Intersecting Identities: Spiritual and Sexual Identity Development in Youth

Krista Meyerhoff


Gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) youth face many challenges as compared to their heterosexual counterparts, one of which is learning to integrate their sexual identity with an existing religious or spiritual ideology. The purpose of this article is to examine and understand the struggle experienced by youth with multiple identities¡ªthose who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual as well as spiritual or religious. An overview and critique of existing stage models of homosexual identity development and spiritual identity development will be followed by the description of a five-stage process of identity conflict resolution recently developed by researchers. Finally, suggestions for further research about the spiritual identity development of GLB youth will be proposed.


Though views on homosexuality have changed drastically in the medical and psychological communities over the past four decades, many religious communities still deem homosexuality as morally wrong (Buchanan, Dzelme, Harris, & Hecker, 2001). Until 1973, the American Psychological Association (APA) categorized homosexuality as a mental disorder (Buchanan et al., 2001). Today, the APA (2008) defines sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to men, women, or both sexes … [and] a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions” (p. 1). Youth are increasingly identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) at a younger age, which can result in stigma and discrimination in school, workplaces, and religious communities (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). As youth develop a homosexual identity, they may begin to question religious and spiritual beliefs. Ideally, they will learn how one identity can inform and benefit the development of the other (Poynter & Washington, 2005).

Cass’ Theory of Homosexual Identity Formation

Through the theory of homosexual identity development, Cass attempts to understand the “coming-out” process and its associated psychological and social implications (Cass, 1979). In developing the model, Cass interviewed white male adults reflecting on the homosexual development process they had experienced during adolescence and young adulthood (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). Cass generalized her model to include homosexual identity formation in both male and female individuals (Cass, 1979). Cass’ theory includes six stages that contribute to a self-described homosexual identity¡ªidentity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis. The ages at which these stages occur vary by individual. The end result is when a gay, lesbian, or bisexual individual settles the internal conflict about his or her sexual identity and develops a positive sense of self (Bilodeau and Renn, 2005).

Cass (1979) names the initial stage as Identity Confusion, where the individual first recognizes the difference between his or her personal perception of sexuality and the societal norm of heterosexuality. The youth becomes aware of thoughts, feelings, and actions that could be considered as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Cass, 1979). Participation in homosexual behaviors does not necessarily lead to Identity Confusion since many adolescents partake in same-gender sexual experimentation. This stage occurs when the individual assigns personal meaning to homosexual feelings or behaviors and recognizes these feelings as either positive or negative (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005).

The second stage in Cass’ theory is Identity Comparison (1979). During this phase, the youth acknowledges the possibility that he or she might be gay, lesbian, or bisexual and begins to learn what that sexual identity means. This awareness can lead to internal conflict and alienation from others who are heterosexual. At this point, his or her guidelines for behavior and future expectations, which were based on a heterosexual identity, are no longer relevant and the individual needs to “find new meanings for life” (Cass, 1979, p. 225).

Stage three, Identity Tolerance, is when selfacceptance grows and the GLB youth recognizes social, emotional, and sexual needs as a homosexual individual (Cass, 1979). As he or she further commits to a homosexual identity, however, feelings of isolation increase in reaction to the heterosexist society. Ideally, the individual will seek out support in the GLB community to lessen feelings of alienation. Meanwhile, the youth continues to present him or herself as heterosexual to others.

During Identity Acceptance, the individual resolves many of the questions concerning his or her sexual identity and accepts him or herself as homosexual (Cass, 1979). But the youth is still concerned with others’ potential reaction in the form of approval or rejection. The GLB individual shares his or her sexuality with a select group of friends and relatives.

Identity Pride describes the fifth stage of Cass’ theory in which the individual proudly discloses his or her sexual identity to the rest of society (1979). The youth strongly identifies with the GLB community and feels angry toward the heterosexist society as a result of the sexual stigma he or she has experienced.

The final stage, Identity Synthesis, occurs when the individual incorporates sexuality into other aspects of his or her identity (Cass, 1979). The homosexual youth shares his or her whole self with the outside world (Cass, 1979). However, identity foreclosure can occur at any point during the process and thwart a young person in reaching the Identity Synthesis stage. When this happens, the youth refuses to accept a homosexual identity and bans the possibility of future development. If family members, friends, and religious groups who disapprove of homosexuality surround the individual, for example, it is likely that self-acceptance will be difficult. When an individual succeeds in achieving identity foreclosure, the development of a homosexual identity stops (Cass, 1979).

Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Fowler’s stage theory informs an individual’s religious or spiritual identity. According to DuMontier (2000), “faith is how people become aware of self, others, and the transcendent. It is how people make meaning out of, and commitment based upon what they have become, learned, or discovered” (p. 323). The model was developed from over 350 interviews conducted by Fowler between 1972 and 1981 in the United States and Canada. Participants were mainly White and Christian, though evenly divided by gender and covering a wide range of ages. Each interviewee was asked more than 30 questions about current values, religion, and experiences or relationships that shaped his or her life (Hutchinson, 2011). Fowler’s theory identifies six periods of faith¡ªintuitive-projective, mythic-literal, syntheticconventional, individuative-reflective, conjunctive, and universalizing faith (Fowler, 1981). In Intuitive-Projective Faith, which typically occurs from ages 3 to 7, children reflect the religious and spiritual beliefs of their parents. Family views on sex and accompanying taboos become part of the youth’s belief system. This 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). Mythic-Literal Faith, where other important adults such as teachers and relatives influence the child¡¯s views, begins during the 6th year and lasts until age 11 or 12. The youth assigns onedimensional meanings to the symbols, rules, beliefs, and attitudes of those who shape his or her beliefs. In the later phases, he or she will reflect upon these meanings, recognize how they contradict reality, and attempt to resolve this conflict.

During the third stage, Synthetic-Conventional Faith, adolescents begin to reexamine their thinking, though they are still affected by the spiritual and religious ideas of others. The youth develops a system of beliefs and identity based on his or her past and possible future, which are expected to be consistent with that of authority figures. An individual will often continue in this stage, unless a radical change in values (e.g., following an event such as the death of a parent) requires that he or she reconsider beliefs.

The fourth phase, Individuative-Reflective Faith, involves the development of an individual ideology and self-concept that does not rely on the outlook of others. One’s view of faith becomes personal and is shaped by other parts of his or her life. This stage typically does not occur until later in life (if at all). But for those who have had significant life challenges (e.g., terminal illness or parental divorce), Individuative-Reflective Faith can begin in early-20s.

Most individuals do not progress beyond the fourth stage and advancement to the fifth stage, Conjuctive Faith, rarely happens before mid-life. Although the individual recognizes that religious traditions do not offer absolute truth while in this stage, he or she is able to engage with and learn from existing religious ideologies in order to develop a deeper understanding of his or her own faith. When one reaches Universalizing Faith, Fowler’s sixth and final stage, he or she has reached a state of enlightenment and sacrifices his or her own well-being in service of others. “In their generosity and authority, in their freedom and their costly love, they embody the promise and lure of our shared futurity. These persons embody costly openess to the power of the future” (Fowler, 1981, p. 211).

Critique of Stage Models

Cass and Fowler each proposed a stage theory that explains the development of a specific aspect of identity constructed by society and culture. However, there are several limitations with these stage-based explanations. One limitation is that these models do not necessarily consider other facets of the individual’s identity (Love et al., 2005). Also, these stage models are based in Eurocentric ideas about culture, sexual orientation, and gender identity. In contrast, in many Native American and Eastern communities, there is a union of body and spirit, which blends these pieces of identity in a way that Western culture does not (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). Similarly, both Cass (1979) and Fowler (1981) developed and tested their theories using populations that were largely white, cisgender, and Christian. They therefore ignored the experiences of gender nonconforming individuals, as well as those of other ethnic and racial groups. Additionally, the process of developing a sexual orientation identity different from that which has been socially constructed as the norm is a complicated psychosocial process that does not necessarily progress linearly from one stage to another, as a stage model suggests. Cass’ theory neither considers an adolescent’s gender, race, class, and culture, nor seeks to understand how these particular aspects influence or interact with sexuality (Bilodeau & Renn, 2005). Rust (as cited in Levy & Reeves, 2011, p. 56) argues that “although models are developed to describe psychological and social phenomena, when they are used in efforts to predict or facilitate the process they describe, they become prescriptive.” Cass¡¯ model implies that an endpoint of Identity Synthesis is the healthiest outcome of development, which may not reflect the experience of many individuals.

Meanwhile, Fowler’s theory assumes that the child has parental figures in his or life, who would positively influence his or her beliefs. By grouping childhood into three stages, this model does not necessarily reflect the variety of spiritual experiences that can occur early in life, nor does it take into account social, economic, political, and historical factors that can affect one’s faith. By ignoring these elements that are so critical in an individual’s development, this theory also overlooks the role of power dynamics and oppression in the development of a spiritual identity.

Intersecting Theories

It is important to note the ways in which homosexual identity development can facilitate or impede spiritual development and vice versa, and to find ways to make these two identities mutually beneficial (Poynter & Washington, 2005). Levy and Reeves (2011) used Cass’ and Fowler’s theories as guiding frameworks in an empirical study of gay, lesbian, and queer individuals with a Christian upbringing. Following interviews with over 2 dozen participants, researchers developed a fivestage process to settle the internal conflict between sexual identity and religious beliefs that can occur¡ªawareness, initial response, a catalyst of new knowledge, working through the conflict, and resolution.

