Sexual orientation identity as cultural construct: Toward a social constructionist understanding

Sandra A. Dixon (2005)

This paper reviews and critiques the existing literature on sexual orientation identity development. Nearly all of the models reviewed are based on an essentialist theoretical framework that understands sexual orientation as an objective phenomenon and a core component of one's identity. From this perspective, sexual orientation and homosexuality can be known, measured, and described, and there exist people who are gay or lesbian and people who are not. While these models are useful for many people, they do not adequately account for historic, cultural, and individual variations and exclude many individuals whose experiences do not follow the models' stages. In contrast are the assumptions of postmodernism and social constructionism that suggest that there are numerous ways to interpret objects and experiences, and each perspective creates a different understanding of what is the truth. Social constructionism posits that sexual orientation is a construct that is created by society and LGB sexual orientation is an interpretation of particular actions and feelings that in different contexts, cultures, and times, have entirely different meanings. Social constructionism suggests we cannot hope to find a singular model that describes the "discovery" of one's true sexual orientation, and argues instead that we label our experiences using existing social categories. The dissertation offers an alternative perspective on LGB sexual orientation identity development that assumes that sexual orientation is not a unitary phenomenon and LGB identity development is not a universal process. This framework describes how individuals might come to understand themselves as having or being a particular sexual orientation identity using (among other things) the elements of cognitive processes, taking on a social role, detypification, incorporation of a narrative script, and conscious choice. I explored how the conflation of gender and sexual orientation function in LGB identity development. I reviewed homophobia, heterosexism, sexual prejudice, and a number of stigma management models and concluded that the traditional models of LGB identity development are more accurately understood as reflecting stigma management strategies. I discussed implications of this alternative perspective by examining changes in the therapist-client relationship and other issues that result from both essentialist and social constructionist perspectives.