A Grounded Theory of Liberated Identity: Lesbians transcending oppression

Amy Russell, Ph.D., LMSW


The purpose of this study was to generate theory that
emerged based on the conceptualized data from interviews
with lesbian women through Classic Grounded Theory
methodology. Theory generation is grounded in the unique
perspectives of lesbian women’s experience in cultural
contexts. This is a strengths-based process that focuses on
how participants meet challenges in culture, rather than how
they are consumed by them. From the data, a basic social
process emerged that is both complex and paradoxical:
transcending oppression through liberating one’s identity. The
paradox lies in the aspect that from a lesbian woman’s pain
comes her strength. This difference, lesbian identity, is also
the source of strength. This paradox is compounded with the
awareness that culture negates lesbian loving relationships.
There are three stages to lesbian liberated identity:
authenticating, reconciling, and integrating. Application to
and implications for professionals and academics are

Keywords: lesbians, liberated identity, spirituality, political,
classic grounded theory


Historically, behavioral science theories and
developmental models have focused on the individual outside
of culture, hence negating the unique cultural oppression of
lesbian women. The few theories that address lesbians are
seated in “heterosexist paradigms” that fall outside the lived
experience of lesbian women (Brown, 1995, p.18).
Subsequently, theory has pathologized lesbian development
through the absence of biopsychosocial frameworks (Brown,
1995). Research and psychological interventions have also
focused on the internal daily living problems of lesbian
women instead of the oppressive cultural experiences that
lesbian women encounter (Kitzinger & Perkins, 1993). The
absence of political theories that explore lesbian cultural
experience have opened the door to pathologizing
explanations that blame the victim (Kitzinger & Perkins).
Instead of investigating the challenges posed by the system
the individual is navigating within, labels of coping are
applied to the individual (i.e. internalized homophobia) as
opposed to the source (homophobic and heterosexist
oppression), thus minimizing external forces and maximizing
assumed pathology of the person within the system.

Using Classic Grounded Theory, the purpose of this
study was to generate theory that emerged from
conceptualized data from interviews with lesbian women.
Findings revealed that the women in this study created
unique social processes to maintain, even edify, their lesbian
identity when it was threatened. From conceptualization of
the data, theory emerged as a specific process in which
strengths were utilized to face challenges when interacting
within culture. This process and theory, transcending
oppression through liberating one’s identity, is complex and
paradoxical because the participants garnered strength from
the pain caused by oppression. Although this oppression may
lead to suffering, it also created resilience. Since lesbian
loving relationships are thus ignored or minimized within
culture, this compounded the paradox.


Participant selection was based on lesbian identity and
diverse demographic characteristics because heterogeneous
sampling is required to expand and refine the emergent
theory (Glaser, 1978). Heterogeneous lesbian subgroups were
recruited to enhance non-comparability of groups. Key
informants, lesbian women identified as resources with
exceptional knowledge of the potential sample, were used for
access to lesbian subgroups and later as interview
participants for theoretical coding. Using the researcher’s own
network, key informants, snowball participants, and lesbian
social services, theoretical sampling was conducted.

Lesbian Social Services

To diversify potential participants, the initial sample was
drawn from lesbian social service agencies. Four social service
agencies agreed to publicize the study. Theoretical sampling
began with a local lesbian social service sponsoring a function
for recipients. Interviews were conducted onsite and from this
event additional participants were recruited. All agencies and
participants were immediately supportive and verbalized
investment in research that increased the visibility of lesbian

The final sample consisted of 28 lesbian women from
differing backgrounds, classes, ages, races and ethnicities,
geographic locations, and educational levels. Over-sampling
for Hispanic lesbian women was conducted to ensure racial
diversity. Other means to sample for diverse lesbians
included: (a) sampling from specific agencies that served
lower-income women, (b) snowball sampling from ethnic
minorities, and (c) requesting agencies to recruit for women of
color. Socioeconomic status ranged from lower to middle
class. Some women were physically challenged; all women
had worked in a profession. Some women had been married,
some had children, but all identified as lesbian. Participant
ages ranged from 18-72 years old. Face sheet variables that
remained significant throughout the study were geography,
identification as lesbian in less than two contexts, and
traditional family of origin. Constant comparison of face sheet
variables also directed the researcher in theoretical sampling,
compelling sampling for diverse characteristics dissimilar to
previous participant characteristics.

Lesbian identity as an integral part of cultural experience
was grounded in the data; therefore, theoretical sampling did
not occur outside of lesbian subgroups. This is a limitation in
that it precludes generalization across other groups who may
share similar if not the same basic social process, but also an
implication for future studies.

Arranging and conducting interviews presented protocol
problems. Screening for race, age, and other variables within
an oppressed group was problematic in that asking a
participant to divulge sensitive information about her identity
seemed insulting. Because of this issue, some interviews were
arranged with minimal information, i.e. only knowing the
participant was a lesbian woman.

