Overachieving Gays

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Tracy Clark-Flory examines the “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis:

This theory holds that closeted young men in bigoted environments often respond by overachieving in certain areas, like sports or academics — the idea being that it’s an adaptive means of finding a sense of self-worth where they can. It can also serve to distract from their sexuality: As Andrew Tobias wrote in his 1976 memoir, “The Best Little Boy in the World,” a key “line of defense” was his endless list of activities. “No one could expect me to be out dating … when I had a list of 17 urgent projects to complete,” he wrote.

Despite the prevalence of this idea in gay coming-of-age narratives, it’s never been tested empirically, until now.

In a study recently published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers interviewed 195 male colleges students who identified as either heterosexual or a “sexual minority.” They found that the sexual minority men based their sense of self-worth on “academics,” “appearance” and “competition” more so than the straight guys. Interestingly, the amount of time the gay men had spent hiding their sexual identity positively predicted their investment in these areas. The researchers also developed a way to objectively measure the amount of stigma each participant faced in their particular environment by evaluating their home state’s general stance toward sexual minorities. That measure of stigma also positively “predicted the degree to which young sexual minority men sought self-worth through competition.”

For what it’s worth, I fit the model pretty perfectly – and my high school helped. Each class would be graded in every subject every month and then a list would be posted ranking everyone in the class. The first time this happened, after my first month at the school, I was stunned to find out that I was in the top position. Stunned and suddenly proud. Staying there became my over-arching goal for the rest of my high school life. I buried my way into books to prove my self-worth … and to distract attention from my sexual orientation. It worked: I was labeled a nerd rather than a fag – or, in the original English, a “swot” rather than a “poof.”

And those patterns have not truly changed – I’m just more aware of them. Why am I still trying to push the envelope in new media – and risking my own money – when I could have found a more comfortable perch writing somewhere? Why do I still need to prove something every day? Part is obviously an attempt to gain self-worth after homophobia had done its silent, brutal work on my seven-year-old soul. “Does God know everything about you – everything?” I once asked my mum, according to her (I don’t recall the exchange). She said: “Yes, of course. Everything.” I replied, “Then there’s no hope for me, mum.”

But it’s also a positive desire not to allow such prejudice affect you, to break through certain barriers, to push yourself to be a living impediment to homophobic prejudice. One extremely insightful book has been written about this: The Velvet Rage. I really recommend it. It shows how many gay men, propelled by these dynamics for years, sometimes find themselves in middle age at the top of their field and yet deeply depressed or overworked. They realize that rage – even constructive, efficient, effective rage – is no substitute for love.

My fundamental hope in helping to make marriage equality a possibility is that young gay boys and girls, as I once was, can now see a future filled with love rather than rage, intimacy rather than “achievement”.