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The effects of traditional family values on the coming out process of gay male adolescents.

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery (Cates, 1987; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Newman & Newman, 1984; Schickedanz, Hansen, & Forsyth, 1990). Adolescents continue to individuate as they integrate accumulated and newly discovered roles, role expectations, and identities into a core sense of self (Condry, 1984; Erikson, 1963; Harrison & Pennel, 1989; Marcia, 1980; Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart, 1992; Waterman, 1982). For some, this is particularly difficult because they must recognize and integrate a homosexual identity. The process of developing a lesbian or gay identity is frequently called "coming out" and has been widely studied among adults since the 1970s.

Until recently, little has been known about gay and lesbian adolescents. However, research has begun to explore a number of important topics, including how to work with adolescents confused about their sexual orientation (Schneider & Tremble, 1985-86), how stigmatization affects lesbian and gay youth (Hetrick & Martin, 1987), gay youth suicide (Gibson, 1989), and how comfort with being lesbian or gay predicts a youth's self-esteem (Savin-Williams, 1989b). Two areas which have seldom been studied are how an adolescent's racial identity and traditional family values influence the coming out process.

Research indicates that coming out may begin in childhood, adolescence, or at any stage of adulthood (Cass, 1979; Cates, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Reiter, 1989; Troiden, 1989). For many, the process begins during adolescence (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Gibson, 1989; Schneider & Tremble, 1985-86). Several authors point out that, in the last two decades, the age of coming out has dropped noticeably and that an increased number of lesbians and gays are recognizing their sexual orientation during adolescence (Gibson, 1989; Herdt, 1989; Troiden, 1989).

Stage theories suggest that the coming out process includes a gradual acceptance and integration of a gay identity (Cass, 1979; Cates, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Troiden, 1979, 1989). A number of studies reveal that those who begin the process in childhood seem to experience a feeling of "difference" (Gibson, 1989; Herdt, 1989; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Troiden, 1979); this has also been labeled as "sensitization" (Troiden, 1979, 1989). Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith (1981) found that although many in their heterosexual sample also reported feeling different as children, a higher percentage of their homosexual sample recalled these feelings and often expressed reasons for feeling different that varied from those of the heterosexuals. In Troiden's (1979) study, gay male adults retrospectively reported a sense of alienation, gender inadequacy, and less opposite-sex interest as children than did other males. Sensitization may be an important part of the coming out process, even though the child in most cases does not understand what the feelings mean. Sensitization may set the groundwork for the acquisition of a homosexual identity by preconditioning gay youth to the idea that they are unlike many of their peers.

During puberty, adolescents experience dramatic biological, physiological, cognitive, psychological, emotional, and social changes (Cates, 1987; Gibson, 1989; Newman & Newman, 1984; Schickedanz et al., 1990; Sroufe et al., 1992). One of the most important changes is a growing awareness of their sexuality (Cates, 1987; Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 1990). Physical and emotional maturation causes increased sexual and affectional attraction toward others; gay adolescents often experience their first same-sex attraction at this time (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Cates, 1987; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Troiden, 1979, 1989).

During puberty, many lesbians and gays begin to recognize that they may be homosexual (Cates, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Reiter, 1989; Troiden, 1979). In this period, lesbian and gay adolescents frequently experience confusion, because most children are encouraged by society to become heterosexual (Cass, 1979; Herdt, 1989). If they experience same-sex attractions or have sexual encounters incongruent with their own internalized expectations, they also may become distressed and experience feelings of guilt or shame (Cates, 1979; Mercier & Berger, 1989; Minton & MacDonald, 1984; Troiden, 1989).

A common defense mechanism for such painful feelings is denial (Cass, 1979; Gibson, 1989; Lewis, 1984; Troiden, 1989). Because homosexuality is frightening to many adolescents, some try to repress all homosexual urges in order to preserve their sense of an acceptable sexual orientation. Hetrick and Martin (1987) report that some lesbian adolescents purposely become pregnant to "prove" their heterosexuality. Many adolescents do not understand what it means to be lesbian or gay (Martin & Hetrick, 1988), nor are there readily available homosexual adult role models for them (Gibson, 1989; Hetrick & Martin, 1987). These conditions, which Hetrick and Martin (1987) label social, emotional, and informational isolation, may result in a period of painful confusion. In extreme cases, it may even result in suicide (Gibson, 1989). In most instances, however, the confusion is eventually resolved. Cass (1979) and Maylon (1981) indicate that resolution can occur when the adolescent either denies and inhibits all homosexual feelings, considers homosexuality wrong, and represses same-sex attractions, or gains self-acceptance and integrates a gay identity.

