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PsychByte: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Identity Formation


Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Identity Formation

The development of sexual identity in people who identify as LGBT is a complicated process, and researchers disagree on its nature. The essentialistic paradigm (e.g. “coming out” models) argues that sexual and gender identities, based in biology and the earliest of experiences, are fixed and remain stable throughout an individual’s life.  In other words, a person either is or is not gay or lesbian. In contrast, the social constructionist paradigm purports that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender identities are influenced by social, geographical, and chronological factors, and are thus flexible and subject to change. This ideology yielded "queer theory," in which gender and sexuality are seen as fluid and contextual, and thus are not conducive to a stage theory of development.
In their book chapter, Eliason and Schope (2007) critically review several theories of LGBT identity development, considering the strengths and challenges of both social construction and essentialist models.  For example, few stage theories can account for bisexual or transgender identity development, while most stage theories share an emphasis on gender atypical behavior or emotions during childhood, which alienates individuals with gender conforming childhoods. 
Queer theory addresses some of the rigidity of stage models by appreciating contextual factors and individual differences. These models tend to consider the risks and benefits of labels, and promote identity flexibility over identity stability. Still, stage theories are popular because they provide interventional guidelines for providing psychotherapy to those who identify as LGBT. Thus, the authors propose combining the strengths of stage models with the malleability of queer theory to produce common themes that such individuals might experience during their identity development. Clinical psychologists should utilize common themes to guide conversation and intervention with their clients who identify as LGBT. This approach appreciates the highly individual nature of sexual and gender identity formation and captures the strengths of stage models while providing enough flexibility to acclimate to the here and now.
To learn more, visit:
Eliason, M. J. & Schope, R. (2007). Shifting sands or solid foundation? Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identity formation. In I. H. Meyer and M. E. Northridge (Eds.), The Health of Sexual Minorities (3-26). New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.   
Carolyn Certilman, M.A. & Shervin Tehranirad, M.A., MPH 
Interns in Clinical Psychology at the St. Vincent Neuroscience Institute-St. Vincent Hospital 
Elizabeth N. Andresen, Ph.D., HSPP 
Clinical Neuropsychologist 
Diversity Coordinator, Doctoral Internship Program  
St. Vincent Neuroscience Institute – St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital 


"PsychBytes” is a weekly educational resource from the Indiana Psychological Association (IPA) provided for psychologists, their colleagues and their patients.