“Bisexual Identity Development: Perspectives, Similarities, and Contrasts” is an academic paper rather than an informal blog post. Portions mirror my previous post, Bisexual Identity Development, or, You’re Out Of Your Box Enjoy.
(A note on language: in modern usage, the word “homosexual” is frequently deprecated due to the LGBTQ+ community’s history of legal, medical, and psychiatric oppression under that word. Therefore its use in this paper is restricted to quotations, and “gay” or “gay and lesbian” is preferred in the text.)
Part of the biopsychosocial development process is the development of multiple intersecting personal and community identities. These identities vary in salience and social acceptance, and follow some roughly predictable outlines. For individuals in marginalized groups, these identities are likely to be most salient when they align with both the individual’s personal experience and the narratives of the cultures in which they are imbedded. Rust describes identity as “the link connecting the individual to the social world” (2009, p. 227). Erickson’s staged theory of human development poses development as a series of crises to be resolved, either at an age-appropriate time or later in life, in which the key crisis of adolescence is that of Identity versus Role Confusion (Broderick & Blewitt, 2014, p.12). Sexual orientation as an identity is a relatively new concept in the study of development, as until recently all sexual orientations other than straight were either erased or pathologized. Bisexuality in particular has been pathologized by heterocentric models of psychosexual development such as the Freudian psychoanalytic view that posits bisexuality as an immature state, one even more problematic than the gayness these theories have only reluctantly embraced as part of the spectrum of normalcy (Rapoport, 2009). Models of gay identity development such as Cass’s, while a great leap forward at the time, frequently explicitly deny bisexuality as a stable, valid, and mature identity (Cass, 1979). More recently, several models of bisexual identity development (both staged and non-staged) have been developed. This paper gives a brief overview of several sexual orientation-specific identity development models and suggests an integrative approach to bisexual identity development.
Specific to all models of gay or bisexual identity development is the concept of “coming out”, which is the experience of telling someone – generally yourself first, then intimates, then more people until you reach the point of openness you desire, which varies by the individual – that you are not straight. Coming out, like identity development, is not a singular event, but rather a process that reprises frequently. It is not an experience shared by people whose identities are heterosexual, although it can be approximately compared to the experience of racial “passing”. However, in cases of racial passing, it is rare indeed that the person asserting their racial identity will be considered to be morally deficient because of it, although there may be consequences to them for doing so. All sexual orientation identity development models other than heterosexual incorporate coming out into the model.
Two Models: Linear and Non-Linear
The model of gay identity development proposed by Cass is highly influential, and highly problematic for people with a bisexual identity. According to Cass (1979), the development of a gay identity proceeds through six stages, each of which offers the possibility of advancement through to the next stage or “identity foreclosure [where] the individual may choose not to develop any further” (p. 220). This concept of identity foreclosure comes from Marcia’s exploration/commitment grid, with foreclosure described as high commitment with low exploration and moratorium as high exploration in the absence of any commitment (Sneed, Schwartz, and Cross, 2006).
The first stage in Cass’s model is Confusion, where a person frequently reacts to the dawn of their perception of their behavior as incongruent with their selves by denial, or by attempting to scrub themselves of their same-sex attractions. The second stage is Comparison, where the individual is starting to see themselves as something other than straight. It is in this stage that the Cass model begins to be problematic for bisexuals, in that it posits bisexuality as a purely self-deceptive strategy where the nascent gay uses a bisexual identity as a way to hide their gayness from themselves. According to the progress/foreclosure schema adopted as the rationale for stages, therefore, a person who identifies as bisexual cannot by definition have a mature and robust identity development.
In stages three and four, Tolerance and Acceptance, the individual gets more comfortable with themselves – but in both of these stages, this comfort is more and more dependent on rejection of the heterosexual. For someone whose identity is coherent when framed as gay, this is not necessarily an issue, but for someone to whom attraction to people of different genders/sexes is salient, it places them in an untenable situation, where in order to be told they are mature they must reject a significant portion of themselves. Coming out can begin to occur at any point from stage 3 on, but it is considered essentially inevitable by stage 5. At stage 5, Pride, the individual “dichotomizes the world into homosexuals (credible and significant) and heterosexuals (discredited and insignificant)” (Cass 1979, p. 233). This strategy, when combined with the perception of bisexuality as a case of identity foreclosure rather than a stable non-heterosexual identity in its own right, causes further separation between the bisexual individual and the community. Stage six, Synthesis, features an integrative sense of self where the individual encompasses multiple salient facets of themselves into their self-image. The nature of the staged model, however, has specific consequences beyond the obvious.