Data Collection and Analysis

Constant comparison generated coding categories and
began after the first field notes were transcribed; this was the
primary activity in data collection (Glaser, 1998). Constant
comparison was an ongoing process and very critical
throughout all stages of this study. Completing 28 interviews,
and no more, increased intimacy with the data and
subsequently increased the flow in conceptualization. To
memo from constant comparison and conceptualization,
memoing sessions occurred for line-by-line analysis with
coding written in the margins of field notes. Through this
process, the transition from open coding to selective coding
occurred at the seventh participant interview. When the
theoretical codes were named later in the study, data were
fractured by cutting incidents, properties, and categories into
strips directly from field notes and constantly compared
through sorting and memoing. When face sheet variables
became evident, they were used to expand the codes and
directed theoretical sampling.

Adjusted conversational interviewing was the data
collection method. Conversational interviewing uses flexibility
to determine concepts embedded in participant reports
(Glaser, 2001). The researcher is “just listening in a kind of
open ended conversational interview,” using different
interviewing styles as theoretical sampling dictates (Glaser,
1998, p.174). The initial spill question was: “What is your
experience as a lesbian living in today’s culture?” Interviews
ranged from twenty minutes to two hours. Field notes
contained in vivo codes (codes taken directly from language
that define how the group resolves the main concern) and
researcher abstractions. Conceptualized codes were extracted
from hand-written notes taken during interviews. At the end
of each participant field note, a separate section for
conceptualized ideas and concepts was added.

As theoretical codes were fleshed out of the data,
meanings of substantive codes including comparing and
contrasting codes, conceptualizing beyond concepts, and
spending much time searching through the dictionary for the
perfect word to convey meaning, was an ongoing process. To
ensure theoretical sensitivity, social science definitions were
not used in order to avoid forcing existing theory onto the
emergent concepts. Dictionary definitions, as suggested by
grounded theory methodology, were used to describe the
conceptualized data because they are based in daily
customary language. The main concern and resolution were
named after the basic social process was evident.

The final stages of data analysis included the
documentation of abstracted ideas into memos. Memos
conceptualized data, operationalized categories through their
extracted properties, and provided hypothesized connections
between categories. Memo sorting began the formulation of
the theory for readability. This study also utilized
photography to add meaning and representation to the codes,
after all interviews were conducted. Memos were transcribed
directly from interviews with added conceptualization memos
at the end of each note and all were analyzed line-by-line.
Additional hand-written memos were later typed. Ideas were
also voice recorded and transcribed as memos ultimately
resulting in 30 voice recordings. Memo sessions consisted of
writing about the data and documenting ideas about the data.

The Grounded Theory: Liberated Identity

Liberated identity emerged from the conceptualized data
as a comprehensive and strengths-based process to transcend
oppressive cultural forces. The Webster’s (Mish et al., 1987)
definition of liberated is “freed from or opposed to traditional
social and sexual attitudes or roles” (p.688). Traditional
attitudes and roles contain heterosexual bias and can be
harmful to lesbian identity since they negate and pathologize
lesbian loving relationships. Liberated identity therefore is a
basic social process used to affirm integral lesbian identity
and lesbian loving relationships. Resolution of the main
concern is hypothesized as being accomplished through
liberated identity. The theory was named by answering
questions during conceptualization like “How does a lesbian
woman find peace in cultural contexts that demean the
identity that she considers an asset?” The answer was that
she liberates her identity by transcending oppression.
Formulating the main concern presented itself as a
sociological construct or a broader social concern.

The main concern that emerged from the data is
transcending oppression. The participants were actively
attempting to rise above and resolve aspects of oppression,
including exclusion, judgment, and prejudice. The data
revealed patterned complex behaviors while facing the
paradox that one must transcend oppressive culture but also
live in oppressive culture to acquire needed resources. These
resources in turn are essential in transcending oppression
that originates from these cultural contexts. Transcending
oppression is the catalyst to begin stage progression to
liberate identity.

Transcending oppression can result from a culturally
forced proclamation of difference that is based in the
identification as a different other, a person who is not a
member of dominant culture; an identity that cannot be
conceptually separated from cultural context. However,
context does not define identity but social interactions are
based in identification as a different other and are integral to
these interactions. Identity, like cultural contexts, was
constant and verified as central during data collection.
Similarly, oppression was assumed to occur and required an
understanding of how oppression it was justified. The need to
transcend oppression is assumed in all interactions because
it had been experienced repeatedly in all contexts. All women
in the study spoke of emotional, psychological, and physical
pain from authenticating. The most extreme cases of violence
involved rape, physical assault, ostracism from family, forced
resignation and/or termination of employment,
excommunication from church membership, vandalism to
property, verbal assaults and abuse, sexual harassment, and
physical separation from partner.

Liberated identity, as a basic social-psychological
process, has three stages: authenticating, reconciling, and
integrating. Figure 1 shows this nonlinear process. The stages
are theoretical codes; the core code of “liberated identity”
names the complete process. Each theoretical code is
comprehensive, as is the process as a whole.

