looked for the light. You peeked out the door to make sure it was safe. You retreated into the darkness, until the time came for you to open the door wide ... to come out of the closet.
“Coming out of the closet” is a metaphor commonly used in the mainstream to describe the self-disclosure process of gays/lesbians. Keeping this imagery in mind can help each of us empathize with what gay/lesbian people experience as they discover/disclose their sexual orientation. The perception of safety is one of the most critical factors in when these adolescents choose to open the door of their closet.

The professional literature on gay/lesbian issues (e.g., DeCrescenzo,1994; Phillips, McMillen, Sparks, & Ueberle,1997; Savin-Williams, 1990) increasingly indicates the need for individuals and programs that serve gay/lesbian adolescents, especially around this crucial time of self-disclosure. In addition, the urgency of this need is emphasized by recent news headlines, such as the rise in hate crimes against gays/lesbians, the controversy over including gays/lesbians in anti-discrimination and personal freedom laws, and the backlash against portrayals of gays/lesbians in the media. Other research (e.g., Rubin, 1996; Wolin & Wolin, 1993) shows that resiliency relies on an emotionally and physically safe environment created by a significant individual, such as a parent, teacher, mentor, or friend.

These adults and professionals can foster resilience in gay/ lesbian youth by developing a comprehensive approach to working with them that encompasses a variety of strategies for meeting their varied needs during the coming-out process (Bass & Kaufman, 1996; DuBeau, 1998). Although gays/ lesbians are diverse, a framework can be helpful in understanding the commonalities in their coming-out stories. Cass (1984) provided such a framework by describing the coming-out process in these six stages:

1. Identity Confusion
2. Identity Comparison
3. Identity Tolerance
4. Identity Acceptance
5. Identity Pride
6. Identity Synthesis

Individual gays/lesbians come out at various ages and in various ways. Most individuals do not neatly progress from one stage to the next. Rather, individuals often oscillate between stages and recycle through the whole process in various situations during a lifetime. A variety of existing general strategies related to school environment, community resources, school resources, curriculum, and organizational policies can be implemented at the specific stages of the coming-out process. The discussion of these options below will help you connect the appropriate strategies with the needs of each individual.

Stage 1: Identity confusion
The assumption of heterosexuality is questioned during this stage. Individuals begin to have gay/lesbian thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Even if no one in your school or program has come out, it is important that a safe supportive environment is provided for all students who may be grappling with issues of sexual identity. Individuals in this stage of self-discovery may not acknowledge to others their thoughts about being gay/ lesbian. To meet the needs of these adolescents, you merely need to incorporate sensitivity to sexual minorities into your schools and programs through the following strategies.

School environment

Community resources

School resources

 Allow a forum for students to come to a safe place where they do not have to identify their sexual orientation.

Curriculum

Organizational policies

Stage 2: Identity comparison
During this stage, the individual compares gay/lesbian identity to straight identity, including perceptions and expectations of others and self in terms of interpersonal relationships, marriage, children, and careers. Some adolescents experience social isolation and continued fears of coming out as a result of this comparison.

Exposure to the variety of opportunities available to gays/ lesbians in all aspects of their lives is important for these adolescents. For example, the opportunities for gay/lesbian individuals and partners to adopt both gay/lesbian and straight children are increasing. Gays/lesbians are also choosing to have their own children. Some gays/lesbians have children from previous relationships. The possibility of your students having gay/lesbian parents is likewise increasing. The implications of these facts for your programming include introducing these opportunities to all students and collaborating with gay/lesbian parents. In addition to the strategies listed previously, the following can be implemented to meet the needs of adolescents in this stage.

School environment

Community resources

School resources

Curriculum

Organizational policies

Stage 3: Identity tolerance
An individual begins to come out to and form relationships with other gays/lesbians during this stage and becomes increasingly comfortable with his or her gay/lesbian identity. These connections with others can reduce the feelings of isolation. A positive response from others is important for these adolescents as they first come out.