During the stage of acceptance, Minton and MacDonald (1984) theorize that an internal transference from role identity to ego identity occurs. In other words, the person moves from an awareness of same-sex attraction to the acknowledgment that he or she is gay or lesbian. Once this is accomplished, the last stage of the coming out process begins. According to Cass (1979), total acceptance of, and pride in, a homosexual identity is the highest level of development.

Researchers have begun to examine the influence of individual variables on the coming out process. Factors that have been examined for their effects on the progression, time frame, and ease of coming out include gender (deMonteflores & Schultz, 1978; Herdt, 1989; Troiden, 1989), amount of heterosexual versus homosexual experience (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Troiden & Goode, 1980), parental attitudes about homosexuality (Savin-Williams, 1989b), and quality of relationship with parents (Savin-Williams, 1989a). Two variables which have not been widely studied for their effect on the coming out process are race and family values.

The major social institutions in the United States and elsewhere teach that homosexuality is incompatible with traditional roles. For gay youth in ethnic minorities, role conflicts may be even more pronounced since homosexuality is considered unacceptable in many of these cultures (Hidalgo & Christensen, 1976-77; Icard, 1986; Tremble, Schneider, & Appathurai, 1989; Wilson, 1986). Tremble et al. (1989) found that gay youth who attempted to integrate a homosexual identity into preexisting cultural beliefs experienced conflicts within themselves, their family, and their community. These conflicts were strongest when religious beliefs were devout, family members had high expectations for the youth to marry and have children, and gender roles were polarized and stereotypical.

Gay and lesbian adults in minority cultures might not present themselves as positive homosexual role models as often as their nonminority counterparts, possibly because of the greater need to keep their sexual identity hidden (Hetrick & Martin, 1987; Martin & Hetrick, 1988; Loiacano, 1989). Therefore, minority adolescents must try to figure out for themselves what being both gay and a member of an ethnic minority means (Tremble et al., 1989). Sometimes, they may lose their connection with community and family; this was found to be true for some Hispanic lesbians (Hidalgo & Christensen, 1976-77). Additionally, Icard (1986) suggests that African-American gay men have difficulty merging their newly accepted gay identity with their racial identity.

In both the African-American community (Icard, 1986; Wilson, 1986) and the Hispanic community (Hetrick & Martin, 1987; Hidalgo & Christensen, 1976-77), homosexuality is considered deviant and viewed as an aberration of Caucasian society. Further, Icard (1986) indicates that African-American culture emphasizes marriage, family, children, and commitment to the community; homosexuality is presented as detrimental to these values and to the continuation of the culture. Heterosexual intercourse is considered the only acceptable sexual contact (Wilson, 1986). Thus, lesbian and gay Hispanic and African-American youth can become stigmatized, being considered anti-family, not community oriented, and nonpropagating. This alienates many gay African-Americans and Hispanics from their culture. In addition, the gay community itself can be criticized for being white oriented, middle class, and not adequately responsive to either people of color (Icard, 1986) or youth (Gibson, 1989). Hetrick and Martin (1987) indicate that stigmatized lesbian and gay youth, regardless of race or ethnicity, experience shame, guilt, depression, and self-hate. These feelings could become magnified if the youth has a strong identification with a traditional minority culture.

Models of the coming out process have not adequately accounted for the influence of race or family values. To better understand how a positive gay identity is acquired, it is important to be aware of how individual and group differences affect this process. Moreover, the process has seldom been operationalized and measured (exceptions include Cass, 1984; Chapman and Brannock, 1987; Sophie, 1985-86; and Troiden, 1979). The purpose of this study was to operationally define and measure stages of the coming out process and to examine the influence of racial and ethnic identification and the presence of traditional family values on male adolescents who were currently in the midst of accepting a gay identity.


Sample and Procedure

Twenty-seven gay male youth between the ages of 17 and 20 participated in this study. Two lesbian and gay college organizations, one lesbian and gay youth dance, one lesbian and gay youth group, and a gay nightclub which had an under-21 night once a week formed the nonprobability sampling frame. Data collection took place over a period of one month in the spring of 1991 when the second author visited each location, presented the questionnaire, and requested the participation of those present.