Figure 1. Lesbian Liberated Identity
[please see PDF version for all figures and graphs]

The basic social process is not continuous. The three
stages are permeable, neither sequential nor exclusive, and
they are often revisited. When stages are revisited, differing
properties of the stage may be experienced, such as visual
showing when verbal correcting had been experienced in
previous stage encounters; however, the overall purpose for
progression remains the same, for example, to authenticate
one’s identity. Progression from one stage to another is
compelled by cultural experience. Thus, being in one stage at
a particular time does not force a progression to another
stage. Women instead operated within each stage at multiple
times, returning to the first two stages when compelled by
oppression. Movement toward the sought-after integrating
stage comes with external and internal problem-solving.
Stages were heuristic (“generally not perceivable by the
persons involved, but demarcated by the sociologist for
theoretical reasons”) (Glaser, 1978, p.98); the women in this
study were unaware of their impact as creators of a formal
basic social process.


Authenticating is the first stage in lesbian liberated
identity, overt disclosure that one is a lesbian. This is an
external action (authenticating is an action for others, not for
oneself) that has personal implications. Mish et al. (1987)
gives this definition of authenticate: “to prove, confirm, in an
authoritative manner; worth of acceptance or belief as
conforming to fact or reality; trustworthy, of a cadence;
veritable, actuality, true existence and actual identity”
(p.117). For this fitting definition, three key concepts that
guided sorting and analysis were proving, confirming, and
establishing worthiness.

Authenticating is the least complex of the three basic
social process stages. It is visited in three main cultural
contexts: family of origin, work, and general society.
Authenticating is conceptualized as behavior to challenge
heterosexist bias by proclaiming one’s difference as a lesbian
woman. Authenticating was not a process, as coming out
theories assert (Cass, 1984; Coleman, 1982; Lewis, 1984;
Sophie, 1986), but a stage in a process—a tool or a tactical
action. Authenticating is taking control over cultural
expectations and assumptions of heterosexuality to present
self in an honest manner. Lesbian women authenticated in at
least one cultural context, the lesbian community.
Authenticating as a lesbian is a singular, strategic, and
purposive action to proclaim lesbian identity and establish
this difference from traditional sexual attributes and roles.
Women who do not authenticate in more than this one
cultural context, however, experience greater grief and loss of
integrity. This affective component is revisited in the
reconciling stage. Authenticating is done by degrees through
overt statements, through differences embedded in language,
or through signs and symbols. In this study, authenticating
occurred mostly in overt statements that immediately set
limits and proclaimed difference. Women considered less “out”
than others had authenticated in only one or two cultural
contexts, the lesbian community and/or the family of origin.

Hypothesized purposes of authenticating are (a) defying
traditional sex roles, (b) sharing relationships, and (c) proving
worth (Sub-Hypotheses 1a, 1b, and 1c). Authenticating
properties served one or more of these purposes in this study.
Vulnerability to oppression presumably compels
authenticating, but the often spontaneous action is founded
more in a sense of accountability for educating others about
identity and for limiting heterosexist assumptions identity.

Education and responsibility are conditions of
authenticating as women go from the safety of the lesbian
community to advise heterosexuals about lesbian identity
through language, visible difference, and standards of
interaction. This responsibility serves the purpose of
authenticating by exploding the assumption of
heterosexuality, sharing with others, and proving worth. The
properties of authenticating are (a) verbal correcting, (b) visual
showing, and (c) behavioral proving.

Verbal correcting refers to the defiance of assumptions,
honesty, and sharing that lesbian women bring to daily
conversations, all with little thought for the consequences of
oppression and as strategy to forestall uncomfortable
interactions. Verbal correcting maintains the integrity of
lesbian relationships and proclaims difference. In the study
this property was evident in the family of origin and in social
interactions within a more generalized realm of culture. There
are three proposed conditions to verbal correcting: defiance,
honesty, and sharing. Verbal correction makes lesbians
visible and exaggerates proving oneself worthy of acceptance
and inclusion.

Visual showing is the second property of authenticating.
Its purpose is to externally reveal differences as a lesbian
woman. Simply put, it is being out in the open. It is
authenticating as visual action. Through visual showing,
women take on the responsibility to show that lesbians are
among society and can act appropriately. The underlying
assumption is that cultural cues can distinguish lesbian
women from those adhering to traditional role ascriptions in
dress, mannerisms, or associations. Such visual cues include
taking a partner to public places, going out with other
women, associating with other women, taking adopted
children with one’s partner to church, being in public places,
etc. But the lesbian woman has an additional responsibility:
even as she visually reveals that she is different, she is also
responsible to the lesbian community as a whole to set a good
example. It is a deliberate action to raise the consciousness of
lesbian identity difference in the public realm.

Behavioral proving is the third property of authenticating.
It refers to the unspoken effort to avoid oppression as a
lesbian woman. Taking control over the things one can is
central to proving one’s worth as a public citizen living in
multiple cultures. This property was evident in the study
within the cultural contexts of work and social interactions
within a generalized realm. Oppression in any context due to
lesbian identity is expected; therefore, anything may be used
to oppress. Combating this requires tenacity in any action,
whether on the job, in a neighborhood, or in daily social
interactions. Behavioral proving is founded in this concern
that any characteristic, even those irrelevant to lesbian
identity, may be used to oppress.

