Affirmative School Counseling: Working with Gay, Lesbian, and Questioning Students

Steve Rainey
Kent State University


School counselors are directed to provide services to all students in schools including gay, lesbian, and questioning students. Often school counselors are reluctant to work with sexual minority students because they are unaware of the issues or lack experience with Gay, Lesbian and Questioning (GLQ) students. This article provides information regarding sexual identity development, the “coming out” process, and appropriate school counseling interventions. It also provides specific topics of discussion to assist school counselors in their work with GLQ students.


Affirmative School Counseling: Working with Gay, Lesbian, and Questioning Students

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA, 2005) encourages the provision of counseling services to all students. The ethical codes of ASCA hold school counselors to nondiscrimination relative to several factors, including sexual orientation. According to the preamble of the Ethical Standards for School Counselors, student clients of school counselors have the ethical right to “be treated with dignity and have access to a comprehensive school counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students from diverse populations regardless of… sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression….” (ASCA, 2005). Whereas providing services to this population may be uncommon for some school counselors, most middle and high school counselors will have the opportunity to counsel a sexual minority student (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 1998). For some school counselors, working with sexual minority students can be stressful, distressing, or confusing. Possible reasons for this reaction are lack of knowledge of common issues and how to address those issues with GLQ students.

There are many issues related to counseling sexual minority students (Barret & Logan, 2002). Having a knowledge base about specific issues will help alleviate some stress; moreover, having direction when counseling a sexual minority student will further assuage some of the discomfort felt by counselors who work with sexual minority students. I will discuss three common issues for counseling GLQ students; (a) sexual identity development, (b) the coming out process, and (c) school appropriate intervention methods. Suggestions for discussion topics to use in counseling sessions are provided.

Sexual Identity Development

Whereas most school counselors are aware of the cognitive (Piaget, 1929), social (Erikson, 1963; Havighurst, 1972), and moral (Kohlburg, 1973) developmental processes through which school aged children progress, many may not be aware of a stage model of sexual identity development. Cass's (1984) seminal model is presented here.

Before specific descriptions of the stages of Cass's (1984) model of sexual identity development are presented, a few, more global concepts warrant mentioning. Lesbians and gay boys of similar chronological age are often at different stages of identity development; and therefore, require various approaches based on their stage. It is also important to note that the sexual identity process begins at different chronological ages for each individual. Whereas some may start this development at an early age (e. g., 11 or 12), others may not begin this questioning until their late teens or into adulthood (Barret & Logan, 2002). This point, relative to variations in sexual identity development, is made so that counselors do not think that, because a student is older, he or she is necessarily further along in development.

Another point is that gay boys and lesbians progress through this model sequentially with few regressions. Whereas sexual minority students may not regress, their progression may stop via what Cass (1984) called foreclosure. In other words, lesbians and gay boys will progress through the stages to a certain point and stop. For example, it is unlikely that a sexual minority person would progress to a level of identifying themselves as being a gay boy or lesbian and then go back to questioning whether or not they are gay or lesbian. However, it is conceivable that a sexual minority student may progress through the stages, reach foreclosure for a period of time, and then begin to proceed further through the remaining stages.

Following is a description of each stage of Cass's (1984) model and discussion points that are appropriate for that particular stage. The descriptions are provided so counselors can identify the student's stage at the time of counseling. Once counselors have identified the student's stage, they can work with the student using the discussion topics provided in order to help the student move further developmentally. Cass's model of sexual identity development has six stages. The stages are (a) Identity Confusion, (b) Identity Comparison, (c) Identity Tolerance, (d) Identity Acceptance, (e) Identity Pride, and (f) Identity Synthesis. Because it is unlikely that a school aged person would reach the Identity Synthesis stage, it is omitted from this discussion.

Stage 1: Identity Confusion.

Students in this stage of development are characterized as having some reasons to question their sexual orientation. They may have had thoughts or behaviors at younger ages that cause them to think they may be gay or lesbian. This, depending on age and messages received from their family or community regarding sexual minority people, may cause them to be concerned. This is a time when students may seek counseling. Discussions should include such things as what causes them to question their sexual orientation and fears and anticipations about what being gay would mean to them.

Stage 2: Identity Comparison .

This stage begins with the acceptance, though maybe reluctant acceptance, of the possibility that students may have a sexual minority identity. Students in this stage may feel marginalized or unaccepted as they become more aware of the differences between them and other non-sexual minority persons. How objectionable people find being gay or lesbian is a key to moving through this stage. If a sexual minority status is found to be objectionable, identity foreclosure is likely to occur. If it is not found to be objectionable, movement to the next stage will occur. It is important to discuss with students such things as their perception of their sexual orientation, their feelings associated with a gay or lesbian orientation, their understanding of stereotypes, and how they are alike or different from gay or lesbian people they know.

