The Ecological Model of Gay Male Identity

Kevin G Alderson. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. Volume 12, Issue 2. Summer 2003.


Homosexuality is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon whose salient features are related to one another in highly contingent and diverse ways (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994, p. 320).

Since homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada in 1969 (Lee, 1977) and declassified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (Bayer, 1981), numerous developmental models have been advanced in the literature to look at the sequence of milestones that gay individuals encounter while forming a gay identity (Cass, 1979, 1996; Coleman, 1981-82; Dank, 1971; Hencken & O’Dowd, 1977; Lee, 1977; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996; Minton & McDonald, 1983-84; Plummer, 1975; Troiden, 1993). Each of these proposes a stage model whereupon development proceeds from one level to the next. Most of the stage models follow a similar progression of development. Sophie (1985-86) summarized them as having four main stages: (1) awareness of homosexual feelings; (2) testing and exploration without self-identification as gay; (3) adoption of a gay identity (i.e., identity acceptance); and (4) identity integration.

The stage models have received both support (Floyd & Stein, 2002) and criticism (Dube, 2000: Dworkm, 2000) in the literature. Floyd and Stein stated that empirical studies have generally supported the sequencing of milestone events in the stage models. On the other hand, however, Dube (2000) argued that the stage models do not “describe the large number of sexual-minority males who do not use sexual behaviour to arrive at a gay identity” (p. 123).

Dworkin’s (2000) criticism focused on two points: (1) the models are based on White gay men and then overgeneralized to other minority gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; and (2) the models have only one ending: “a fixed, integrated gay or lesbian identity across all situations” (p. 163). Research suggests that there are a number of pathways to developing a gay identity (Dworkin, 2000).

Eliason (1996) criticized the developmental models because they ignore the bigger picture (i.e., the sociohistorical context). Furthermore, they “tend to ‘minoritize’ sexual identities” (p. 31), the models are typically based on small sample sizes, most are linear, and the models are overly focused on sexuality. Eliason also discussed the poststructuralist’s impact in the area of gay identity. That is, there is not one history of homosexuality, but many according to the poststructuralists. Further, there is not just one gay identity: it is fluid and ever-changing.

Cox and Gallois (1996) advanced a non-stage model of gay identity acquisition. They argued that the developmental models do not consider social factors sufficiently in explaining gay identity acquisition. Their perspective is called social identity theory, which considers the “social influences in the development of the self-concept and the derivation of positive self-esteem contingent upon it” (Cox & Gallois, 1996, p. 10). The theory postulates two underlying processes: self-categorization and social comparison. Self-categorization includes both self-identification as gay (i.e., personal identity) and a gradual adoption of the norms, values, and ideals of the larger gay community (i.e., social identity).

Self-esteem is largely contingent upon the second process (i.e., social comparison) hypothesized in the social identity theory. Once individuals label themselves as gay, they are motivated to perceive the homosexual group they align themselves with in a positive light. As contrasted to developmental theories that emphasize content of each stage, social identity theory focuses on the process of identity acquisition.

Although this theory claims to focus on process more than content, it does not provide a process or understanding of why individuals are motivated to self-identify as gay to begin with. While social processes are explained, the theory is deficient in its failure to adequately identify internal psychological processes.

This paper advances an ecological theory of gay male identity that incorporates both developmental stages and process components in explaining identity formation, and the model includes both psychological and social aspects. The ecological theory addresses a number of the criticisms directed at stage models while also providing a psychosocial explanation for why some homosexually-oriented men eventually self-identify as gay.

The proposed model focuses exclusively on gay men. Ample evidence is provided in the literature that supports significant gender differences in sexual orientation (Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995; Rothblum, 1994), which may hamper the generalizability of the model proposed to lesbian identity development.

The Ecological Model

According to Bubolz and Sontag (1993), “human ecology theory is unique in its focus on humans as both biological organisms and social beings in interaction with their environment” (p. 419). As an applied discipline, human ecology attempts to identify the influences that enhance human development in hopes that this knowledge can be used to optimize human functioning (Westney, Brabble, & Edwards, 1988). Westney et al. (1988) suggested that the core concepts in human ecology have three foci: (1) the individuals themselves; (2) their environment; and (3) the interaction between the two.

