There are many identity development models for gay and lesbian people out there, and the Cass Identity Development Model is one of the most familiar – for example, the Cass Model is the only one I have ever run across in a classroom. For bisexual (and trans*) people, the Cass Model just doesn’t quite fit. (If you need a refresher on Cass, go here and get the full text, and if you just want some Mama Cass, go here and here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to get back. If you’ve only encountered Cass in summary form, I strongly encourage you to go read the original, though.)
Everyone back? Good, I had just enough time for a Hot Pocket.
According to the original Cass Model, the first stage is confusion and hiding. So far, so good. That’s where, in a heteronormative society, we all start – noticing that we may be different, wondering what it means, and hiding it, often from ourselves as well as others.
The second stage is comparison. According to Cass, the strategies here include passing – being in the closet. Here’s a fundamental truth about the queer experience, something that I would say is a universal truth, at least in the societies we live in; we all start off in the closet. Because of the normative assumption that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, every person who identifies as queer has to at some time declare it in some way.
The part that raised my hackles, though, was when she goes on to describe and dismiss bisexuality as merely a transitional strategy, and not as a social one, but as a fancy way of lying to yourself.
This is what’s being taught in University courses on queer. This is the model that people studying homophobia and heterosexism, students of psychology and social justice, are being given as possibly their only academic resource. No wonder the stereotype of the confused and self-deceiving actually-gay-but-pretending-to-be-bi is so robust. No wonder therapists (straight and gay) and Allies like the well-meaning parents who told their queer son to “pick one” screw up bi-identified people so often!
In the third stage of this model, identity tolerance, you start to accept who you are. One of the keys to this, according to Cass, is “[seeking] out homosexuals and the homosexual subculture.” Obviously if you reach out to queer culture and get told negative and biphobic things, you’re either going to crawl back in the closet due to lack of support or just throw your hands in the air and repudiate all labels or, if you’re like me, get furious. And Loud.
(A note: throwing away all labels makes community support more difficult, rather than less. It’s like saying we live in a post-racial society so we just should all call ourselves humans. It doesn’t work there, and it doesn’t work here, because you’re not just excluding yourself, you are excluding everyone who is trying to find you so they can see they are not alone. People are not going to quit labeling you because you choose to eschew labels – you’re just giving up control of how you identify.)
Stage 4, acceptance, is characterized by increasing contact with the community and stage 5, Pride, is in large part rejection of heterosexuality. “P not only accepts a homosexual identity but prefers it to a heterosexual one.” Now this is all well and good for people who are monosexual. But according to this model, if you are bisexual, you are only moving to the next stage if you reject… part of yourself. What a bind to be put in. And again, this is what’s being taught. This is the model that bisexuals are being measured against.
This is why Pride festivals have one booth for bis off in a back corner – not even next to the porta-potties, because then people would have to walk by us, but out in the hinterlands. This is why people use “gay and lesbian” as a term for LGBT – because our acknowledging and embracing our “heterosexual” attractions as well as our same-gender feelings must be rejected in the very name of Pride.
Stage 6 is synthesis, where identity becomes less of a prime issue and just part of who you are. Community support, again, is essential to this stage.
This is not a satisfying model. Not only does it erase and devalue bisexuality in the individual (as well as trans*folk who identify as heterosexual – wait, what? People who are transcending or transitioning their gender can identify as straight? You bet your boots they can, and some do, which is another reason that rhetoric about “not seeing gender” can be invalidating for someone who is fighting an endless everyday battle to be seen as the gender they actually are rather than that assigned at birth) but it also leads to a community perception of bisexuality as The Hated Other. It entrenches biphobia in the name of self-acceptance, and in academia and everything that comes out of academia – professional training, research, you name it.
I am obviously not the first or only person to notice this – I linked to a look at it a few articles back, and Tom Brown discussed it at length in his 2002 article on bisexual identity development.
Brown looks at Weinberg’s no-order idea of “Suspect, Engage, Label”, which is a great jumping-off point. You Suspect you’re different, you Engage yourself and the outside world and the queer community, you Label as a way of finding others and affirming your identity, and you don’t necessarily do it in any particular fashion. Brown also looks at Weinberg’s 4-stage model, which ends with “Continued Uncertainty”, and highlights in particular the importance of community.
