University of Vermont

Goodwin/"Understanding and Orienting Queer Students"

Understanding and Orienting Queer Students: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity Development Applied to a Student Orientation Program

Kimberley K. Goodwin

The author examines a stage theory of homosexual identity development (Cass, 1979) and discusses issues and barriers to development, including violence and harassment, isolation from family, lack of familiarity with the new culture, low self-esteem, high rates of suicide, substance abuse, and others. The author explores additional obstacles for bisexuals and people of color. In the final section of the paper, the author outlines a gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgender student orientation program intended to address many of the developmental issues.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students may constitute as much as 25% of the population (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948), but may represent one of the least understood groups of students on our campuses. At many colleges and universities, there are more gay, lesbian, and bisexual students than there are students of color, but homophobia and heterosexism continue to be ignored. As of 1986, only 47 American colleges and universities banned discrimination based on sexual orientation (Bendet, 1987, as cited in Evans, 1991). In order to meet the needs of bisexual, lesbian, and gay students, student affairs professionals must first understand how these individuals form positive identities and have some knowledge of factors negatively affecting bisexual, lesbian, and gay students. In the end, this understanding must be put into practice to meet the unique needs of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual population on campus. This paper provides a summary and analysis of an important identity development model and an overview of developmental issues, as well as an examination of a student orientation program for bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgendered, and questioning students. Designing such an orientation is one way to translate knowledge into practice.

Sexual Identity Formation

In 1979, Vivienne Cass proposed a comprehensive and widely used identity development model. Unlike other models, her Sexual Identity Formation (SIF) theory was tested extensively (Cass, 1984). The SIF model is based on the interaction between internal (psychological) and external (sociological or environmental) factors. The six stages are as follows:

1. Identity Confusion. This stage is characterized by a conscious awareness that homosexuality is somehow relevant to the individual's behavior, which may be overt (physical contact) or covert (feelings and thoughts). There may be an incongruency between someone's behavior and self-perception, leading him or her to wonder whether homosexuality constitutes a possible identity. "Who am I?" becomes a critical question. If the idea of behavior being labeled as homosexual seems both correct and appealing, then self-perception becomes more congruent with behavior. If the possibility is correct but not desirable, the individual may proceed to denial in an attempt to restore the original self-perception. She or he may relinquish this strategy voluntarily or may be forced to accept the possibility of a gay or lesbian identity. The latter leads to a self-hating or negative identity. If someone sees a homosexual identity as neither correct nor desirable, he or she reconstructs the meaning of the behavior to render it something other than homosexual, framing it as an accident, a temporary behavior, or other aberration. Cass notes that for men, sexual contact without emotional attachment is easier to reconstruct, while for women emotional attachment is seen as more normal than physical contact. It is rare for individuals to disclose their doubts to anyone at this stage.

2. Identity Comparison. The individual accepts the possibility that he or she may be gay or lesbian. Someone in this stage begins to experience alienation from society and from smaller affiliation groups such as his or her family. He or she realizes that heterosexual guidelines and expectations may no longer be relevant. Many of those who react positively at this stage have always felt "different," or see difference as somehow exciting. Those who react less positively rationalize their behavior in terms of "special case" scenarios, in that they are only attracted to a particular person, rather than to members of their own sex in general. They may also view the identity as a temporary one or may find ways to avoid accepting personal responsibility. Individuals who see the behavior as undesirable may either inhibit their behavior or attempt to make the environment more positive.

3. Identity Tolerance. At this point, the individual identifies him or her self as someone who is probably gay or lesbian. This realization accentuates the sense of alienation and difference from heterosexuals, leading the individual to seek out lesbians and gay men. The quality of the initial experiences with gays or lesbians is crucial, since negative contact can lead to avoidance of future developmental stages (identity foreclosure). Positive experiences lead to increased identification with gay and lesbian people. Individuals feel pressured to commit to the group and become concerned that heterosexual acquaintances may guess that they are gay or lesbian.

4. Identity Acceptance. This stage is characterized by increasing contact with the lesbian and gay subculture. Homosexuality becomes normalized. The interactions the individual has with the community help determine whether homosexuality is acceptable publicly as well as privately. The individual begins to notice a conflict between self-perception and what he or she believes are others' views. He or she may limit contact with the family of origin to avoid exacerbating the conflict. The individual may come out to a few supportive heterosexuals. The conflict between passing as heterosexual and coming out leads to the next stage.