The ecological model advanced here is holistic in that it seeks to identify all psychosocial influences affecting the person (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993), including internal psychological factors and external factors (social and environmental). An ecological theory generally includes biophysical factors as well (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993), but this is not currently included in the proposed model because it suggests an essentialist perspective to describe identity acquisition. By contrast, most theorists argue that identity achievement is a social construction (Cass, 1996; Eliason, 1996; Golden, 1987; Troiden, 1993). Furthermore, the debate between the essentialists and the constructionists is ongoing (Halwani, 1998) and is unlikely to be resolved (Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 1995). If the biophysical factors eventually explain some aspect of the proposed theory, it will likely be in the area of sexual orientation, not identity achievement. To date, however, the biophysical research has not been sufficiently replicated (Byne, 1997) to strongly make such claims.

Referring back to Sophie’s (1985-86) analysis of the stage models as generally comprising four main stages, the proposed model collapses the first two stages into one (i.e., awareness of homosexual feelings and testing/exploration without gay self-identification) and refers to this phase as before coming out. The next two stages are called during coming out and beyond coming out. The during coming out stage refers, in this paper, to the period immediately following self-identification as gay. Each stage has its own associated processes. The driving force, both between and within stages, occurs because of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), which results when there is incompatibility between two or more cognitions, affects, behaviours, or combinations thereof.

The outer circle surrounding the triangles in Figure 1 represents the most global influences in the model, which are societal in scope. Moving inwards, the next three influences are the other environmental factors that affect the individual before, during, and after coming out: (1) parental/familial, (2) cultural/spiritual, and (3) peer influences. Each of these exert influence throughout the stages and processes of identity achievement. As their effect is ongoing, albeit potentially changing, they are only described under the first stage.

Before Coming Out

In Figure 1, before coming out is primarily represented graphically by the outer circle of societal influence and by the largest outer triangle representing parental/familial, cultural/spiritual, and peer influence. Individuals can differ greatly in the ways they experience these influences. Before a gay male self-identifies as gay, he experiences intrapsychic conflict between catalysts, which serve to inform him that he might have a homosexual orientation, and hindrances, which serve to either suppress or repress his homoerotic and homoaffiliative feelings (Alderson, 2000). Examples of catalysts are having dreams with homosexual content, feeling sexually attracted to males, and falling in love with a male. Examples of hindrances are having deeply entrenched internalized homophobia and witnessing how gay people are both minimized and denigrated in society (see Alderson, 2000, for a full description of the catalysts and hindrances).

Some influences serve as either catalysts or hindrances, including influences from: (1) parents and family; (2) culture and church; (3) peers; and (4) society. Not all parents respond negatively toward their gay sons (Goldfried & Goldfried, 2001; Savin-Williams & Dube, 1998), and some cultures are more supportive than others. For example, American Caucasians tend to be more supportive than African Americans (Barber & Mobley, 1999).

Churches of different religions and sects within a particular religion also hold varying viewpoints toward gay people. Some Christian sects are supportive, such as the Unitarian-Universalists, the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Ethical Humanists (Herrman, 1990), the United Church, and the Metropolitan Community Church (Blumenfeld & Raymond, 1993). Likewise, some religions, like Buddhism, are supportive of gay people.

Although survey results reported in Telljohann, Price, Poureslami, and Easton (1995) found that only 12 percent of male youth aged 15 to 19 were confident that they could have a gay person as a friend, we know that many other heterosexual peers include and accept their gay friends (Cowie & Rivers, 2000; Munoz-Plaza, Quinn, & Rounds, 2002). Societies are not universal either in their tolerance or acceptance of gay individuals. Canada and most of Western Europe are known to have generally more tolerant views toward gay individuals than, for example, the United States (Alderson, 2002; Kiener, 2000) or Vietnam (Dong, 1999).

The intensity of the intrapsychic battle depends on an individual’s particular configuration of catalysts and hindrances, including the environmental influences that impact upon him. When there is enough psychic press, or cognitive dissonance, to push the catalysts above the hindrances, a gay male is able to come out and self-identify as gay.

This doesn’t mean he necessarily will, of course, as many individuals continue to either deny their sexuality or refuse to label it (Coleman, 1981-82; Gonsiorek, 1993; Malyon, 1982). But it is at this point that a gay male will self-identify if he elects to do so, assuming that the construct of a gay identity exists. Not all societies possess and/or permit the construct of a gay identity (Dong, 1999; Herdt, 1997; Risman & Schwartz, 1988).