Following are examples of properties within the
authenticating stage of verbal correcting. One participant
discussed her being a member of a campus club: “I am not
very invested in it, but thought it would be good to meet other
people at school. Unexpectedly, they begin talking about
fundamentalist Christian values and homosexuality as a sin.
This of course makes me uncomfortable, so I come out to
them that I am a lesbian. The rejection is obvious on their
faces, but I am not seeking their approval. Instead I am
seeking exclusion from their group since I do not want to be
judged. Exclude me they do.”

The second example relates to authenticating within the
family of origin: “My family is traditional and assumes I
simply have not met the right man to marry. After taking it as
long as I can, I finally tell them to stop the madness and to
move on. They are devastated and need time to grieve. They
cannot understand why I don’t want to wear the long white
dress. That is just it—I don’t want that. I am a lesbian woman
and love women.” Finally, an example relevant to more casual
encounters: “I keep others from assuming I am heterosexual
by telling them about my partner and what she does. I have
her picture on my desk at work.”

Another property in authenticating is visual showing to
reveal identity; lesbian women may go out together—to
restaurants, concerts, events, etc.—to be seen as a group.
This organized and intentional outing to be seen, going out to
be out
, assumes others see the differences in identity. One
aim is to show others how mannerly and well-behaved
lesbians are, and that they can operate in culture beside
heterosexuals without incident.


Reconciling is the second stage in lesbian liberated
identity. Reconciling is an internal, cognitive, and affective act
done for oneself to reconcile one’s lesbian identity with
oppressive cultural contexts. Lesbian women in this stage
must decide whether to continue their connection with
oppressive cultural contexts or to break with them. The inner
resolution of one’s difference from overt or covert heterosexist
assumptions and expectations is the primary purpose of

This definition of reconciling (Mish et al., 1987) was used
as the basis for naming the theoretical codes: “to resolve
friendship or harmony; to settle, resolve; to make consistent
or congruous; to cause to submit to or accept something
unpleasant; to check against another for accuracy; to account
for” (p.984). The properties derived from this definition to fit
the data in the study were (a) checking, (b) submitting, and (c)
making congruous. Conceptually, this entails a suspension of
lesbian identity, not the negation of that identity. Reconciling
has three purposes: (a) checking identity against culture, (b)
submitting to the reality of oppressive culture, and (c) making
identity congruous with cultural contexts. Reconciling occurs
in four primary cultural contexts: family of origin, work,
church, and regional location. For study participants,
reconciling within their family of origin and church had the
most damaging affective repercussions. Yet, while the most
painful, these contexts were the places women most desired
continued connection.

Reconciling requires that individuals take a very
attentive, observant, and measuring perspective on culture. It
functions as a kind of cultural note-taking while one observes
how others react to homosexuality. (For that reason,
authenticating is often negotiated in this stage.) Like
authenticating, reconciling is forced by cultural
circumstances. It is the price of authenticating, one that was
universal for all study participants. Reconciling is free of
anger, fueled by an inherent forgiveness of others, though this
forgiveness does not imply the acceptance of oppressive
cultural contexts or their heterosexual requirements. Instead,
a lesbian woman understands the oppressive forces of certain
contexts and figures out how to maintain harmony within
those contexts. If that is impossible, she finds or creates
cultural contexts that affirm her lesbian identity.

Protectively embracing one’s lesbian identity is required
in reconciling — even if that identity must be suspended for a
time, it remains an asset and source of strength. Vulnerability
is felt in the reconciling stage, whether one is authenticating
or not. It is experienced as grief, loss, and emotional hardship
as one encounters the affective pain, psychological
discomfort, and suspension of identity that comes in the
reconciling stage. Finally, reconciling is the struggle for
identity preservation in a culture that negates, ignores, and
oppresses lesbian identity. To survive oppressive cultural
contexts that will not change, one option is to suspend one’s
identity: to set aside, make temporarily inoperative, or defer
lesbian identity to be revisited later (Mish et al., 1987). The
other option is to remove oneself through migration to safe
places and/or to create new contexts that affirm lesbian
identity, such as the creation of a family of choice.