The questionnaire first elicited demographic information: age, class, race, education, and religion. The next series of questions operationalized the coming out process based upon the available literature (Cass, 1979; Hetrick & Martin, 1987; Lewis, 1984; Troiden, 1979, 1989). Three stages common to the developmental models presented in these studies were identified: (1) sensitization, or sense of being different; (2) awareness with confusion, denial, guilt, and shame; and (3) acceptance. Three questions elicited information about sensitization as a child by inquiring how respondents felt between the ages of 4 and 9, with responses ranging from very different (1) to very similar (4); what sex were most of the respondents' friends, with responses ranging from all boys (1) to all girls (5); and how masculine respondents felt as compared to other boys, ranging from much more masculine (1) to a lot less masculine (5). The time frame of coming out was explored by eliciting age of first same-sex attraction and age when they first realized that they were gay. Respondents were asked if they felt any confusion when they first realized that they were attracted to other boys. This Likert-type scale ranged from I felt a lot of confusion (1) to I did not feel any confusion (5). The length of confusion also was measured, with responses ranging from a few months (1) to over four years (6). Respondents were then asked if they still felt confused. Frequency of denial was measured by a Likert-type scale, with responses ranging from all the time (1) to only a few times (3). Frequency of pretending to be straight was measured, ranging from never (1) to all the time (4). To operationalize intensity of guilt and shame, respondents were asked to rate how much of each they felt when they realized that they liked other boys. Responses on this Likert-type scale ranged from a lot of guilt/shame (1) to none (4). Age of first disclosure was elicited in order to determine the beginning of the acceptance period. Respondents were asked an open-ended question about how they felt about being gay to determine if they expressed acceptance.

Respondents were categorized as being in either high traditional or low traditional families by their answers to questions on the following subjects: the importance of religion in their family, importance to their family that they marry, importance to their family that they have children, and whether a language besides English was spoken at home. Response choices for importance of religion, marriage, and children were very important (1) to not at all important (5). Presence of second language was coded as yes (1) or no (2). To calculate the traditional family rating, 2 points were given for each very important or important response on the three relevant questions, 1 point for somewhat important, and 0 points for not that important or not important at all. If another language was spoken at home, 2 points were given. Scores could thus range from 0 to 8. The sample mean was 4.29 (SD = 2.42), with a range from 0 to 8. The sample was divided into two groups: those below the mean (n = 13) were categorized as low traditional; those above the mean (n = 11) were categorized as high traditional. Three cases were not considered for this analysis because two or more of the indicators of family traditionalism were missing.

Respondents were asked if anyone in their family knew that they were gay. For those who stated that someone in their family did know, family reaction was measured by a Likert-type scale, with responses ranging from strongly approve (1) to strongly disapprove (5). For those whose family would disapprove, respondents were asked how this affected their own feelings about being gay. Responses on this Likert-type scale ranged from very happy (1) to very unhappy (5).

Alienation from the gay community was measured by the extent to which respondents felt they fit in with other gay people, and the number of respondents who felt they had been discriminated against by another gay person.


Description of Sample

The age range of the 27 gay males in the sample was 17 to 20 years old (SD = .94). Twelve respondents (44%) were Caucasian, 7 (26%) were African-American, 6 (22%) were Hispanic/Latino, and 2 (7%) were Asian/Eurasian. Twenty (74%) labeled themselves as middle class, 6 (22%) labeled themselves as upper class, and 1 (4%) identified himself as lower class. Sixteen (59%) lived at home while 11 (41%) did not. Religious affiliation varied considerably; 10 (37%) indicated that they were Catholic, 8 (30%) were Protestant, 2 (7%) were Jewish, 4 (15%) were atheist or agnostic, and 3 (11%) indicated "other." Thirteen (48%) were in college, 11 (41%) were high school graduates, and 3 (11%) were still in high school.

Stages of Coming Out

Sensitization or sense of difference. Respondents reported that between the ages of 4 and 9 they felt, on average, a little different from other boys their own age (M = 2.08, SD = 1.1, range = 1 to 4). The majority (73%) reported that as children they felt different from other boys. None reported that their friends were all boys (1 on the scale), and only one reported that his friends were all girls (5 on the scale). The majority of respondents reported a mixture of boys and girls as friends between the ages of 4 and 9 (M = 3.15, SD = .93). Fifteen percent felt that they had been a lot less masculine than other boys, 41% felt that they had been a little less masculine, 37% felt they had been just as masculine, 7% felt that they had been a little more masculine, while none felt that they had been much more masculine.