During Coming Out

During coming out is represented in Figure 1 by the second largest triangle (i.e., Behaviour, Affect, Cognition) with movement into the smaller adjacent triangle. The default in sexual orientation is heterosexual (i.e., people are raised to believe they are heterosexual, and this belief continues unless they are provided with evidence to the contrary), but as the questioning continues throughout this phase and as a gay identity is chosen, the movement away from a heterosexual self-definition begins. In a qualitative study by Munoz-Plaza et al. (2002), this phase for the youth they interviewed was one of wrestling with continuing cognitive dissonance, described by them as “varying degrees of denial and acceptance” (p. 52).

The hallmark of this phase is the assumption of a gay identity. Gay identity is defined here as an identity status denoting those individuals who have come to identify themselves as having primarily homosexual cognition, affect, and/or behaviour, and who have adopted the construct of “gay” as having personal significance to them. The theory underlying this definition is symbolic interactionism, which posits that our identities emerge within a particular social context, and it is the context that provides meaning to our experience (Minton & McDonald, 1983-84). This does not preclude the notion that there can be another form of acknowledgement of one’s homosexual proclivities under a different social construction, but the words gay identity would obviously not be used by individuals if the construct did not exist.

Research suggests that for most gay males in North American society, there is approximately a six-year gap between first reporting awareness of same-sex attraction and their self-identification as gay (Floyd & Stein, 2002; Maguen, Floyd, Bakeman, & Armistead, 2002). Because of the differences across societies and cultures in attitudes and beliefs regarding homosexuality and the construct of a gay identity, one cannot generalize these findings beyond the U.S.

During the coming-out phase, most gay men will experience many conflicting emotions, both positive and negative (Alderson, 2000). The degree of tumultuousness will depend on the relative weighting between the catalysts and hindrances. If his environment is tolerant or accepting at every level (societal, parental/familial, cultural/spiritual, peer influence), he will have a much easier time self-identifying as gay than someone raised within an intolerant environment at any or all levels.

During the coming-out phase, the individual will need to reduce internalized homophobia and begin learning what it means to be gay and act in a manner that seems appropriate to him. Before moving onto the next phase, which not all gay men will likely attain (Beane, 1981; McDonald, 1982), the individual generally wants to feel certain that he is, in fact, gay, and not bisexual or heterosexual (Alderson, 2000).

Ambivalence resides within an individual before they feel certain of their sexual identity. Much of the discussion between gay and lesbian high-school students attending support groups is focused on their ambivalence regarding their sexual identities (Ginsberg, 1998). Ginsberg suggested that this ambivalence may even be related to self-destructive behaviour and suicide in youth.

The successful achievement of a positive gay identity is difficult and lengthy. Research from 1986 suggested that, on average, it took 16 years to develop a positive gay identity from the point of first becoming aware of same-sex feelings (Obear & Reynolds, 1986, as cited in Pope, Prince, & Mitchell, 2000).

Becoming certain will depend to some extent on the individual’s assessment of the components comprising the second largest triangle in Figure 1, that is, an assessment of the extent of homosexual cognition (e.g., thoughts, images, and fantasies with homoerotic and/or homoaffiliative content), homosexual behaviour (e.g., sensual or sexual body contact with others of the same gender, including necking, touching, holding, caressing, fondling, petting, and other more intimate sexual acts), and homoaffiliative affect, which encompasses the erotic and passionate feelings, including romantic love, felt toward others of the same gender. As defined here, sexual orientation is the interaction between affect and cognition such that it produces attraction, erotic desire, and ultimately philia for members of the opposite gender, the same gender, or both.

Sexual behaviour is not included in the definition of sexual orientation because many individuals have sexual relations with others for reasons unrelated to their natural proclivities (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels , 1994). A significant minority of gay men continue to have female sexual partners (Wolf, 1997), and anywhere from 62-74 percent of gay men and 80 percent of lesbian women have at some time engaged in heterosexual intercourse (Reinisch et al., 1988, as cited in Betz & Fitzgerald, 1993). Similarly, many men who have sex with other men do not self-identify as gay (Halwani, 1998; McKirnan, Stokes, Doll, & Burzette, 1995), and as Laumann et al. (1999) reported, 22 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women in their representative American sample engaged in sexual acts with the same gender, despite reporting no sexual desire for the same sex.

Research suggests that there is often discrepancy between these three domains in individuals. In their sample of 143 men who reported adult same-gender sexuality, from a total sample of 1,410, Laumann et al. (1994) found that only 24 percent of them reported a combination of homosexual desire, homosexual behaviour, and homosexual identity. Forty-four percent reported having homosexual desire only, 22 percent reported homosexual behaviour only, six percent reported desire and behaviour only, and one percent reported desire and identity only. An additional two percent reported identity only, which Laumann et al. (1994) suspected was from three men who didn’t understand the respective questions.