Staged models of development, wrote Rust, lead to a “transformation from description to prescription [which] makes the model a moral one; movement toward the end state is defined as progress, whereas movement in the other direction is defined as regression” (2009, p. 239). Because of this tendency of staged models to become prescriptive, many nonlinear models of identity development have been proposed in many different arenas. Identity development models that describe how people with identities built around monosexual (gay, lesbian, or straight) orientation and attractions define their experiences certainly can be useful to them, but for bisexual people whose identity development is frequently nonlinear, they are potentially harmful (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). In the particular, “an initial formulation of a conceptual theory of bisexual identity development seems to call for a task model rather than a phase or stage model” (Twining, in Fox 2009, p. 96).
In 1994 D’Augelli proposed a six-part identity development model for non-heterosexual identities that identifies the parts as discrete, potentially concurrent, and not forming any identifiably linear macroprocess, although each part could be seen as containing linear elements (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). The important distinction is that any or all of the parts can be at any level of development without challenging the development of any of the others, unlike the stage models that present a moral progression. Bilodeau and Renn (2005) delineate D’Augelli’s model as “identity processes” of “exiting heterosexuality, developing a personal LGB identity, developing an LGB social identity, becoming an LGB offspring, developing an LGB intimacy status, entering an LGB community” (pp. 28-29). While this model lacks some of the specific issues that Cass’s model carries for bisexuality, in particular the construction of bisexuality as an immature way station, its generality serves to hamstring its utility when dealing with specific populations.
Implicit in stageless models and necessary to staged ones is the concept of “recycling”, where an individual’s experiences that cause them to question their identity lead them to revisit an earlier stage (Sneed et al, 2006). This recycling, with its sense of regression and therefore violation of the moral imperative to progress toward the desired endpoint of development, is superfluous to models without a prescriptive bent.
Bisexual Specific Models
Knous (2005) described bisexual identity development though a sociological lens of acceptance of deviance. In the article, she describes a set of preconditions for successful identity development from the work of Ann Fox in Hutchins and Kaahumanu’s seminal 1991 anthology Bi Any Other Name – Permission (from self), Recognition (of self), Validation (from self and others), Support, and Community acceptance (Knous 2005, p. 42). While these preconditions are identical for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, the way that they play out in people’s lives frequently differs, in particular validation, support, and community acceptance. Knous’s staged model begins with same sex attraction or actions from an assumed heterosexuality which is challenged, leaving the individual in a state of confusion or curiosity. The second stage is labeling as bisexual, either by self or others. Knous wrote that “stigma management becomes essential” at this point (2005, p. 46). This labeling stage also incorporates coming out, which is seen as a process of both self-labeling and reaching out to the gay and lesbian community – which Knous acknowledged to frequently discriminate against bisexuals as the heterosexual community does. Knous’s third stage features joining the bisexual community and “a rebellion against social prejudice, as well as being proudly out as bisexual within the wider gay and straight communities” (2005, p. 48).
Another stage model is the Layer Cake Model, which like much other research focused on college students (Bleiberg, Fertmann, Friedman, & Godino, 2005). In the case of this particular model, it was developed by four straight people with master’s degrees in Student Personnel Administration from the same university. While that does not necessarily taint the model, it does make it an illustration of how the assumptions and experiences of the authors influences the way the experiences of the subjects are interpreted. This model, like Knous (2005) begins with an assumed heterosexual identity in a heteronormative society. This identity is then challenged and disrupted by same-sex attractions or actions, or through introspection and acknowledgement of feelings. In Layer Three, individuals are self-accepting but retain the assumed identity of heterosexuality, a retention that is in part driven by the lack of a supportive community as well as a perception that coming out is “not only uncomfortable but […] unnecessary” (Bleiberg et al, 2005, p. 56). Layer four is conceptualized as a fusion of gay and straight identities, with labeling (or rejection of labels) and the initiation of a coming out process, proceeding to the fifth layer of bisexual identification, where the model ends. This is an extremely simplified model that seems to lack much of either a theoretical or observational basis, although the description of assumed heterosexuality is a fair starting point for all non-straight sexual orientation identities and may be a second universal component of shared gay and bisexual experience.
In 2002 Brown compared and contrasted 15 different models of sexual orientation identity development and proposed a staged model loosely based on a staged model by Weinberg, Williams, and Pryor. The original model consisted of “Initial Confusion, Finding and Applying the Label, Settling Into the Identity, and Continued Uncertainty”, and the primary change is to the final stage, relabeling it “Identity Maintenance” (Brown 2002, pp. 80-81). The first stage maps neatly onto Cass, however Brown noted that this confusion can be moderated. Fox (2003) addresses this moderation as well:
Finally, one of the main differences between bisexual men and women and gay men and lesbians is in the degree to which a visible community of similar others exists and serves to support the individual in the coming-out process. […E]xtensive support networks […] have served this purpose for lesbians and gay men. (p. 116)
This community support, argued Brown, is a key part of his revised model (2002). The presence of a community of mutual support makes the difference between isolation and continued identity questioning, and a robust stable identity similar to Cass’s stage 6 (Brown 2002).