The basic social process stage of reconciling begins with
checking one’s lesbian identity against a given cultural
context to find if they are congruous. This requires the note-
taking aspect of reconciling; it screens a context for safety or
threat. Beginning with lesbian identity, it progresses to an
investigation of cultural perceptions of this identity. While it is
an internal act, checking does involve observations of external
culture. There are three properties of checking: (a) assessing
safety, (b) negotiating out, and (c) altering behavior. Assessing
the safety of a cultural context is part of evaluating how one’s
identity may be received. If circumstances warrant it, outness
is negotiated. Although based solely on the actions and
verbalizations of others, this is an internal decision. The
lesbian woman considers when to disclose her loving
relationships and to what degree. This requires suspending
identity as she collects information. As a last resort, women
may alter their behavior to avoid disclosure of their lesbian
identity. Altering behavior does not imply any change in
identity or feelings about being a lesbian. It is simply a
survival strategy required to endure a heterosexist

The second property of reconciling is internally
submitting to the unpleasant nature of oppressive cultural
contexts. Acknowledging the incongruity between lesbian
identity and ascriptions of heterosexual culture, lesbian
women use their identity as a source of strength to face such
oppression. They engage in an internal debate to find
harmony between self and world. Again, identity is not
changed but may be suspended for the sake of this harmony.
Submitting is the acceptance of others’ oppressive attitudes
toward lesbian identity. It requires a sense of forgiveness and
compromise that is based in serendipity and destiny — the
trust that life events happen for a reason and embracing what
happens even if oppression is the consequence. Reconciling
operates within two conditions: naming oppression and
resolving pain.

Making identity congruous with cultural contexts is the
problem-solving property of reconciling. A lesbian woman
knows her lesbian identity is not congruous with most
cultural contexts; otherwise, she would not have to screen for
safety, submit to the realization that she is oppressed, and
work out how to attain a whole sense of self. Making identity
congruous sometimes requires leaving a cultural context:
when the lesbian woman has no influence over an oppressive
context, she may opt to leave to maintain the integrity of her
lesbian identity. She always has the option of returning to
these contexts. Thus the principal choices are leaving
oppressive contexts, finding safe contexts (migration), and
returning to contexts that are oppressive. Determining
whether or not identity can be maintained in spite of
counterinfluences is central. Migration is a way of leaving in
an attempt to connect: women migrate from oppressive
cultural contexts for anonymity and to connect with the
lesbian community. After being away for a time, lesbian
women sometimes consider returning to a given context,
usually church and family of origin. Reconnection depends on
the lesbian woman, since she makes the effort, not the
context she has left.

An example of submitting in the reconciling stage of
liberated identity follows: “I would not be the person I am
today if I had not experienced the pain of being made fun of
by classmates for being a tomboy. I was teased for how I acted
and what I wore, my intense relationships with my girlfriends,
and the confusion I felt about my identity. I would not be the
good, forgiving, and lighthearted person I am today if this had
not happened to me. Those events made me stronger and I
can deal with whatever comes my way now. I like who I am.”


Integrating is the final and most complex stage,
representing a higher level of lesbian liberated identity. It is
an internal and external behavioral, affective, and cognitive
process. The definition of integration (Mish et al., 1987) is “to
integrate; to form, coordinate, blend into a whole; to unite,
incorporate as equals into a larger unit; to end segregation of
and bring into common and equal membership in society,
desegregate; coordination of mental processes into a normal
effective personality or within the individual’s environment”
(p.630). This definition matched the theoretical codes and
includes (a) equal membership, (b) to unite, (c) to blend into a
whole and, (d) effective personality. Integrating gives lesbian
women the personal and political power to transcend
oppression by liberating identity from heterosexist ascriptions
and proscriptions: the integrating lesbian is not anxious
about such cultural requirements. Personal power is rooted in
the control of self-disclosure. Personal and political advocacy
are properties of integrating; however, there are no qualifiers
to how this advocacy is accomplished.

Integrating is characterized by balancing multiple
identities, using lesbian identity as an asset, making
similarities with others visible, and defining difference as
positive. Integrating does require that the lesbian woman not
avoid any cultural contexts because then she may be denying
herself resources. Integrating can be visualized as diffusion:
weaving, interconnecting, and spreading “cultural elements
from one area or group of people to others by contact” (Mish
et al., 1987, p.354). Integrating is the absence of shame,
anger, and the need to defend one’s lesbian identity. When
lesbians authenticate in the integrating stage, it is done for
themselves and to enhance a valued relationship; it is not
done to defy heterosexism.

The four properties of the integrating stage do not imply a
lesbian woman’s complete integration into all cultural
contexts. As long as oppression exists, complete integration is
neither possible nor desired. Integrating does represent,
however, a lesbian woman’s ability to operate within a
heterosexist context. There is a fearlessness and grace to
integrating because women who do so are not consumed by a
concern with reprisal. Integrating is the ability to render
cultural boundaries and barriers, whether overt or covert,
permeable. While authenticating is proclaiming difference and
reconciling is negotiating difference, integrating is defining
difference. Being out in the integrating stage is natural and no
longer qualified as limited to certain acts.

An integrating lesbian does not feel compelled to
authenticate, even in heterosexist contexts. She saves her
energies for more important things, like loving relationships.
Lesbian women want to be seen for both differences and
similarities. Integrating allows them to make the decision
when to educate others about difference and affinity. In the
integrating stage, women feel less concern about vulnerability
and the avoidance of oppression. Knowing that one can
transcend whatever oppressive forces cultural contexts deliver
changes vulnerability to strength. Women feel a sense of
perseverance. Cultural contexts in integrating are less
discernable, replaced by a more political and spiritual
awareness of the larger nature of culture.