It is hypothesized that individuals who have a clear direction for their opposite-, same-, or bi-gender affinity in these three domains of behaviour, cognition, and affect will feel a greater sense of identity integration than those who are still exploring the direction of their affinity. Furthermore, it seems likely that those who have all three domains (behaviour, cognition, and affect) focused in the same direction, whether it be toward males, females, or both genders, will experience the least cognitive dissonance and confusion.

A few examples of identities without this trifocal integration of behaviour, cognition, and affect include a male who develops a “crush” on another male (affect) but suppresses or represses sexual thoughts and fantasies about him (cognition). This individual will likely experience significant intrapsychic conflict. The male who avoids homosexual behaviour and who has not fallen in love romantically with another male (affect), but who nonetheless experiences homosexual imagery in dreams and in waking states (cognition), would also likely feel conflict.

An additional example is a male who has strong romantic feelings toward another male (affect), enjoys pleasurable sexual contact with him (behaviour), but refuses to label his feelings as homosexual (cognition) and actively attempts to suppress his sexual attraction and fantasies toward him (cognition). This scenario would also likely create significant conflict.

Most males who self-identify as gay do so because they have made an assessment that their homosexual orientation is stronger than their heterosexual orientation. This is not necessarily the case, however (Ellis & Mitchell, 2000; Rosano et al., 1996), but it is postulated that those who do not primarily have a homosexual orientation will not do the necessary psychological and emotional work required of the next stage.

The situation for bisexual men may be even more difficult. Research suggests that men who self-identify as bisexual usually come out later than gays and lesbians (Dworkin, 2000) and many continue to feel uncertain about their sexuality (Bohan, 1996). Furthermore, the gay and heterosexual communities have traditionally failed to accept bisexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation (Phillips & Fischer, 1998). It therefore seems likely that bisexual males have greater difficulty than gay males in achieving identity integration, given the greater psychological confusion and environmental intolerance.

Beyond Coming Out

Beyond coming out is represented in Figure 1 by the third largest triangle and movement into the centre. The individual is now committed to a gay identity and has found his own unique way to integrate connections to self, connections to the gay world, and reconnections to the straight world.

Most gay men develop a positive gay identity, but in American society in the mid 1980s, it took on average 16 years from the point of self-identifying as gay (Obear & Reynolds, 1986, cited in Pope, Prince, & Mitchell, 2000). Given the significant changes that have occurred in Canadian society since the inception of section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1985, which has permitted many of the legal challenges and successes regarding equality for gays and lesbians in Canada (Hurley, 2002), the gap is probably much shorter. Research to substantiate this is currently lacking, however.

A significant change that has occurred in Canada during the summer of 2003 is the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ontario and British Columbia. The question of same-sex marriage is now before the federal government with the possibility that if legislation is passed, same-sex marriage will become an option for gay and lesbian couples throughout the country. The impact of this on societal acceptance of gays and lesbians cannot be ascertained at present (Alderson & Lahey, in press).

The third largest triangle of Figure 1 represents the three areas that need to become further integrated for a gay man to feel positive about his identity: connecting with self, connecting with the gay world, and reconnecting with the straight world (Alderson, 2000; Minton & McDonald, 1983-84; Plummer, 1981). Some of the work involved in connecting with self involves embracing self-love (Goldfried & Goldfried, 2001; Hershberger & D’Augelli, 1995), developing a positive view ofbeing gay (Garnets & Kimmel, 1993), and developing a sense of wholeness and authenticity (Isay, 1996; Malyon, 1982; Sapp, 2001).

Connecting with the gay world includes feeling a sense of community with other gay individuals (Frable, Wortman, & Joseph, 1997; Leserman, DiSantostefano, Perkins, & Evans, 1994) and pursuing the development of intimate relationships (Simonsen, Blazina, & Watkins, 2000; Troiden, 1993). The other achievement, which often occurs simultaneously with connecting to self and connecting to the gay world, are the many ways one learns to reconnect and cope with the generally homophobic heterosexual community (Alderson, 2000). Those who self-disclose their identity to others, for example, are often psychologically healthier compared to those who don’t (Ellis & Riggle, 1995; Garnets & Kimmel, 1993; Morris, Waldo, & Rothblum, 2001) and they may be physically healthier as well (Cole, Kemeny, Taylor, & Visscher, 1996). On the other hand, becoming visible by disclosing one’s sexual identity to others likely increases the chances of becoming the victim of prejudice, discrimination, or violence (Bohan, 1996; Otis & Skinner, 1996; Radkowsky & Siegel, 1997; Wills & Crawford, 2000).