Awareness with confusion, denial, guilt, and shame. Respondents first realized that they were gay between the ages of 3 and 17 years (M = 12.5, SD = 3.2). The average age of first crush on another boy was 12.7 (SD = 2.1), with a range from 9 to 18. The majority of adolescents (75%) reported that their first crush occurred between the ages of 11 and 14.

Most respondents reported feeling confused when they first realized that they were gay; only 7 (28%) reported feeling very little or no confusion. Length of confusion ranged from a few months to three years. Only 2 respondents reported still feeling confused.

The average degree of guilt reported was 2.8 (SD = 1.2) on a scale from 1 to 4. Although 59% reported some level of guilt, 41% reported feeling no guilt when they first realized that they were gay. Similarly, 13 (48%) felt some or a lot of shame, 6 (22%) felt very little shame, and 8 (30%) felt no shame when first realizing that they liked boys.

Denial of identity appeared to be a coping strategy for some; 50% had at one time told themselves that they were not gay. Pretending to be straight so that others would not know that they were gay was a strategy used at least sometimes by 85%, rarely or never by 15%. (Five, or 18.5%, responded that they pretended to be straight all the time.)

Acceptance. The age of first disclosure was used to reflect the beginning of acceptance. On average, respondents were 16 (SD = 2.1) when they first told someone that they were gay. A qualitative measure of acceptance was determined by examining responses to the open-ended question, "How do you feel about being gay?" Sixty-one percent appeared to have entered the acceptance stage. This group expressed positive feelings about being gay, such as: "I feel like it's one of the best things that ever happened to me." "It's natural." "I love it!" "It's beautiful." "I'm proud of who and what I am and what being gay represents for gay people." The rest (39%) expressed mixed feelings in comments such as: "I'm happy now, but I don't know if I will be in the near future." "I would like it more if it was widely accepted." One respondent expressed his feelings about being gay as "So-so. I wish sometimes I'm not." Another stated: "It is a fact of life. No one chooses to be gay. We have no say in the matter. I have learned to except |sic~ it." One respondent expressed a conflict between being gay and being a person of color: "Sometimes I feel alienated from the gay community because it is geared toward the white middle class. I take priority of being Asian more than of being gay because the color of my skin is most obvious."

Analysis by Race and Traditional Family Values

One-way ANOVAs were conducted for race and the coming out process. No significant effects of race were found. However, the degree of traditional values within the family did affect some aspects of the respondents' experience of coming out.

Both of the Asian/Eurasian respondents, 75% of the Hispanic/Latino youth, 33% of the Caucasian youth, and 33% of the African-American respondents were from more traditional families (see Table 1). A full range of sample scores, from 0 to 8, suggests that the scale is sensitive to different values in family life.

Table 2 presents the results of the significant t tests between those rated as being from traditional families and those from families with less emphasis on traditional values. The feeling of being different from other boys was greater for those from traditional families. Surprisingly, the average age that adolescents from traditional families reported their first crush on another boy was lower than that of respondents from relatively nontraditional families. Respondents also differed on how they thought their families felt about homosexuality. Those from high traditional families reported strong family disapproval, while respondents from low traditional families indicated perceptions of less disapproval (see Table 2).
Table 1
Race by Traditional Family Values
 High Low
 Traditional Traditional
Race n % n %
African-American 2 33 4 67
Caucasian 4 33 8 67
Hispanic/Latino 3 75 1 25
Asian-Eurasian 2 100 0 0
Note. Three respondents provided insufficient data on
traditional family values.

No significant difference was found between groups regarding whether at least one family member knew about their homosexuality. Eighty-five percent from more traditional and 91% from less traditional families had told at least one family member. In addition, there was no significant difference in age of first disclosure (high traditional M = 15.7 years, SD = 1.5; low traditional M = 16.1 years, SD = 2.3). However, family reaction if someone in the family did know was reported as more disapproving by respondents from more traditionally rated families (see Table 2).

A greater sense of alienation from the gay community in those from high traditional families was not supported. No significant difference was found in the ratings of extent to which they fit in with other gay people (high traditional M = 2.0, SD = .8; low traditional M = 2.1, SD = .10). Ten respondents reported that they had been discriminated against by another gay person. Forty-two percent from low traditional families and 54% from high traditional families reported discrimination from someone who was gay, but this difference was not statistically significant.



