Tessa Demko, ’20, Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies
LGBTQ+ Identity Formation and Development Over Time
The words LGBTQ+ folks use to describe themselves vary widely. The acronym itself, as well as the many identity labels it leaves out, is sometimes referred to as “alphabet soup.” And yet, in my time within the LGBTQ+ community, I observed that many of these terms overlapped in definition, while others had dozens of varied definitions for the one word. I also observed that peoples’ identities within the community didn’t always stay constant. Someone might start out identifying as one label, then decide a different label suits them better. It was these curiosities that led me to my research question: How is an LGBTQ+ individual’s identity formed, and if it changes over time how and why does it do so? I was especially interested in how language plays a role in finding or settling on an identity given the influx of new identity terms in the last few years.
I essentially set out in search of stories. I wanted to hear the personal narratives of individuals’ identity discovery. What commonalities do these narratives have? Where do they diverge? Is there a pattern in their similarities and divergences? When I actually began conducting my interviews, I got more information and data than I could have ever hoped for at the start of this project.
I was overwhelmed with the initial response to my inquiries for participants. Many members of the Wheaton community, both current students as well as alums, volunteered to be interviewed for my research. It was such a pleasure and joy to get to know so many of these Wheaton community members through my interviews with them, as well as the few individuals outside of the “Wheaton Bubble,” so to speak, that I was able to interview.
The personal narratives I was provided with by each and every person I interviewed were so rich and fascinating, I wished that I could have kept conducting interviews with them forever. But, alas, there is only so much you can do in one semester. The results that I ended up being able to solidify were only a fraction of the data I was able to collect, and hopefully I will be able to continue looking into all of the data I got in my post-Wheaton life.
The main findings I ended up with were still quite expansive. First, I found that respondents who identified as gay women/lesbians or bisexual/pansexual tended to first identify as bisexual and heterosexual, respectively, in the hopes of a link to heterosexuality. However, this pattern was not nearly as consistent with male-identifying subjects who identified as gay or bisexual/pansexual. I also found that the language available at the time of a person’s identity-formation process really shaped how they came to identify. For example, I interviewed a 68-year-old man who identified as a gay man, and yet discussed with me the fact that, really, might be bisexual if he were to come out today, but since he came out when he was young, he was forced to identify as gay because the word bisexual just didn’t exist.
For some respondents, identities were contingent upon specifying distinctions between existing terms and definitions, such as the distinction between bisexual and pansexual. Many respondents were very specific about which term they preferred and why, given the connotations associated with each. Other individuals’ identities were not necessarily based on existing definitions, but rather crafting their own definitions to specify how the individual felt about their identity and expression. They might take a term that seemed to align with how they identified, but fine-tune the definition to fit them a little better.
These are only a fraction of the things I learned from the vibrant stories I was told by so many wonderful participants. I can only hope that in the future I am able to continue this research and learn more about similarly remarkable individuals.
I would like to thank Professors Kate Mason, Karen McCormack, and Justin Schupp for guiding me through my years as a sociologist at Wheaton, culminating in this project. I couldn’t have done it without all of you!