American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Thinking Otherwise: Exploring Narratives of Women who Shifted from a Heterosexual to a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, and/or Unlabeled Identity

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Bill Albertini (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Sandra Faulkner (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Ellen Gorsevski (Committee Member)


Stories about adult women shifting from a heterosexual identity to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and/or unlabeled identity emerge in many areas of contemporary U.S. culture, including anthologies of personal narratives, self-help books, women's magazines, talk shows, blogs, major network news outlets, and academic scholarship. This dissertation explores discourse about once-heterosexual-identified women to better understand contemporary U.S. culture. Using a mixed methods approach involving textual analysis and focus groups, I argue that stories about women shifting sexual identities during adulthood illuminate assumptions and contradictions shaping broader thinking about LGBQ sexualities, women's sexualities, and sexual fluidity in the U.S. Each chapter is organized around a significant concept influencing the construction of contemporary American sexualities. These concepts include the notion that LGBTQ people are "born this way"; the increasingly popular idea that women love "the person, not the gender"; the formative role of whiteness and middle class identity in stories about women coming out in midlife; and the concept of normalcy as it determines LGBTQ people's relationship to the nation. The topic of once-heterosexual-identified women has yet to be extensively studied with a cultural studies methodology. These stories are ideal sites to investigate the construction of American sexualities because they circulate a confusing whirlwind of ideas that challenge, reaffirm, and complicate what is commonly accepted as the truth about sexuality. These stories reveal the strange, contradictory workings of contemporary understandings of sexuality, workings that are easy to overlook while one is living in the present moment.