The results of this study provide data that suggest moderate support for a stage model of coming out among gay male adolescents. The notion of early sensitization or a sense of being different was confirmed, with the majority of the sample reporting that they felt different from other boys between the ages of 4 and 9. The distribution of gender of friends between the ages of 4 and 9 shows that the respondents in this sample had a variety of male and/or female friends. Few reported feeling more masculine than other boys, while a substantial percentage reported feeling less masculine or just as masculine as other boys their age. A study which includes a comparison group of heterosexual adolescents is necessary to determine if any of these findings vary by sexual orientation.

The clustering of respondents reporting a first crush on another boy suggests that the majority of gay male adolescents might experience their first crush between the ages of 11 and 14, or around the onset of puberty. Although one respondent reported that he knew he was gay at age 3, the majority reported that this realization occurred sometime between ages 8 and 16. The age ranges reveal that a number of the respondents must have realized that they were gay even before they had a crush on another boy. This supports the view that sexual orientation is a more integral part of identity than sexual behavior alone.

The majority of respondents (72%) reported feeling confused when they first realized that they were gay. Duration of confusion varied from a few months to three years. This finding supports previous studies which suggest that many adolescents become confused when faced with information that they might be gay. The confusion can be seen as arising from the realization that one's sexual orientation is highly stigmatized in society. Thus, adolescents who are still internalizing social messages, working on other core identity issues, and often dependent on their parents for financial and emotional support may have more difficulty coming out than adults, who are more likely to be independent and well-developed in other aspects of their identity.

A surprising number of respondents reported feeling little or no guilt (59.2%) or shame (51.8%) when they first realized that they were gay. Since neither race nor traditional values was a significant predictor of amount of guilt or shame, future research should investigate what distinguishes adolescents who do not internalize negative societal views from those who do.

It appears that some, but not all, adolescents in this study experienced the stages of sensitization and awareness accompanied by denial, guilt, and shame before approaching the acceptance stage. Conclusive findings are impossible without further study of individuals experiencing each stage of identity formation. In addition, more needs to be known about lesbian adolescents. The measurement of coming out needs to be further refined and validated for both males and females at different life stages. The present exploratory study of a small sample of adolescent gay males has provided moderate support for a stage model of coming out.

The majority of the adolescents in this study appeared to have reached a stage of acceptance in which they have incorporated a gay identity into a positive sense of self. Most respondents reported positive feelings about themselves as gay and expressed pride in this part of their identity. However, about a third expressed negative or mixed feelings about being gay and about themselves. Future studies should investigate factors that put gay teenagers at risk for feelings of self-rejection so that outreach efforts can be made.

In this sample, race alone had no systematic effect on how coming out was experienced. The presence of traditional family values, however, was related to the process of accepting a gay identity. Differences in the coming out process were found between adolescents who grew up in families which emphasized marriage, children, and religion and in which a second language was spoken (high traditional) and those whose families were not traditional. Youth from traditional families recalled feeling different from other boys to a greater degree than did those from less traditional families. However, this overall sense of difference could be rooted in the traditional framework of their families rather than being based on sexual orientation.

Discrimination by, and alienation from, the gay community was not related to traditional family values. When discrimination was reported, respondents identified racial discrimination, their not meeting the stereotypes of being gay, and personal insecurity as the reasons.

The finding that adolescents from the more traditional families reported an earlier age of first crush on another boy might be a result of cultural differences in the experience and recognition of sexual feelings, or it may be an adaptive strategy of these adolescents. In contrast, there was no difference between these groups based on the age at which being gay was recognized.

The greater amount of perceived rejection and disapproval from families with traditional values was shown on two measures. Families with a strong emphasis on traditional values were perceived as less accepting of homosexuality. For those who had disclosed to family members, traditional families were perceived as reacting with more disapproval.

Those who work with adolescents need to be aware that many gays and lesbians recognize their sexual orientation during this developmental period. As Hetrick and Martin (1987) point out, these adolescents need accurate information and emotional and social support. This study suggests that gay male adolescents, regardless of race, need support during the coming out process because they are likely to encounter stigmatization and disapproval not only from the larger society, but also from their families, peers, and sometimes the gay community itself.


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The authors wish to acknowledge Thomas Cox, M.S., M.S.W., and Jane Middleton, D.S.W., for their assistance throughout this study.

Reprint requests to Bernie Sue Newman, Ph.D., Temple University, School of Social Administration, Department of Social Work, 511 Ritter Annex, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19122.
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Author:Newman, Bernie Sue; Muzzonigro, Peter Gerard
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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