Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, one of five children. He attended Casady School, then Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa; earned his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; and his J.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin.
Vanderbilt recruited him with a fellowship they award in University-wide competition, a Graduate Select Scholarship in the Arts and Sciences, which recognizes incoming graduate students who exhibit exceptional promise for research excellence, a forecast he lived up to by publishing two articles as a graduate student. The first, based on his master’s thesis, won the John Trotwood and Mary Daniel Moore Award for Best Article of the Year in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. The second appeared in the Journal of Policy History.
He spent the first four years after finishing his Ph.D. teaching five U.S. history survey courses per semester at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. During that time, he published his dissertation as A Genealogy of Queer Theory, and, as co-editor with John D’Emilio and Urvashi Vaid, Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. He wrote the first chapter, on lesbian/gay civil rights issues in the Carter and Reagan administrations.
Next, he moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he taught for two years at St. Cloud State University. After that, he took a position as Assistant Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee, where he spent a year. Then he matriculated in the law school at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, where he wrote three articles that are now in print, including his Comment for the Wisconsin Law Review.
Immediately after law school, Turner moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to conduct research into the racial desegregation of Emory University and a pioneering affirmative action program in its law school. He produced three articles on the basis of that research.