Reading and writing for social change: Exploring literacy performances and identity work with queer youth

Mollie Virginia Blackburn, University of Pennsylvania


This study is a critical and activist ethnography that explores literacy performances and identity work of queer youth. These youth often experience abuse, neglect, isolation, and self-contempt as a result of heterosexism and homophobia. These forms of oppression are catalysts for queer youth dropping out of schools, obstacles in their literacy learning, and barriers to their identity work. As such, they become problems in the field of educational literacy research. Grounded in New Literacy Studies, Queer Theory, and Feminism, this study addresses these problems by exploring with queer youth the ways in which their literacy performances and identity work disrupt the heterosexism and homophobia in their lives. The study draws from the experiences shared and relationships developed with youth over a three-year period in which the researcher worked in an urban youth-run center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Through this work, I observed and worked with youth as they used literacy performances to engage in identity work as queer youth, to imagine what it would be like to do this kind of work in other contexts, and to make space for themselves to implement these imaginings. I understood youth working both to separate and synthesize the work they do in and out of the center, the community, and school. Further I worked with youth as they struggled to develop identities that connected them with communities while distinguishing them as individuals. Activism played an important role in their work together not only because it allowed them to assert their agency in working against that which oppressed them but also because it allowed them to experience both individual and group identities, without having to sacrifice one for the other. This study contributes to the educational literacy research conversations that explore literacy, identity, and in and out of school learning in ways that not only make the queer heard, but also work to disrupt the notion of mainstream and marginal so that all youth who have been traditionally underserved in schools and communities have opportunities to read and write for social change.

Subject Area

Language arts|Academic guidance counseling

Recommended Citation

Blackburn, Mollie Virginia, "Reading and writing for social change: Exploring literacy performances and identity work with queer youth" (2001). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3015297.