The inner central triangle of Figure 1 represents the achievement of a positive gay identity. This final consolidation of identity-which includes an integration of the self, the gay world, and the straight world-will not be the same for any two individuals. Becoming a positive gay man is about one’s unique way of constructing a viable, healthy identity (Alderson, 2000).

Implications for Continuing Research

The ecological model raises many unanswered questions. Some of the questions requiring answers through empirical research include the following:

  1. What are the societal influences regarding gay individuals in various countries throughout the world, and how are they evolving? To what extent do peers, parents, family, culture, and church affect gay identity development?
  2. What are the mechanisms by which the above influences affect one’s integration of behaviour, affect, and cognition?
  3. Are gay males who have integrated homosexual behaviour, affect, and cognition significantly healthier psychologically than those who have not? Are they different in some other way?
  4. Do males and females experience less cognitive dissonance if their sexual behaviour, affect, and cognition are all directed and focused toward the opposite gender, the same gender, or both genders?
  5. How do we measure where gay males are at in their identity development, and what does it predict?
  6. What are the various combinations and permutations of identity development for gay males in how they connect to the gay world juxtaposed with how they reconnect to the straight world?
  7. How long does it take currently to develop a positive gay identity after self-identifying as gay?
  8. Is the ecological model applicable to lesbian identity development?
  9. How diverse are gay identities?
  10. What different forms do gay identities take both between and within various societies?

Implications for Counselling Practice

Pedersen (1999) termed the recognition of multiculturalism as the “fourth force” in psychology, and this has resulted in huge changes in counselling practice (Pedersen, 1991). Psychologists will face diversity “in their clientele, research participants, and students” (Hall, 1997, p. 642).

Counsellor training programs have improved in the amount of course work relating to ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity (Bidel, Turner, & Casas, 2002), but they continue to provide insufficient training to work with sexual minorities. Students in both counselling and clinical psychology report that they are unprepared to work with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients (Bahr, Bnsh, & Croteau, 2000; Phillips, 2000; Phillips & Fischer, 1998), despite the finding that two to four times as many gay people compared to non-gay people seek out counselling (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1993). Many therapists are unprepared to deal with sexuality in general, but especially gay and lesbian issues (Murphy, 1991).

The model presented in this article offers clinicians a framework for guiding interventions with gay males and those who are questioning their sexual identities. Therapists can use the model to help assess the environmental influences and the psychological processes and stages that a gay male client is experiencing in first self-identifying as gay, and later in his quest of developing a positive gay identity.

Working through the dissonance will be a common concern of gay male adolescents (Ginsberg, 1998; Munoz-Plaza et al., 2002) and with older individuals who face many internal and external hindrances. The ecological model suggests that sexual behaviour is least important in deciding upon one’s sexual orientation. Of greater significance is affect and cognition. Therapists can help young people explore these components thoroughly before they decide upon their sexual identity.

By assessing the behavioural, affective, and cognitive domains, the therapist can glean insight into the areas that are conflicted for the individual. Once these three areas are in the client’s awareness, the work of integration can begin. Helping clients to understand and accept themselves is nothing new for counsellors, although doing this with a male who is questioning his sexuality may well be.

Once a gay male self-identifies as gay, other conflicts will occur within the client’s world view. New challenges are faced as the person begins making further connections to self, connections to the gay world, and reconnections to the straight world. The counsellor can be instrumental in assisting the client in each of these areas. A future article will describe counselling practice using the ecological model in detail.


Most published theories explaining the acquisition of gay identity are stage models that suggest that identity development proceeds in a predictable order. The majority of these stage models have failed to take into account environment influences. The non-stage model by Cox and Gallois (1996) emphasizes process, but provides little explanation about why some men are motivated to develop gay identities. The ecological model of positive gay male identity offers the following advantages over earlier theories:

  • It brings together both stages and processes in explaining gay identity development.
  • It suggests that cognitive dissonance is the motivating force that leads gay males to continue moving both within and between stages of identity development.
  • It provides a holistic perspective, incorporating both external influences and internal influences that lead to a gay self-definition.
  • It is not stated or implied that all gay men will arrive at the same destination. Instead, the theory explicitly states that gay males will achieve unique identities.
  • The model provides direction as to what needs to become integrated for the achievement of a positive gay identity.
  • Conceptual definitions for sexual orientation and gay identity are provided.