Integrating Sexual and Spiritual Identity Development: Educating the Whole Student

Laura C. Engelken

Is it possible for gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) students to integrate spiritual and sexual identity in college and university environments? This paper analyzes Vivienne Cass' (1976) model of homosexual identity formation and James Fowler's (1981) stages of faith, inquiring whether these models are complementary in describing the spiritual journeys of GLB college students. Implications for student affairs practice are addressed.

Scholar Sharon Parks (1986) states that the power and vulnerability of young adulthood lies in "the experience of the dissolution and recomposition of the meaning of self and world and its challenges to faith . . . . Yet the quality of that recomposition depends on the leadership of adult culture, as mediated through both individuals and institutions" (p. xii). As members of higher educational institutions, student affairs professionals are integral participants in assisting students to redefine themselves and their world. An assumption basic to student affairs practice is that the full maturation of the "whole" student requires the development of every aspect of their personality and potential (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 1989, p. 21). Two such dimensions of personality are those of spiritual and sexual identity.

In recent years, student affairs professionals have begun addressing the developmental experience of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) student accepting his or her sexual identity. The most notable contribution to this area of scholarship is the recent American College Personnel Association (1991) publication, Beyond Tolerance: Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals on Campus. Yet, the spiritual development of college aged youth, especially at non-religiously affiliated institutions, has been left largely unexamined. This oversight makes it especially difficult to assist those members of the GLB population struggling to integrate their sexual and spiritual identities. Is it possible for these students to successfully integrate these two "selves," specifically in a college or university environment?

The following paper examines this question by analyzing two developmental theories: Vivienne Cass' (1976) model of homosexual identity formation and James Fowler's (1981) stages of faith. By inquiring whether these models may complement one another in describing the spiritual journeys of GLB college students, this paper draws implications for student affairs practice.

A Cultural Context

Western culture is notorious for its separation of the spiritual and the sexual. Unlike members of many Native American and Eastern cultures, who possess traditions emphasizing the union of body and spirit, Westerners have been crippled by false constructions of reality that keep us divided from ourselves. Robert McAfee Brown (1988), in his work, Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy, addresses Western society's penchant for compartmentalizing life into the sacred and secular. According to Brown, such attempts at separation are "not only awkward, inaccurate, and unhelpful but that they are, in almost all cases, just plain wrong. They do not add meaning to our lives or give us good interpretive tools; on the contrary, they distort our lives and lead us to faulty understandings of who we are and what the world is like" (p. 26). Developmental theory continues this theme of separation as it largely ignores the multiple layers of diversity and identity in individual lives (Reynolds & Pope, 1991). Such a dichotomization is especially painful for homosexuals within many religious communities, as they often internalize the dominant view that their different identities are incompatible (Reynolds & Pope). As a result, individuals must choose one identity and submerge or reject the other.

Despite ample evidence highlighting the college experience as a crucible for developmental change, very little research has been conducted examining the experiences of GLB students within the college environment (Evans, 1991). A student affairs bibliography listed only 13 articles on topics related to homosexuality (Belson & Stamatakos, 1988 as cited in Evans, 1991). Similarly ignored by student affairs research and literature is the spiritual development of college students. For example, the 1995 American College Personnel Association (ACPA) annual conference offered only two sessions, out of a possible 535, addressing the topic of spiritual development (ACPA, 1995). The examination of the following theories is one attempt to help shed light on two developmental areas of college students often left in the dark of the closet.

Developmental Theory

Cass Model of Homosexual Identity Formation

Although the understanding of one's experience as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is different for each person, some commonalities exist as individuals become aware of their same-sex attractions and integrate those feelings into other aspects of their identity (Levine & Evans, 1991). A valuable tool for understanding these patterns among college students is Vivienne Cass' (1979) theoretical model of homosexual identity formation.

The Cass theory, utilizing a six stage model, describes the developmental process undergone by individuals as they first consider, then acquire, a "homosexual" identity as a relevant aspect of self (Cass, 1979). Important to Cass' theory is her assumption that the basis for both change and stability in individual behavior is found in the interactions between self and society. Since individuals desire congruency between personal and societal perceptions of self, developmental growth occurs when individuals work to rectify incongruencies arising between these two perceptions. Cass names the stage in which an individual first recognizes this difference in regard to his or her sexual orientation as Identity Confusion.