5. Identity Pride. Heterosexuality is devalued in order to validate the new identity, and the individual becomes immersed in and committed to the new community. She or he may become frustrated or angry with others' heterosexist assumptions. Coming out to friends and family members reinforces the new self-concept and reduces the conflict between public and private identities.

6. Identity Synthesis. The individual no longer believes in the homosexual versus heterosexual, "us versus them" dichotomy. Commitment to the lesbian or gay community remains strong, but the individual is no longer fully immersed. Public and private identities are no longer incongruent.

The Cass (1979) model and other models have certain drawbacks. First, stage models are limited in that linear progression through a series of steps is an ideal rather than a reality. Troiden (1989) acknowledged this by asking the reader to envision his model as a flexible spring as opposed to a set of stairs. Also, applying the same model to women and men may be problematic. Coleman (1982) and Minton and McDonald (1984) assumed that the major tasks of identity formation are completed before individuals are involved in intimate relationships, whereas Straub (1987) suggested that women must find autonomy in their relationships before forming independent identities. Thus, models of homosexual identity formation should take into account the fact that women and men may develop differently. Chapman and Brannock (1987) offered an alternative model of lesbian identity development in which relationships precede or accompany independent identity formation. A third criticism is that none of the models included bisexuals or transgendered persons. Cass mentioned "ambisexuality" as an early avoidance strategy, but did not acknowledge it as a legitimate sexual identity. Also, none of the models explored possible differences in gay or lesbian identity development for people of color. However, it does seem unlikely that so many different issues could be addressed effectively in one model, and it is unfortunate that they are not examined elsewhere.

With the possible exception of Troiden, none of the models are recent enough to address the impact of HIV/AIDS or the current political climate on identity formation (Levine & Evans, 1991). Unfortunately, Troiden did not examine such changes, as his 1989 model is simply a reworked version of his 1979 theory. Chapman and Brannock offered another critique of the retrospective research used in many models. When participants answer questions about past behavior and identity, the results are likely to be distorted by the individual's selective recall and reinterpretation of events. Also, individuals who are willing to participate in studies of homosexual identity formation are unlikely to constitute a random sample, particularly if they are contacted through gay or lesbian organizations or social establishments.

Issues and Barriers in Student Development

Given the limitations of stage theories, it seems important to explore, at least in brief, some of the other developmental issues faced by gay men, lesbians, and bisexual women and men. Wall and Evans (1991) identified numerous issues of particular importance to this population. They suggested that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students have more difficulty with self-esteem issues than their heterosexual counterparts. Bisexual, lesbian, and gay students frequently face isolation, since many will not connect with their community in the first few years of college, if at all. They may be struggling to reconcile religious beliefs with their identities, since many faiths view heterosexuality as the only viable option. They may experience difficulty in determining career goals or in finding sensitive, appropriate health care. Students who are in the process of coming out may be grieving for the loss of their dominant-group status. Unlike students of color, bisexual, lesbian, and gay students do not share their cultural identity with their families of origin. Wall and Evans (1991) maintained that the size, location, and religious affiliation of a college or university affect a student's comfort level with his or her identity. However, it seems reasonable that students who are comfortable with their identities upon entering college may be less affected by these factors. Hetrick and Martin (1987) also reported that a third of the gay and lesbian adolescents in their study had been attacked because of their sexual orientation, and 20% had attempted suicide or had strong inclinations to attempt suicide. Scott (1988) described the discrimination faced by gay and lesbian students in the form of institutional policy as well as peer harassment.

