Friday, September 23, 2011

Lesbian Identity Development

One of the most prolific area's written about in the popular press today is sexual identity, sexual orientation and sexual preference. When a women identifies herself as female with a sexual preference for other females she embarks on a journey of self discovery that often results, if successful, in acceptance of a Lesbian Identity or role. Due to a myriad of public and family ridicule, the journey is often confusing and tumultuous. While the exact mechanism involved in choosing ones sexual preferences has yet to be fully explained, there is no doubt among professionals that it is not a choice in the standard sense of the term. One is either attracted to members of the opposite gender or the same gender. A few are attracted to both and a very few to neither. The purpose of this post is to outline the development of lesbian identity and the various phases women often go through on their way to successfully attaining a healthy identity as lesbian.

McCarn and Fassinger (1996) developed a four stage model of lesbian identity development that is currently regarded as the strongest prevailing explanation of this journey of self discovery.  This theory incorporates both stages in the individual journey as well as speaking to the issues involved in being part of a marginalized minority group.  Stages as used here refer to a sequential developmental trajectory that a women may move both forward and backwards through time; it best reflects a lifelong journey affected by social and political contexts over time.

"Awareness" is the first stage and is generally regarded as a time of feeling different.  An awareness develops that there are variety of sexual orientations possible and one is not limited by a heterosexual orientation.  There is no indication of an age range for this stage and it is possible that awareness can and does occur at any age.

The second stage is termed "Exploration" and involves an individuals consideration of their relationship, both emotional and physical, with other lesbians.  This includes attraction to other females as well as ones possible membership in the lesbian and larger gay community.  Self questioning might include issues related to both emotional and physical intimacy with other women as well as the social meaning of identification with the LGBT community on the whole.  Exploring social opportunities within the lesbian community or experimentation with a lesbian partner may begin here.

A "Deepening/Commitment" phase can then follow as the third stage.  Here, as the name implies, a greater appreciation and understanding begins to develop and pride emerges as a women begins to fulfill who she feels she was meant to be.  Anger is also possible related to the natural despair that can follow with the realization that prejudice and discrimination can come with such identity.  For many women, especially those with a valued public identity to lose, important questions regarding "coming out of the closet" now get scrutiny.  Many are now forced to accept an underground identity wavering between the relief of fulfillment and the fear of public discovery.

The final stage is termed "Internalization/Synthesis" and it is here that a deeper identification is formed with ones sexual orientation and other aspects of ones life and identity.  The direction of visualization changes from a person looking inward towards a new orientation and fulfillment as a lesbian towards a outward view of a full fledged member of the lesbian community looking at a society not yet fully ready to accept her with the same tolerance as if she was heterosexual.

Keep in mind that a women moves through these stages within her own time frame which is also sensitive to the opportunities of lesbian social contact in her environment and the quality of the emotional and physical relationships she develops; the same as if she was heterosexual and learning to navigate the trials and tribulations of that world.  In essence some of these stages may be mastered within a short time frame while others may take years.  And stepping back, to a previous developmental stage, is always possible.  For some, development may arrest at stage three while others may halt their development at stage two or even stage one.

Anywhere along this developmental trajectory, informed and competent psychological help and support can be beneficial.

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