In Identity Confusion, the student first becomes aware that his or her own thoughts, feelings, and/or actions could be considered as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Requiring more than mere exposure to the issue of homosexuality to begin the developmental process, a student must assign some personal meaning to the information acquired. Such an awareness can cause confusion and distress within the student, as it conflicts with the inherent assumption of heterosexuality often held by both self and society. When faced with the prospect one might be homosexual, continued consideration of this possibility leads to the next stage of development. In contrast, a refusal to consider this possibility leads to what Cass refers as identity foreclosure.

At any time along the developmental process, individuals may refuse to progress toward an acceptance of a homosexual self-concept. The more closely an individual values and associates with specific others who do not approve of homosexuality, such as family members, friends, or religious groups, the more resistant he or she will be toward such acceptance (Cass, 1979). Viewing such an identity as undesirable, a student will utilize various strategies to resist its development, such as: withdrawal from potentially provocative situations, avoidance of all information regarding homosexuality, inhibition of behaviors perceived as homosexual, employment of professionals to "cure" the problem, or denial (Cass). If the student successfully achieves identity foreclosure, no further development toward a GLB identity occurs. If unsuccessful, the student will continue struggling with his or her understanding of self and relation to society-often with an increased sense of self-hatred at their failure to maintain, or achieve, a heterosexual identity (Cass). At this point, many students choose to commit suicide-unable to accept the self as homosexual.

If identity foreclosure has not occurred by the end of stage one, the student makes a first, tentative commitment to a homosexual self by accepting the possibility he or she might be gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Cass, 1979). Known as Identity Comparison, this stage reflects an initial process of information gathering by the student, in order to learn what it means to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This stage is also marked by an increasing congruence between one's self-perception and behavior (Wall, 1991). Such acceptance leads to increased alienation and conflict with one's earlier sense of self, as well as with heterosexual others. This stage is especially painful for a student who feels he or she is "the only one in the world like this," (Cass, p. 225) and lacks supportive communities (i.e., understanding friends or student groups) or positive role-models. As a result, a student must "find new meanings for life," (Cass, p. 225) since his or her previously held guidelines for behavior, ideals, and future expectations, which were based on a heterosexual identity, no longer apply.

This confusion gives rise to stage three, Identity Tolerance, in which the student's acceptance of a homosexual self increases-though it is still merely tolerated. This increased commitment toward a homosexual identity alleviates much confusion and distress concerning sexual identity and allows the student to acknowledge important social, emotional, and sexual needs; yet, it accentuates feelings of isolation and alienation as his or her self-concept becomes increasingly incongruent with the perception of the student held by society. As a result, the student makes contact with members of the GLB community, yet continues to present him or herself as heterosexual to larger society-thus, living a "double-life." If the quality of contact with the GLB community and role-models is viewed positively, further acceptance of a GLB identity is considered viable and development proceeds to stage four.

At stage four, known as Identity Acceptance, the student has resolved most of the questions concerning his or her sexual identity. He or she comes to accept the self as homosexual but has yet to resolve the crucial issue of others' acceptance or rejection. Those students who accept society's low esteem of GLB individuals, or maintain a comfortable level of incongruency between self and societal perceptions by avoiding conflict with heterosexuals through "passing" (i.e., maintaining a societal perception as heterosexual by avoiding contact or conversations which might reveal one's sexual identity), often foreclose at this stage. Those unable to successfully pass and/or encounter strong negative reactions from heterosexuals progress to stage five.

Identity Pride describes the fifth stage in which the student confronts heterosexual society with an intense pride and identification with the GLB community. Anger is the predominant emotion as the student directs his or her hatred, resulting from experienced alienation and sexual stigma, toward heterosexuals and society as a whole. If this student receives a sustained negative reaction from heterosexuals, he or she will eventually foreclose at this stage (Wall, 1991). Yet, if a positive response is received, GLB students are encouraged to progress towards the final stage, Identity Synthesis.

At this final stage, Identity Synthesis, the student is able to integrate their sexual identity with his or her other aspects of self. Though still present, anger towards heterosexuals and intense pride in the GLB community has decreased, and the student is able to share his or her whole self with others. This openness displays a congruence between public and private identity and a sense of personal wholeness.