From the article, emphasis mine:
Insufficient social validation, including a lack of bisexual role models and communities, was hypothesized to contribute to this Continued Uncertainty. For others, this confusion may have resulted from the need to change to a lesbian or gay self-label in order to be accepted in homosexual communities. For women, a lack of social support for bisexuality may carry over into some feminist communities or negatively impact their feminist identity. [...] Members of both sexes cited being in a monogamous relationship as contributing to their Continued Uncertainty.”
The only interpretation of this that makes any sense to me is that this stage of Continued Uncertainty is something imposed, something external, that may become internalized. Biphobia from without becomes biphobia within. Brown also notes that Weinberg et al. question the ability of bisexuals to have robust identity development specifically due to “the dearth of bisexual resources outside of San Francisco” (to which I add, 14 years after this research, places like Boston, NY, MPLS… large urban centers that have things like the BRC and NYABN and BOP).
The urbanization of gay that started rolling after WW2, while it has benefited us as queers, has not really happened for or specifically benefited bisexuals in a comparable way. And no wonder! What’s the point of migrating to a “gay city” if you are going to face the same stereotyping and rejection that you can get just as easily in Podunk? Why not just keep your head down and install new drapes in your closet?
If the rejection of bisexuality by large elements in the GL community makes us look smaller by keeping us in the closet (and here I mean both the straight closet that we all start in and the gay closet where we give up and just identify as Anything But Bisexual), then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Where’s the community to come out to? Nowhere. So I won’t come out, then, I can manage my feelings of threat better by remaining isolated.” Then along comes the next person, who can’t find the bi community either…
Brown makes a big deal, quite rightly, about the need for community support. Over and over, studies are showing that mental health, personality integration, and overall happiness are strongly related to belonging to a community. Aristotle and Plato knew it 2000 years ago, we know it today – even the lone wolves have to have a community to support them. Brown’s model explicitly states that “A person in a nonsupportive community may have difficulty maintaining [hir] identity.”
Brown’s Model of Bisexual Identity Development is four stages (because let’s face it, as humans, we looove to frame development as stages) that mirror the first three of Weinberg’s and then expand on stability. Stage one is Confusion, because we all start there – it’s just that we don’t stay there. Stage two is Finding and Applying the Label. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons I am so concerned about label issues. It’s not Oppression Olympics, it’s not a peculiar fascination with semantics and terminology, it is an important piece in how we fully become who we are, and it frankly perturbs me to see mislabeling applied from monosexuals and non-monosexuals alike.) Stage three is Settling Into the Identity.
Quoting Brown again – “…it is important for the bisexual person to have a supportive social network or significant other available.” (This would be a good time for a shout-out to BiNet USA http://www.binetusa.org/ and the BRC http://www.biresource.net/bisexualgroups.shtml and the UK Bisexual Index http://www.bisexualindex.org.uk/index.php/BiInTheUK)
Brown calls the fourth stage Identity Maintenance. This is where we live in the community and become the resource for those who are seeking others like themselves – like ourselves.
One of the things the Identity Development Models all have in common is the need for community support. In the early days, there wasn’t any, and I salute the brave pioneers who bootstrapped themselves against all opposition, who provided support for the next wave and who the great activist organizations sprang from – even when they conflicted with the establishment, groups like ACTUP were grounded in and empowered by the organizations that saw support and sociality as their key missions rather than getting in people’s faces, and I do not want to see the horrible circumstances that made ACTUP a necessity repeated.
There are differences between the bootstrappers and the situation today, but there are similarities as well. We are all bootstrappers in a sense, lifting ourselves out of isolation, but it makes a difference when you get pushback from members of the queer community, like the person on HuffPo who recently called me a “pearl-clutcher” because I pointed out ze was not being supportive in a comment on an article about lack of support – I was metaphorically being told to shut up, sit down, and get back in the closet because obviously Trans*folk have more problems than I do.
Of course, that part didn’t come up until after we were told that gay people have worse problems than bi people because we don’t have to deal with homophobia – a particularly nasty bit of biphobia, because straight people that bully kids unto death or leave them to die after a beating don’t ask for labels, they just scream “kill the faggot”. People who bully, beat, and kill trans*folk don’t ask them to parse their exact sexuality and gender identity, they just Hate with a capitol H, and I am certain that there were trans*folk reading that comment who shook their heads and said, “Way to alienate the part of the queer community that stood up for us when the Lesbian and Gay Gender Police told us we didn’t belong in their cisgendered queer spaces.”
We have to support each other. One way to do this is to develop, use, and teach models of queer identity development that don’t leave out half the people Under The Rainbow.