Stage 3: Identity Tolerance.

In this stage sexual minority students further accept their sexual identity. Development of acceptance is still at the tolerance level but is moving toward full acceptance. They seek more contact with other sexual minority people, but with great discrimination. In other words, they are very careful with whom and where they make contact. The quality of the contact with other sexual minority people will influence the perception of a sexual minority identity as something desirable or not. This is a time when they are very selective about coming out to heterosexual people and live two very distinct lives: one as a gay boy or lesbian and the other passing as heterosexual. Because students are clear about their sexual orientation at this stage, counseling sessions should include discussions related to positive and negative aspects of being a sexual minority person, who may support them and who may not, how they may try to grow more comfortable in their identity, and how they may gain more support for themselves.

Stage 4: Identity Acceptance.

Students in this stage have come to accept themselves as a gay boys or lesbians. They have more positive relationships in the lesbian and gay male culture and have found a more acceptable place in society as their true selves. This is a stage when gay males and lesbians will likely begin coming out to others, typically friends and selected relatives. They will continue acting as though they are straight, or passing, in the main culture to avoid disapproval by others due to their sexual minority status. This is a relatively calm time for them personally, because they are more comfortable with who they are and how they fit into the world. If they find this identity as undesirable, foreclosure will likely occur; however, if it is found to be gratifying, they will likely move to the next stage. Because coming out is a very complex task, this topic will be covered in detail in the next major section.

Stage 5: Identity Pride.

Although it is unusual for students in middle or high school to reach this level of sexual minority development, some may. Gay boys and lesbians at this stage take pride in their identity and begin to challenge those who do not respect people with a sexual minority identity. These challenges are meant to help reduce stigmatization and marginalization so that sexual minority people will be treated equally with those of the majority population. Sexual minority students who find consistent resistance to their efforts may foreclose at this stage. Attempts to resolve these conflicts move people to the final stage of sexual identity development. Discussions may include how this energy and enthusiasm may be utilized to benefit both the individual and sexual minority community.

Coming Out

The “coming out” process is a major counseling issue for many sexual minority students. School counselors should be familiar with the coming out process and the consequences of coming out. Coleman (1985) developed a sexual identity model that is based on how people develop relationships. It can be viewed as a coming out model. There are five stages of the coming out process: (a) pre-coming out, (b) coming out, (c) exploration, (d) first relationship, and (e) integration.

Pre-coming out

Pre-coming out is a time when people recognize that they have feelings of attraction toward those of the same gender. A common response to this is denial of these feelings and an effort to avoid acknowledgement of them. At this time, gay boys or lesbians not be aware of the significance of these feelings, but they know that the feelings are different from those expected. Klein, Sepekoff, and Wolf (1985) suggested that sexuality is a fluid characteristic rather than a static one. People are not just heterosexual or homosexual but fall somewhere along the continuum between the two. Moreover, the point on which they may fall on the continuum may change depending on personal and social factors. Based on the idea of a sexuality continuum, it can be posited that some adolescents experience sexual attraction toward those of their own gender which may in turn cause them to question their sexual identity.

Students who experience these feelings may seek help from a school counselor to sort through their questioning. It is at this time that the affirmative school counselor needs to be non-judgmental and able to provide accurate information regarding the issue of sexual identity. They need to be comfortable telling students that having sexual attraction to those of the same gender does not necessarily mean they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. To fail to provide this information could increase the levels of questioning and confusion and extend a period of discomfort for the student.

Coming out

This is the beginning of the acknowledgement of same-sex feelings and possibly sexual fantasies about same-sex partners. Confusion may accompany these feelings which often cause them to confide in one or two highly trusted people. They may also begin the process of contacting other gay boys and lesbians; however, they will continue to keep these feelings from close friends and relatives. This is a time when GLQ adolescents may seek help from a school counselor. This process will typically begin in Stage 4, Identity Acceptance, of Cass' (1984) sexual identity model.

The first question to address is whether or not to come out. The counselor and the student should explore the risks and benefits involved in coming out. If the choice is not to come out, the counselor and student should explore the consequences and benefits of not coming out. If the student decides to come out, a plan for coming out should be developed. Berzon (1988) developed a set of questions to aid the student in the coming out process. These questions can be categorized into four areas: Who, What, Where, and When. It is important to have discussions in each of these areas.

