Born in Tennessee, Doty's family moved often, as his father was in the army. After completing his undergraduate in Iowa (and a failed marriage while trying to deny his identity), Doty moved to Manhattan to study creative writing, where he met his partner Wally Roberts.
Roberts's death from AIDS in 1994, after 12 years together, had a profound influence on Doty and on his writing. Soon after, Doty published Atlantis, with many volumes of poetry to follow. He is the winner of numerous other prizes and fellowships, including the Guggenheim.