Bisexual men and women face obstacles in addition to those affecting gay men and lesbians. While bisexuals often face homophobia from heterosexuals, since they are identified with gays and lesbians, Paul (1984) stated that bisexuals are also likely to meet ambivalence in gay and lesbian communities. This may be due to a belief that bisexuals are attempting to avoid the stigma associated with adopting a homosexual identity, a fear that bisexuals will choose a heterosexual identity over a homosexual one, an assumption that bisexuals are non-monogamous, or a belief that bisexuals are merely going through a stage in their adoption of a homosexual identity. Golden (1987, as cited in Levine and Evans, 1991) believed that lesbians are more likely to be hostile toward bisexual women than gays are toward bisexual men. According to Paul, researchers have historically treated bisexuals as if they did not exist, even though bisexual men, at least, outnumber gay men by a ratio of three to two (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948). Blair (1974, as cited in Paul) argued that counselors should discourage the formation of bisexual identities in their clients, since monosexual identities are easier to manage. Pope and Reynolds (1991) described the invisibility of bisexuals in the names of campus organizations and in advertising for campus events.

Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals of color face additional challenges. Atkinson, Morten, and Sue (1979) proposed a Minority Identity Development Model very similar to many homosexual identity models. One might say that students are involved in developing two identities simultaneously, but it may be more accurate to say they are developing a single identity with distinct components, since neither aspect is entirely independent of the other. A major obstacle for many gay, lesbian, and bisexual students of color is the feeling that they must often choose between aspects of their identity. Other gays, lesbians, and bisexuals may not be supportive of their identities as people of color, and may even subject them to blatant discrimination. On the other hand, bisexuals, lesbians, and gays of color may be afraid to seek support from their ethnic communities and families of origin, due to cultural norms and the fear of losing the only known refuge from white racism. Chan (1989) suggested that people of color view homosexuality as a European phenomenon, denying its existence in their own cultures.

Applying Our Knowledge: A Student Orientation Program

Understanding the developmental process and issues faced by bisexual, lesbian, and gay students is of little use to a student affairs professional unless he or she applies the knowledge. There are many ways to make our campus environments more comfortable. For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to describe a student orientation program as one of many possiblities.

In his work on student retention, Vincent Tinto (1993) maintains that a lack of interpersonal affiliation is one of the major reasons students leave college. He believes effective orientation programs can help students establish crucial contacts. Many institutions provide additional orientation programs for groups of students with a high rate of attrition, such as students of color, disabled students, or student athletes. Although there are currently no studies on gay, lesbian, and bisexual student retention, the developmental issues identified in this paper would seem to indicate that this population, much like other high risk groups, experiences difficulty in making the adjustment to college. Unlike other groups, however, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals may or may not be aware of their own group membership upon entering college, and may or may not feel comfortable identifying with that group. For these reasons, colleges and universities should include information relevant to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in general orientation programs and should also offer separate orientation sessions for bisexual, lesbian, and gay students. Queer Student Orientation (QSO) at the University of California at Berkeley, first implemented in September of 1993, is one example of such a program.

Initial Considerations

In planning the orientation, the Queer Resource Center (QRC) staff first had to answer two questions. The most important consideration was what population of students would be included in the orientation. Potential attendees included out or questioning undergraduate and graduate students who were new to campus as well as students already present on campus who were in the process of forming their identities. A major concern was that students who were out and simply seeking information and social contacts in a new setting would have very different needs from "questioning" students who were in the earlier stages of identity development (Cass, 1979; Troiden, 1989). Our best solution was to provide programming for each set of students, including optional sessions in which attendees could choose topics of interest. The QRC staff chose to use the word "queer" in the program title to be consistent with the name and philosophy of the Queer Resource Center. The term includes transgendered persons (transvestites or transsexuals) and questioning people, as well as bisexuals, lesbians, and gays-essentially, anyone who does not identify as heterosexual. I will use the term "queer" in the description of QSO. The second consideration involved the timing of the program. The session took place several weeks after the beginning of the semester so new students could settle into their environment. The program was held on a weekend for scheduling reasons as well as to provide a degree of anonymity, since many students in earlier stages of identity development might not want others to know they were attending QSO.

Overall Goals of the Program

The primary goals of QSO were:

1. To introduce queer students to information and services as early as possible.

2. To help attendees make social connections and build a sense of community.

3. To provide positive queer role models.

4. To get queer students involved in their community.

5. To provide leadership opportunities for queer students (i.e., as orientation leaders).

(Queer Resource Center [QRC], 1993).

Secondary goals included increasing queer visibility on campus and fostering discussion of issues within the community, and improving the queer self-image of participants. The goals reflect the theories of Cass (1979), Troiden (1989), and Coleman (1982) and the findings of Wall and Evans (1991) in emphasizing the importance of contact with the queer community and the presence of positive role models.