The most salient difference between Cass and Brown is that while Cass metaphorically threw bisexuals under the bus, invalidating their identity, Brown’s model specifically described bisexuality as a valid and intelligible identity. One of the strengths of Brown’s (and therefore Weinberg et al’s) model is the explicit acknowledgement of the role of community in development.
No identity develops in a vacuum. Without a community to recognize, validate, support, and welcome bisexuals, it is impossible to have a stable social identity. Some areas of future research would include examining ways that individual’s stigma management can disrupt this community, and ways that the negative effects of the dominance of models of gay and lesbian identity development that depend on pathologizing bisexuality can be moderated or eliminated.
A single model of LGB identity development may not be possible, even with the similarities between the populations, simply because the salient differences between bisexual identity and monosexual identity as currently formulated trumps said similarities. For example, monosexual identities involve attraction to only one specific sex/gender whose social appropriateness is based on your own sex/gender; gay models pathologize “inappropriate” gender choices just as certainly as straight models do (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). Bisexual models, however, must include an internal acceptance of multi-gendered attractions, meaning that in either a gay or a straight framework some of a bisexual’s attractions and/or relationships will always be viewed as inappropriately directed. Regardless of whether the model of identity development is staged or unstaged, bisexuals are tasked with the “need to acknowledge and validate both homosexual and heterosexual components, regardless of the degree either or both are actualized in sexual behavior or relationships” (Fox 2003, p. 117).
One potential direction would be to use D’Augelli’s task model to illuminate Brown’s modification of Weinberg et al as well as newer research. A piece of identity development that has only very recently been conceptualized is fluidity of orientation as identity. Some people in the bisexual community use “fluid” as part of or even their exclusive sexual orientation identity label. Researchers like Lisa Diamond, and Rosario, Scrimshaw, Hunter, & Braun have begun work codifying how people’s identities shift, but without the necessity of making bisexuality into an unintelligible transitional non-identity. While Rosario et al (2006) continues to carry assumptions that prevent accurate measurements of bisexual identity (for example, while a significant proportion of the subjects initially identified as both gay or lesbian and bisexual, this was not given as an option for any of the identities whose change was measured over time, thus effectively forcing them to change), it is one of a group of newer studies that does not assume that all bisexuals are merely closeted gays, experimenting straights, or confusedly immature. Rather, fluidity is beginning to be acknowledged as part of normal existence rather than as recycling or confusion.
One possible task-based model of bisexual identity development could look like this:
developing a private bisexual description
developing a public bisexual description
becoming a bisexual offspring
exploring fluidity of attraction and behavior
engaging with bisexual community
This kind of stageless task model could easily incorporate the staged tasks that Brown poses; for example, Finding and Applying the Label would fit into both private and public bisexual descriptions while removing the perceived requirement for confusion. Allowing exploration of fluidity and liminality without making it a required stage also allows those bisexuals who do not perceive themselves as fluid to develop a stable static identity without denying stability of identity to those with a more dynamic approach.
One further suggestion would be to look at the language of confusion that pervades existing models of bisexual identity development and reframe the word. When we read confusion as uncertainty, instability, and chaos, we ignore another, older, alchemical meaning – con-fusion, the mixing and merging of two or more substances together until they are inextricably mixed together. It certainly seems appropriate to apply alchemical metaphors to bisexuality and bisexual identity, to view this identity as an alloy that incorporates and con-fuses the best of all of the elements that make it up.
Bilodeau, B., Renn, K. A. (2005). Analysis of LGBT identity development models and implications for practice. New Directions For Student Services, 111, 25-39
Bleiberg, S., Fertmann, A., Friedman, A. T., Godino, C. (2005). The layer cake model of bisexual identity development: Clarifying preconceived notions. Campus Activities Programming 38(1), 59 -62
Broderick, P. C., Blewitt, P. (2014) The Life Span: Human Development for Helping Professionals, 4th Ed. Pearson: Boston
Brown, T. (2002). A proposed model of bisexual identity development that elaborates on experiential differences of women and men. Journal of Bisexuality, 2(4), 67-91
Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.
Fox, R. (2003) Bisexual identities. in Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. Columbia University Press: New York
Knous, H. M. (2006) The coming out experience for bisexuals, Journal of Bisexuality, 5(4), 37-59
Rapoport, E. (2009) Bisexuality in psychoanalytic theory: Interpreting the resistance. Journal of Bisexuality, 9(3-4), 279-295
Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E. W., Hunter, J., & Braun, B. (2006). Sexual identity development among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths: Consistency and change over time. J Sex Res, 43(1), 46–58. (I found this article quite problematic in a lot of ways)
Rust, P. C. (2003) Finding a sexual identity and community: Therapeutic implications and cultural assumptions in scientific models of coming out. in Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences. Columbia University Press: New York
Sneed, J. R., Schwartz, S. J., and Cross, W. E. Jr. (2006) A multicultural critique of identity status theory and research: a call for integration. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 6(1), 61-84