Operating in some oppressive cultural contexts may be
necessary for gaining (a) financial resources, (b) provisions for
family, (c) educational attainment, and (d) status and power.
This refusal to avoid such contexts in turn forces
authenticating and reconciling and may subsequently lead to
forced or chosen segregation. Integrating thus requires the
knowledge that lesbian women will never fully be part of
culture and will always experience some segregation;
integration is complete in a given setting when the woman no
longer deems difference as negative or feels forced toward
authenticating and reconciling by heterosexist expectations.
Lesbian women integrate into cultural contexts whether the
participants in those contexts know it or not. The
hypothesized properties of integrating ((a) cultural awareness,
resistance, and knowledge of equality, (b) uniting with
culture, (c) being in culture, and (d) effective personality) are
outlined below.

Awareness, resistance, and knowledge of equality signify
an understanding of privilege, segregation, inequality, and
difference. The integrating lesbian woman must (a) be aware
of oppression, (b) resist oppression, and (c) proclaim
internally that she is equal. She must understand the
cultural contexts of gender, race and ethnicity, sexual
minority membership, and the multiple oppressions she
experiences in each of these subgroups. She ends segregation
within herself through cognitive, affective, and social knowing.
With this property comes a strong us and them mentality.
This is not perceived as negative but as a way to define
differences. Us and them has negative connotations only when
oppression is evident. Lesbian women, with their unique
understanding of culture through experience, use this
knowledge to transcend cultural oppression. Thus they seek
to establish an understanding of us and them that increases
their knowledge of oppressive contexts. To reveal this
knowledge of her equality in different and possibly oppressive
contexts, lesbian women must reach out to culture by uniting
with it.

The second property of integrating is uniting with culture.
This is an external action undertaken to connect with,
minister to, and educate others in those contexts that present
heterosexual bias through the properties of (a) ministry, (b)
tolerance, and (c) healing. The underlying belief behind
uniting is not only that lesbian women must integrate to gain
greater resource access, but also that it takes many more
random acts of kindness on the part of the lesbian
community to make an impact on the perceptions of
oppressive others. Uniting means to affect change within
other persons through a relationship with them. It is reaching
out to different others to connect and reconnect. The first
category is educating others through ministry. It is leaving the
safety of lesbian community to establish relationships within
which to educate others via shared similarities and informing
them of differences. The second category of uniting is
respecting and accepting others. Due to their oppressive
experiences, lesbian women are sensitive to the need to be
tolerant and non-judgmental in their interactions. Healing is
a spiritual process with political ends. The primary catalyst
for healing is the ability to love others regardless of one’s own

The third property of integrating is being in culture. This
is both internal and external action that benefits the lesbian
community and other cultural contexts, uniting the
community and blending into other cultures. The underlying
purpose of being in culture is to end segregation through
participation. These actions are achieved through the
properties of (a) creating equal culture, (b) advocacy, (c)
visibility, (d) weaving cultures, and (e) self-reliance. This
includes the refusal to remove oneself (unless forced) from
any culture due to ascriptions and proscriptions of
heterosexism. Once the lesbian woman is diffused within all
necessary cultural contexts, she cannot be denied resources.

Being in culture requires the lesbian community to create
an equal culture to give its members inclusive and accepting
places to be. This goes beyond reconciling and finding a
family of choice, and instead entails the creation of an ideal
culture that is safe and sustaining. With the creation of an
equal culture comes the responsibility to advocate for that
community. Advocacy requires taking care of your own; it is
the logical next step in creating equal culture. Being in
culture requires that lesbian women remain visible as a
community and on an individual level. You must be seen so
others know you exist. Because lesbian women are
necessarily in culture, they weave their multiple identities
together, integrating cultures by their participation. Since
oppression is unlikely to end anytime soon, integrating
lesbian women need a safety net of self-reliance. When
integrating into culture, the woman knows she has the
support and resources to fall back on if she is excluded. This
was especially true for lesbian women of color in the study
because their experience of multiple oppressions made them

The fourth property of integrating is effective personality.
This is an internal process that integrates one’s lesbian
identity with culture. The woman learns to use what she is
scorned for, her lesbian identity, as a source of strength. This
internal acceptance of lesbian identity enables her to be fully
in culture. Women in the study said that this was the
property of integrating they aspired for; some had acquired it
and some had not. Older women said that at the age of 40
they experienced an epiphany as they simply stopped
worrying about other’s reactions to their lesbian identity. They
became their effective selves without struggle or forcing it.
After that, finding comfort in any context was easy: being the
best person she could be was enough, and her lesbian
identity was the primary source of this stability. With this
epiphany came peace and self-actualization. Three properties
are embedded in effective personality: (a) changing attitudes
about lesbian identity, (b) spirituality, and (c) fortitude.