Orientation Leaders

A diverse group of orientation leaders was recruited from among traditional-age students who were active on campus, including lesbians, gays, and bisexual women and men representing a variety of ethnic and racial groups and religions. Their development most closely resembled the last two stages of the Cass (1979) model. Orientation leaders were asked to act as positive role models, facilitate a safe environment, encourage group interaction and bonding, act as resources and referral sources, and provide information by sharing personal experiences.

Program Agenda

The day started with informal registration. Participants were invited to pre-register or simply drop in. The program opened with a brief welcome, which included goals for the orientation and an overview of QRC services. "All in the Family1 #1," the first small group meeting, consisted of introductions, icebreakers, and a discussion of the day's schedule. Groups of five to six students led by one or two orientation leaders were designed to provide a less intimidating setting for students to get to know one another, ask questions, and exchange ideas. "It's a Family Matter," a large group session led by a lesbian health educator from the University Health Service, addressed queer health concerns and available services (Wall & Evans, 1991). "Once Upon a Time," a session of coming out stories shared by orientation leaders, was intended to reduce feelings of isolation by demonstrating that negative and positive experiences are shared. The stories ranged from hilarious to heartwrenching. The next event, a resource fair called "The Castro Street Fair-Not! 2" included a variety of campus and community clubs, bookstores, and service organizations specifically geared toward the queer community. "All in the Family #2" gave participants an opportunity to check in with their small groups and discuss how out they wanted to be on campus and what factors might affect that, as well as any other fears or concerns. After small groups, participants could choose one of five informal discussion groups facilitated by orientation leaders. Topics included issues related to gender, race and ethnicity, relationships, residence hall life, and bisexuality. Participants returned to small groups ("All in the Family #3") to discuss the day's events, exchange telephone numbers, and evaluate the program. A large group closing called "Where do I go from here?" emphasized that services and events would be available throughout the year and encouraged students to look ahead. The day ended with a reception intended to allow students to continue earlier discussions, ask further questions, and meet new people. The staff was happy to see that the majority of students remained for nearly an hour after the formal closing.


Given that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students constitute a large (25%) but often invisible part of our campus populations, it is imperative that student affairs professionals learn about the needs of this population and apply their knowledge to their work. Many campuses offer programs and services targeting particular groups of students, but only a few have specific programs for the bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, or questioning student population. QSO is but one example of the many ways student affairs professionals can make colleges and universities better environments for all students. QSO was clearly successful in that it introduced students to information and services, provided leadership opportunities, increased the visiblity of queer students on campus, fostered discussion, and offered positive queer role models. Most importantly, QSO introduced participants to their community and some of its members. Every person who attended met at least a few others-two, twelve, or twenty-with whom they had something in common.

The Queer Student Orientation offered at UC Berkeley is not a perfect program, but it is a beginning. If long journeys begin with short steps, many professionals and numerous institutions need to move that first foot forward. As a profession, we have most of the journey ahead of us. We can begin with orientation programs; studies of gay, lesbian, and bisexual student retention; resource centers; more inclusive identity development models; academic classes; or sensitive health services. If we are not prepared to do any of these things, as individuals or as institutions, we can start by recognizing that there are not only gay students on our campuses, but there are also lesbian students, bisexual students, transgendered students, and a large number of students unsure of where they fit. Understanding our students is essential to providing effective services and education, and colleges and universities have ignored queer students for too long. There is a saying that if one ignores a problem, it will go away. Unfortunately, in student affairs, problems do not go away, but students do.


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1 The term "family" is frequently used by bisexual, lesbian, gay, or transgendered people to describe their community as a whole (the family) or another individual within the community (that person is family). For the many bisexual, lesbian, gay, and transgendered people who are disowned by or alienated from their families of origin, the queer community often becomes the family of choice.

2 Many people consider the Castro Street near Market the center of San Francisco's queer community.

Kimberly Goodwin, HESA class of 1996, is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. She is the former Coordinator of the Queer Resource Center at UC Berkeley. Kimberly is currently the Hall Advisor in Tupper Hall at UVM.

Last modified July 29 2002 11:48 AM

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