Usually, gays/lesbians privately disclose to a few close personal friends at first. Specific individuals who are open and safe must be identified and available to students searching for answers concerning their sexual identity. In addition to those listed for prior stages, the following strategies may be used to meet the needs of youth during this stage.

School environment

Community resources

School resources

Curriculum

Organizational policies

Stage 4: Identity acceptance
During this stage, an individual further identifies as a gay/ lesbian and increases his or her links with the gay/lesbian community. These individuals are broadening the circle of people with whom they share their sexual identity. A caring environment, including supportive individuals, that validates the adolescents” sexual identity continues to be important in this stage. As the individual reaches out to more and more people, it is critical that the responses are positive and that the school culture is deeply supportive. The following strategies as well as some listed above can be implemented to serve adolescents in this stage.

School environment

Community resources

School resources

Curriculum

Organizational policies

Stage 5: Identity pride
The gay/lesbian individuals develop an understanding of how to feel a sense of self-worth, even when some people do not support them. As comfort with varied responses from others increases, the adolescent makes less of a distinction between his or her public and private selves. During this time, it is important for adolescents to have supported opportunities to reflect on personal experiences and to self-advocate for gay/lesbian rights. Gays/lesbians during this stage reveal their sexual identity to increasing numbers of people. The other person's process of acceptance will affect how the gay/lesbian may develop or terminate the relationship. In addition to the strategies listed above, the following can be implemented to meet the needs of adolescents in this stage.

School environment

Community resources

School resources

Curriculum

Organizational policies

Stage 6: Identity synthesis
During this stage, the individual focuses on all aspects of self rather than just on sexual identity. The adolescent is more likely to socialize with peers based on common interests. An environment that highlights strengths, talents, and interests is important for these adolescents. The opportunity for identity synthesis is created by a celebration of all aspects of each life. Each person, whether staff or student, must recognize the ongoing process of maturation and interaction as humans. The following strategies, in conjunction with those listed above, can be used to meet the needs of adolescents in this stage.

School environment

Community resources

School resources

Curriculum

Organizational policies

Fostering resiliency
Schools often have programming to foster students” resiliency that focuses on building key relationships between youth and caring adults. Many of the strategies suggested for each stage of a gay/lesbian youth’s coming-out process likewise highlight the vital importance of an individual who is psychologically available to the adolescent forming his or her sexual identity. These strategies merely mirror what is already in place in most schools and programs related to other areas of the youths” lives.

But when implementing these strategies, we recommend that you focus on meeting the current needs of your students rather than on attempting to determine their stage of coming out.

While a supportive school culture is critical, the importance of one sensitive individual in the healthy development of identity cannot be overestimated. It was probably the soothing voice of one nurturing person who led you, as a child, out of your secret hiding place. And it can be your caring presence that leads some of your students out of their closets.

References

Bass, E., & Kaufman, K. (1996). Free your mind: The book for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and their allies. New York. Harper Collins.

Cass, V. (1984). Homosexual identity formation: Testing a theoretical model. Journal of Sex Research, 20, pp.143-167.

DeCrescenzo, T. (Ed.). (1994). Helping gay and lesbian youth: New policies, new programs, new practice. New York. Harrington Park Press.

DuBeau, T. (1998). Making a difference in the lives of gay and lesbian students. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 7, 3. pp.164-168.

Phillips, S., McMillen, C., Sparks, J., & Ueberle, M. (1997). Concrete strategies for sensitizing youth-serving agencies to the needs of gay, lesbian, and other sexual minority youths. Child Welfare, 76,3. pp. 393-409.

Rubin, L. (1996). The transcendent child: Tales of triumph over the past. New York. Basic Books.

Savin-Williams, R. (1990). Gay and lesbian youth: Expressions of identity. New York. Hemisphere.

Wolin, S. J., & Wolin, S. (1993). Resilient self How survivors of troubled families rise above adversity. New York. Villard Books.

This feature: Dubeau, T. and Emenheiser, D.E. (1999). Coming out resilient: Strategies to help gay and lesbian adolescents. Reaching Today’s Youth, 3, 4. pp.51-54.

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