Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Janet Jacobs

Second Advisor

Jennifer Bair

Third Advisor

Joanne Belknap

Fourth Advisor

Robert Buffington

Fifth Advisor

N. Eugene Walls


As norms around sexual and gender identity shift, there has been an increase in the number of adolescents coming out as LGBT. A relatively new phenomenon, the study of LGBT-identified youth has largely been centered around risk and harm experienced by these vulnerable young people. Yet much of the research is focused on the experiences of LGBT-identified people whose identities are already understood as a given. Therefore, this dissertation aims to understand how a person becomes LGBT-identified and examines how sexual and gender identities are social and historical formations, not biological facts. By exploring how adolescents in particular come to understand themselves as sexual and gendered beings, this work contributes to a larger understanding of the sociology of sexuality. Using a feminist ethnographic approach, I conducted participant observation at an LGBT youth drop-in center and 34 life-history interviews with LGBT-identified youths. By applying a queer theoretical framework to sociological concepts of identity formation, this research contributes to a more complex understanding of how compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity are powerful forms of social control in society. Themes include understanding the role gender atypicality plays in the formation of a gay identity, how processes of gender attribution shore up a binary gender order, how sexual minority youths pursue sexuality education that is representative of their experience via alternative forms of media, and how the queering of the family may result in positive coming out experiences for youth. Ultimately this research acknowledges the formation of boundaries between normal and queer and how these boundaries contribute to the sexual development of particular young people.