Unlike Cass’ and Fowler’s stage-based models of identity development, which are linear and onedimensional, Levy and Reeves (2011) conclude that the process of internal conflict resolution must consider behavior to be the result of both the person and the environment in which he or she exists. This process is unique to every individual and influenced by both personal factors (e.g., reflective abilities, strength and resiliency, anger, creativity, and humor) and contextual factors (e.g., family, community resources, and church doctrine). The presence or absence of these factors in an individual affects every aspect of the resolution process. Levy and Reeves (2011) note, “Although [this] model…appears to be linear and concrete, the process of resolving conflict between sexual identity and religious beliefs is fluid and interactive” (p. 65).

GLB youth often encounter multiple barriers in this process of identity integration. “They may be feeling pressure to follow the familial path, outwardly participating in their religious organization while inwardly struggling to reconcile their emerging sexual orientation with their religious beliefs” (Buchanan et al., 2001, p. 440). J. Kendzierski, a gay man who grew up Catholic, demonstrates this inner struggle. “The process of coming out as homosexual at 20-years-old was difficult. Before I could share my identity with others, I needed to come to terms with something natural inside myself that had been demonized by my faith” (personal communication, January 11, 2012).

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth have an opportunity, however, which heterosexual youth may not. In a society that distances sexuality from spirituality, GLB individuals can find a way to intersect and reconcile their identities. A study of gay and lesbian college students from traditional religious backgrounds found that these youth progressed to a more advanced stage of spiritual identity development earlier in their lives as compared to their heterosexual counterparts (Love et al., 2005). Again, Kendzierski’s experience supports these findings: I always felt like the message ¡®homosexuality is wrong¡¯ did not connect with the message ¡®God loves all children,¡¯ so I choose to ignore the parts of Catholicism that do not suit me. Today I continue to follow what I believe. I respect the church and feel comfortable within it, even though I may not be accepted by their doctrine (personal communication, January 11, 2012).

Critical Analysis and Recommendations

Using the models proposed by Cass and Fowler, one can see how the early spiritual experiences of a GLB child would differ from a heterosexual youth. In Intuitive-Projective Faith, for instance, the youth may internalize religious, moral, and social standards that reject same-sex attraction. In the first phase of homosexual identity development, Identity Confusion, a youth who has internalized these oppressive standards may foreclose and terminate his or her development of a homosexual identity. By considering how Fowler’s model can be adapted to a GLB youth and how Cass’ model can be adapted to a youth with religious upbringing, one can begin to understand the inner struggle that occurs when these two identities intersect. The spiritual development of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth is an area that needs considerably more research reflecting a wider range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Most of the empirical studies to date on this topic involve the experiences of college students at private universities, who tend to be largely white and predominantly male and Christian. These nonrepresentative samples signify that the information reflects an educated and socioeconomically elite group, which may not generalize to other gender, racial, ethnic, or religious groups (DuMontier, 2000; Love et al., 2005; Poynter & Washington, 2005). The available knowledge can inform the field, but additional studies of high-school-aged GLB students and those in earlier stages of homosexual and spiritual identity development are necessary for better understanding of the experiences of these youth.


American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions for a better understanding of sexual orientation & homosexuality. Retrieved from

Bilodeau, B. L., & Renn, K. A. (2005). Analysis of LGBT development models and implications for practice. New Directions for Student Services, 111, 25-39.

Buchanan, M., Dzelme, K., Harris, D., & Hecker, L. (2001). Challenges of being simultaneously gay or lesbian and spiritual and/or religious: A narrative perspective. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 29(5), 435-449.

Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.

DuMontier, V.L. (2000). Faith, the Bible, and lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. In V. A. Wall & N. J. Evans (Eds.), Toward Acceptance: Sexual Orientation Issues on Campus. Lanham, MD: American College Association of America.

Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Hutchinson, E. D. (2011). The spiritual person. Dimensions of human behavior: Person and environment (4th ed.) (p. 163-208). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Levy, D. L., & Reeves, P. (2011). Resolving identity conflict: Gay, lesbian, and queer individuals with a Christian upbringing. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 23(1), 53-68.

Love, P., Bock, M., Jannarone, A., & Richardson, P. (2005). Identity interaction: Exploring the spiritual experiences of lesbian and gay college students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(2), 193-209.

Poynter, K. J., & Washington, J. (2005). Multiple identities: Creating a community on campus for LGBT students. New Directions for Student Services, 111, 41-47.


About the Author

Krista Meyerhoff is a first year student at HCSSW studying Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families. Krista holds a Bachelors of Arts from New York University, where she majored in Journalism and minored in Dramatic Literature. Prior to pursuing her Master’s in Social Work, Krista was a magazine editor and wrote for publications including Family Circle and Travel and Leisure. She can be reached at

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1 Comment

  1. I enjoy reading an article that will make men and women think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!


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