In summary, Cass (1979) characterizes homosexual identity as a progressive development motivated by the need to make sense of one's sexual orientation and how, or if, it will be revealed to the world around them. As shared throughout the model, the tools essential to facilitating this development are: information and/or discussions addressing what it means to be homosexual, positive role models, and connections with the gay community.

Much has been written about homosexuality from a psychological, sociological, and theological standpoint, yet very little has been written revealing a developmental analysis of GLB individuals' spiritual journeys (Fortunato, 1982). Having addressed Cass' homosexual identity development model, an examination of its connections with James Fowler's description of faith development now follows.

Fowler's Stages of Faith

According to Fowler (1981), faith is a phenomenon shared by all of humanity, "an apparently generic consequence of the universal human burden of finding or making meaning" (p. 33). For "from the beginning of life, we are faced with the challenge of finding or composing some kind of order, unity and coherence in the force fields of our lives" (p. 24). Roughly defined, faith is the way in which one makes meaning of life-an understanding centered around a core value, be it a cause, movement, ideal, or deity (Hoffman, 1991). For example, a student immersed in stage five of Cass' model would utilize his or her status as a homosexual as the core value for defining relationships, actions, beliefs, and life's meaning.

Such meaning making of one's life is essential to individual survival. In Parks' (1986) words, "We must discover fitting connections between things. When we perceive life as only fragmented, we suffer confusion, distress, stagnation, or despair" (p. xv). This observation is similar to Cass' (1979) finding that GLB individuals strive for congruence between all aspects of their identity along with their sexuality. Those individuals grappling with sexuality in a homophobic environment are often denied support in the examination of their spirituality, as "our ways of seeing the world are profoundly shaped by the shared images and constructions of our group or class" (Fowler, 1981, p. 105). As a result, it is a matter of survival for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to make sense of life apart from the faith conceptions held by traditional society (J. J. McNeil, personal communication, October 13, 1995). Thus, for student affairs professionals to guide these students toward wholeness, a familiarity with the process of faith development and the unique challenges faced by GLB students is essential.

According to Fowler (1981), "before we can use language, form concepts or even be said to be conscious, we begin to form our first rudimentary intuitions of what the world is like, of how it regards us and of whether we can be 'at home' here . . . . Long before the child can sort clearly the values and beliefs of the parents," (p. 17) a structure of meaning is sensed and the child begins to develop centers of value and power mirroring those of the parents. This structure results from the infant's relationship developed with the caregivers and the environment they provide-representing a pre-stage to Fowler's six faith stages, known as Undifferentiated Faith. In this period, lasting from birth to age three, the needs of love, trust, courage, and hope are indistinct from one another. These emotions, or their opposites, develop as infants encounter the perceived threats of abandonment, inconsistency, and deprivation in their environment-potentially affecting later emotional and spiritual development (Hoffman, 1991).

In the first stage, known as Intuitive-Projective Faith, children from ages three to seven reflect primarily the faith of their parents or guardians. This represents a time in which the family's perspectives on death, sex, religion, and strong taboos become part of the child's initial development of faith as this developmental stage is a "fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults" (Fowler, 1981, p. 133). For the gay, lesbian, or bisexual child, such family perspectives may communicate very early the unacceptable nature of same-sex attractions and behavior on the basis of religious, moral, or social standards.

The Mythic-Literal Faith of the second stage usually begins around the sixth year and typically lasts until age eleven or twelve. Again, the child's understanding of faith continues to primarily reflect the concepts and beliefs of others, but the circle of influence widens to include other adults instrumental in the child's life (i.e., teachers, coaches, adult friends and relatives) (Hoffman, 1991). In this stage, a child applies literal, one-dimensional meaning to the symbols, rules, beliefs, and attitudes of significant others in the creation of a more orderly, linear, and dependable world (Fowler, 1981). Yet, it is important to note that adults may inhabit this stage-marked by a very literal interpretation of faith and religious scripture. For the GLB student from a religiously conservative and fundamental background, the prospect of acquisition of a homosexual identity can cause intense personal guilt and pain and possibly identity foreclosure. In such a community, the acceptance of such an identity is often clearly defined as an abomination, or sin, against God. A student's transition to the next faith stage is prompted by the implicit clash, or contradiction, in life's stories and symbols, leading to a reflection upon their meanings. The student's previously held literalism begins to break down as he or she works to resolve these conflicts (Fowler, 1981, p. 150).