Attitudes about oneself in culture change at this stage in
integrating. The lesbian woman is now out in all contexts
without qualification: she is comfortable anywhere. She also
saves her energy for herself and her relationships; she does
not waste time arguing with others or trying to convince them
about her equality. Spirituality, characterized by hope,
balance, and belief in serendipity, is a second property. This
does not mean women deny cultural oppression or
misunderstand reality. They simply shift their focus to
spiritual hope and their belief that someday oppression will be
alleviated. The third aspect of effective personality is fortitude,
expressed as a fearlessness, grace in living, and high
standards. The standards the integrating woman sets for
herself are to refuse to be hypocritical, feel shame, or
overreact about her lesbian identity. Instead she strives to be
a good person and positive example. Women feel more control
in how they present themselves, so no longer need to placate.

Examples of the integrating stage follow: “You must be
seen so others know you exist”; and “See that I am here with
you; I am like you but I am also different, and I have manners
and respect for others.” Visibility is a political act. Also,
ending segregation and no longer adhering to heterosexist
paradigms were evident: “We are everywhere and you may or
may not know it.” and “Stop being fed.” Additionally, focusing
on similarities with others is important in this stage and was
mentioned multiple times by participants: “We are not
different: It is not about sex, we are not different; They’ll see
we’re like them”; “Respecto;”and “Our relationships are just
as meaningful.”


Analysis of existing literature integrates liberated identity
through constant comparative analysis. This weaving of the
literature enhances the understanding of liberated identity as
well as identifies the contributions of the grounded theory to
the knowledge base. In grounded theory research, existing
literature is data. Existing literature informs and expands the
grounded theory.

Liberated identity offers adaptations and modifications to
existing theories to better understand cultural experience.
Analysis of authenticity in social work practice and coming
out stage theories exemplifies the emphasis liberated identity
places on cultural contexts and external forces of oppression.
Reconciling reveals the necessity to suspend identity and the
power of separation from oppressive cultural contexts.
Analysis of existing literature with liberated identity’s
integrating stage reveals the importance of historical, political,
and spiritual movements.

Much positivistic literature is inadequate to understand
integral identity because it has ignored the impact of
oppression and instead has focused on individual pathology.
The stability and empowerment provided by created
communities among marginalized groups has also been
negated. What informs liberated identity well are existential,
community, and political theories that contribute to a
contemporary shift in the importance of interactions within
culture. Although multiple theories can be applied to liberated
identity, the most fitting is Young’s Politics of Difference.
Young (1990) identifies how cultural imperialism (when a
group is “invisible at the same time that it is marked out and
stereotyped” p.123) has universalized socially appropriate
norms and thus assigns inferiority to difference. For a new
paradigm of justice to be endorsed, differing cultures cannot
assimilate and comply with cultural imperialistic standards of
this universality. Politics of Difference reveal the parallel to
liberated identity in the (a) reinvention of different others’
identity, (b) creation of equal culture, (c) proclamation of
difference as good, (d) political action on behalf of created
communities, and (e) most importantly, the refusal to
replicate oppression in the basic social process undertaken to
liberate identity. This theory represents that action and
affective processes liberate identity through the use of what is
oppressed (difference) as the source of strength (difference). In
turn, creating equal cultures that do not replicate oppression
is valued and primary.

Cultural contexts reproduce cultural imperialism by
ignoring difference and then regard these as inferior, which is
the main barrier to cultural equality in contemporary Western
culture (Young, 1990). “Cultural imperialism involves the
universalization of a dominant group’s experience and
culture, and its establishment as the norm.” (p.59) Young
states this is a violent paradox for diverse groups because
they are simultaneously made invisible but also marked as
inferior and abject. The dominant and powerful never need
acknowledge their group status since it is assumed to be
universal and standard.

Cultural imperialism rests on the standard that body and
mind are separate; body is the antithesis to the mind, or
reason, which is symbolized as white, objective, bourgeoisie,
and male (Young, 1990). This “scaling of bodies” (Young,
p.124) reduces pluralistic attributes to the concepts of unity
and standardization. This measuring of physical
characteristics against an approved norm allots differences as
deviant, inferior, and deficient of reason. Observation is then
the only means to assess difference, and this reliance on
visual assessment exaggerates the exclusiveness of reason
versus body. Persons associated with sexual behaviors, i.e.
lesbian women, are “easy to identify because of the physical
symptoms of ugliness and degeneracy they exhibit” (Young,
p.128). For example, under cultural imperialistic standards,
women are considered affective, associated with the body and
sexuality; they are the opposite to the assumed norm of the
white, bourgeoisie male. Measuring (scaling) bodies
unconsciously defines plurality and difference as ugly,
physical, and identifiable (Young).

Paradigms of liberation are critical guides in the Politics
of Difference, as well as in liberated identity. When applying
equality in universal standards, as contemporary discursive
consciousness purports, it implies that group difference is
accidental and coincidental (Young, 1990). Group difference
cannot be “transcended” (p.157), but rather should be defined
as a social process that can privilege and oppress. Accidental
implies that society has no control over the distribution of
justice. Group differences are a reality and as such a part of
contemporary culture. Oppression of group difference is also
a reality and cannot be considered accidental.

