Sorry, Homophobes: Stigmatizing Gay Students Makes Them Work Harder

Illustration for article titled Sorry, Homophobes: Stigmatizing Gay Students Makes Them Work Harder

Andrew Tobias' 1976 memoir, The Best Little Boy In The World, is a frank account of life as a young, closeted gay man. In the words of the New York Times, the figure of the "best little boy in the world" has come to represent sort of "closeted gay Everyman," an overachiever who conceals his sexuality behind his impressive success. As Tobias put it:

The best little boy in the world never had wet dreams or masturbated; he always topped his class, honored mom and dad, deferred to elders and excelled in sports . . . . The best little boy in the world was . . . the model IBM exec . . . The best little boy in the world was a closet case who "never read anything about homosexuality."


A study just published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology pretty much confirms this: according to its findings, men who identify as belonging to a "sexual minority" (i.e., not straight) tend to base their self-worth more on academics, appearance, and competition more than straight men do. In addition, young men who have been concealing their sexual identity for longer tend to be more invested in these things, as do those who live in areas where the stigma is more extreme. (Maybe because this concept isn't seen as quite as integral to the lesbian coming of age story, no women were included in this study — which sucks, but there's always next time to include women.)

While this emphasis on success is undoubtedly beneficial of individuals in the long run — and a lack of reliance on peer approval is laudable — it does have its downsides. As Tobias made clear in his memoir, accruing a vast list of accomplishments as a defense mechanism is still just a defense mechanism:

[An] important line of defense... was my prodigious list of activities... No one could expect me to be out dating... when I had a list of 17 urgent projects to complete.

Furthermore, seeking self-actualization through quantifiable achievements rather than through interpersonal relationships is very isolating, and it can lead to bad behavior — the study found that over-investment in personal appearance led to problematic eating and too intense of a focus on academics and competition caused the subjects to "[be] dishonest, argu[e], and experienc[e] emotional distress."

The solution to this problem is, obviously, to foster more open and gay-friendly educational environments. Young gay men should be thriving in school because they're happy and and intellectually stimulated, not because they're attempting to divert attention from a sexual identity they're afraid to publicly embrace.

"Young, gay, and trying too hard" [Salon]



I don't think this behavior is exclusive to young closeted gays. I think it is a defense mechanism used by young people of many types who for whatever reason - appearance, disability, social awkwardness - have a problem fitting into the social mainstream. It was true for me, and for most of the people who eventually became my friends. We were the oddballs, fat or gay or kept from participating in normal activities by strict parents, or some other flavor of different.