The student should be helped to decide to whom to come out. This discussion should include: a) who they think would be the most supportive, b) how they think each person will respond, c) what they think are some of the possible problems with coming out to this particular person, and d) what are some of the possible benefits of coming out to this person.

After deciding to whom to come out, the next step is deciding what to say. The counselor should begin with “What” questions. They could include, “What will you say to the person you have decided to come out to?”, “How will you say it?” Role playing could be used here. Role playing what the student thinks these people may say to them will help them anticipate questions they may have to answer. Possible questions from those to whom they come out are; “Are you sure you are gay?', “Have you tried to change?”, “How long have you been gay?” or “What is it like being gay?” These are just a few of the possible questions they may have to field.

The next step is to consider “Where” to come out. “Where” questions could include; “Where will you be when you come out?”, “Will you be on the phone, in person, etc.?” Once the “where” is decided, “when” is the next step. “When” discussions should include the time when the student will come out. Some advice is to avoid holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, or any other special days.


Students in this stage begin to have more extensive contact with the gay and lesbian community and begin to explore the experience of taking on a gay or lesbian identity. This stage is typically experienced during the adolescent years. It is also likely that a school counselor's help will be sought by a student who is in this stage.

The school counselor working with a student in this stage should examine the consequences of exploring the GLQ community. The school counselor and student should consider where they will begin their participation in the GLQ community, the benefits and consequences of participating in that community and in that specific place, and how they are going to begin the process of participation. Benefits and consequences of certain activities should also be examined.

First Relationship

During the coming out process the student may have a relationship that is somewhat similar to those of heterosexual students. The first relationship typically does not last too long (e. g., a couple of months) and is severely challenged by the coming out process, lack of experience, and lack of role models for such a relationship. Affirmative school counselors should work with students in this stage just as they would a student who has sought their help with a heterosexual relationship.

Integration Stage

This is a stage when the gay or lesbian person has integrated their personal and private lives into one identity used in all aspects of their lives. They have healthy, non-possessive relationships that are based on honesty and trust. These relationships are more enduring than typical first relationships.

School Related Interventions

School counselors should work with GLQ students using the same methods they use with all other students; however, there are some unique considerations. School counselors must be vigilant in their awareness of ethical issues, especially confidentiality. Breeches of confidence, whether intentional or inadvertent, can have severe consequences ranging from taunts from other students to physical assault. Typical intervention methods used in schools are individual counseling, small group counseling, and classroom guidance. Following is a discussion of how those methods can be used appropriately and effectively in a school setting.

Individual Counseling

It is likely that the first time counselor will meet with GLQ students is in individual counseling. Typical issues that may be addressed through individual counseling are the coming out process, suicidal ideation, depression, and relationship problems. Other than the coming out process, school counselors should use the same methods of working with GLQ students as they would with non-GLQ students. For example, if a lesbian student sees the school counselor because she is feeling depressed, the counselor should work with her in the same way he or she would with any other student who is depressed. In working with the student, the counselor may discover that the depression is related to the student's sexual minority status. If the issue is coming out or sexual identity development, the counselor should proceed according to the suggestions made previously.

Small Group Counseling

Muller and Hartman (1998) suggested that conducting a sexual minority group could be quite effective in helping sexual minority students with many of the challenges they face. They addressed several issues and put forth topics for a fifteen session group; however, they did not discuss potential risks in running groups in school other than gaining support of the school, district, and community. Care should be taken during recruitment, during screening, and when choosing the place and time the group will meet. If the group takes place on campus during regular school hours, then just attending such a group could cause what is termed “outing,” or having their sexual identity revealed to others. Other students could identify the purpose of the group putting group members at risk for harassment and possible violence. One alternative is to conduct group meetings at supportive community agencies outside regular school hours. Great care with confidentiality should be taken whenever a sexual minority group is conducted.

Classroom Guidance

As suggested by Muller and Hartman (1998) for small group counseling, school counselors should get support from the school, the school district, and the community before proceeding with classroom guidance with GLQ content. Classroom guidance with GLQ content could be a regular part of any instruction related to human development, individual differences, and sexuality. Affirmative school counselors will present GLQ material in a matter of fact manner while taking great care to avoid identifying any sexual minority students.


Because school counselors, particularly at the middle and high school levels, will work with GLQ students, they need to be prepared to work with those students in an effective and affirmative manner. Knowledge of the stages of sexual identity development and how to work with students in each stage is critical to effective practice. In addition, knowledge of the coming out process and related issues is essential for success. Finally, school counselors do not have to develop any new skills. Their abilities in individual counseling, small group counseling, and in conducting classroom guidance will serve them well.



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