During the third stage, Synthetic-Conventional Faith, students begin developing the ability to reflect upon their own thinking; yet, are still heavily influenced by the faith conceptions of others. For at the same time, individuals "express their faith within the context of the community of believers to which they relate, and place a strong emphasis on those creeds, doctrines, and traditions that are the expected norms for membership in that particular group" (Hoffman, 1991, p. 2). Hoffman maintains this is perhaps the normative stage for most of adult society and it is only a drastic change in values, understandings, and beliefs that lead to stage four, Individuative-Reflective faith. For GLB individuals, the growing awareness of sexuality in a homophobic and heterosexist society forces a reexamination of previously held beliefs and values.

Such questioning leads the individual to Fowler's fourth stage of Individuative-Reflective Faith. This is a painful period marked by intense struggle and doubt, as well as difficulty in finding people or groups (i.e., church, friends, colleagues, educators) that will encourage and support their questioning. A quote from John Fortunato's work (1982), Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians, highlights the alienation experienced by GLB individuals in such a stage.

To be gay and Christian, integrating both into the wholeness we deep down know ourselves to be, to embrace them both as gifts of God, and to live our lives authentically, rejoicing in those gifts as part of the uniqueness that makes us who we are is to place ourselves on the outskirts of the community we most care about. It's beyond our realm of choice. Exile is simply where we find ourselves when we are who we are. It's most often a hard place to be. (p. 17)

Similar to Cass' description of identity foreclosure, the struggles of this stage can cause an individual to return to the relative security of the second stage of Mythic-Literal Faith or abandon completely the search for spiritual congruence in their life. In order to encourage individuals onward to the next stage of their faith development, they must be affirmed for taking charge of their personal growth and seeking answers that will create a full and meaningful faith (Fowler, 1981). This encouragement is essential to the GLB faith-seeking student, who struggles to make meaning of all aspects of life.

As part of Conjunctive Faith, the last stage for the purposes of this discussion, an individual integrates much that was previously suppressed, or left unrecognized, in order to create a self-affirming faith with a sense of self-certainty (Fowler, 1981). Just as the GLB student moves into Identity Synthesis by viewing his or her sexuality as an integrated aspect of the whole self, so the student moving from Fowler's stage four to stage five claims a centering value integrating all aspects of life-realizing narrow definitions of self and world deny the reality of uncertainty (Fowler). Truth, as well as self, is acknowledged to be "more multidimensional and organically interdependent" than any one theory or understanding can grasp (p. 186). As a result, the GLB student with such a faith understanding sees the integrated nature of all things, as well as the inherent folly in attempts to separate sexuality and spirituality.

Implications for Student Affairs

As students define both the sexual and spiritual aspects of their identity during the college years (Evans, 1991; Parks, 1986), student affairs professionals must acknowledge these two developmental processes both in practice and theory. As each model has displayed, the journey of the GLB student towards an integration of sexual and spiritual identity is marked by personal distress, alienation, and struggle. Knowledge of theories of sexual and spiritual identity formation will enable professionals to listen with greater understanding to the questions of GLB students and respond with a greater appreciation for their struggles and needs (Hoffman, 1991). As GLB students are immersed in a homophobic and heterosexist society, student affairs professionals must provide the tools for these students to make sense of their lives independent of the surrounding culture. These tools for educating the whole student are: role-models, information/resources, and community support (i.e., campus clubs/organizations). All departments, especially GLB resource offices, campus ministry, and residential life departments, must be aware of these students' need for identity integration-designing programs and support systems accordingly.

Cass (1979) comments that it is probably impossible for a homosexual to achieve total congruence between personal and societal perceptions of their identity given current Western attitudes towards homosexuality. Yet, she notes that with changes in societal attitudes and expectations, perhaps homosexuals will not have to settle for merely a "tolerable and manageable" level of acceptance by society (p. 222). As society has divided the self and distanced the homosexual, student affairs must lead the church, the academy, and the greater community in embracing and encouraging GLB students in their search for wholeness.


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Laura graduates with a Bachelor's degree in Sociology in 1992 from the University of California, Davis. She will graduate from the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at The University of Vermont in May of this year and looks forward to returning to the West Coast.