Emancipation implies that assimilation is not desirable
because group difference may be misplaced and in turn
support the notions of cultural imperialism, according to
Young (1990). Diverse cultures would lose their integral
identity if they relinquished their traditions, values, and
specific cultural existence; diverse cultures would not give up
these associations even if it meant they were no longer
oppressed (Young). Emancipation in a Politics of Difference
requires transcending oppression by proclaiming difference,
making it visible, and redefining it as good; assimilation is not
an element of this process.

Because equality is consciously based on universality
and social rules, Young (1990) claims that if different groups
were to affirm and proclaim difference, this may again justify
their oppression. Without the knowledge that oppression
operates even when social rules assert equality, pluralism and
group difference continue to be invisible but yet marked out
as inferior. Reclaiming difference requires understanding of
how one is oppressed. Young states that affinity, group
difference, and public discourse in pluralistic society are
requirements of a Politics of Difference in which persons are
not deemed inferior, ugly, or abject.

Liberated identity transforms cultural imperialism into a
catalyst to increase visibility of otherness and then to educate
that this is beneficial to society. What is used to oppress is
used to liberate. Liberated identity and Young’s Politics of
complement each other and expand this grounded
theory in the analysis of different as good and the critical
nature of redefining what good is.

Application and Implications

This research led to the discovery of a basic social
process of liberated identity that is used by lesbian women to
transcend oppression in cultural contexts. From this model,
the impact of culture on marginalized groups is evident and
the necessity of transcending oppression is a link to maintain
integral identity. The paradox of liberated identity is that the
source of unpredictable oppression is also the source of
strength. Lesbian experience is heavily influenced by cultural
factors; culture and individual are inseparable. Cultural
barriers and social definitions of difference as being inferior
are used to redefine and proclaim difference, increase
visibility, and connect with oppressive contexts. The creation
of equal culture is also seen in the integrating stage of being
in culture property through creation of community.

Liberated identity has implications not simply as a basic
social process but also in the political, spiritual, and
relational implications seen in the study. Political action
implications for lesbian women include culture and
community, naming oppression, and economic factors.
Oppression is a social process that is maintained by political
forces and agendas; therefore, the oppressed must find
political routes, which includes economic power, to empower
self and community. Each basic social process stage of
liberated identity contains politically-laden behaviors.
Authenticating is an overt action to challenge heterosexist
assumptions. Reconciling involves forced or chosen
segregation from oppressive cultural contexts. Integrating is
the primary political stage of liberated identity. With a focus
on external factors, a shift from blaming individuals to placing
responsibility in the proper places has begun.

Liberated identity contains spiritual themes throughout
the social process, specifically in the reconciling and
integrating stages. The reconciling stage involves redefinition
of spirituality. Integrating in liberated identity exerts
spiritually-laden attempts to unite with culture and to define
an effective personality through equanimity, hope and
balance. A major implication of liberated identity is expanding
our understanding of how spiritual practices resist political
agendas originating in religiously-exclusive doctrines. This
also implies a non-dichotomous way of thinking about
spirituality. Fusion of different spiritual practices, leaving
institutionalized religion, and redefining spirituality can
enhance faith to transcend oppression and liberate identity.

Lesbian women are oppressed because of their
relationships with other women
. Thus the implications for
relational processes are numerous. Transcending oppression
and liberated identity are based on relationship as well.
Relationship with self is more evident in spiritual processes of
reconciling and integrating. Further, relationship with others
is evident in all three stages of the basic social process.
Authenticating is sometimes done to establish a relationship
with others, but mostly to challenge heterosexist bias.
Relationship with others in reconciling involves creating a
family of choice and connection, disconnection, and
sometimes reconnection. Integrating involves a deliberate
effort to establish relationship with culture through uniting
with and being in culture. In addition, strengths-based
approaches must be taken to understand how marginalized
groups use relationship and outreach to liberate identity.

It is essential that practitioners integrate external forces
of oppression instead of solely focusing on internal problems
when working with lesbian women. While looking within to
transcend culture through a liberated identity may be
essential for a lesbian client, naming the oppressive forces in
culture is essential as well. Professionals are ethically
required to consider cultural forces that hinder quality of life
for marginalized populations. Focusing only on the individual
has contributed to pathologizing and depoliticizing practice
theories of lesbian development. Using liberated identity as a
model in professional and academic settings can assist not
only in ideological shifts to what is personal is political, but
also in addressing needs of lesbian women to increase
strengths-based approaches to authenticating, reconciling,
and integrating lesbian identity within oppressive cultural

Liberated identity has implications not simply as a basic
social process but also in the political, spiritual, and
relational implications seen in the study. In sum, the
application of the liberated identity model reveals the
importance of conceptualization as research method, a
paradigm shift from focus on individual pathology to the
impact of oppressive culture, and using participant’s
strengths to guide formulation and expansion of theory.


Amy Russell, Ph.D., LMSW
Assistant Professor
School of Social Work
Texas State University-San Marcos


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