New Research Suggests Homophobia Linked to Overachieving As Well As Misery

For years, it’s been almost a cliché in the coming-out narrative of the character who cloaked their insecurity over being a closeted gay teen in throwing themselves into their studies, or sports or some other hobby. After all, they can’t be weird if they’re a top student or athlete – or, as Megan from But I’m A Cheerleader put it, “I get good grades, I go to church, I’m a cheerleader! I’m not like all of you.” But now, there’s actual statistical proof behind this connection – at least for gay men.

The idea, called the “Best Little Boy In The World” hypothesis, has been tested in a new study published in the academic journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology. According to Salon, “researchers interviewed 195 male college students who identified as either heterosexual or a ‘sexual minority’.” Not only did gay male students tend to be more likely to be overachievers, but that there was a positive correlation between how much they felt like they had to hide their sexuality and how well they did in school and extracurricular activities, and how much they based their self-worth on things like “academics,” “appearance” and “competition.” Salon writes:

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.”

The first question one might ask about the study: what about girls? Why is this focused mostly on gay and otherwise queer men, and not on lesbian, bisexual or queer women? Though the article says that “exploring that particular question is a next step for research,” the lead researcher, John Pachankis of Yeshiva University, notes that gay men were the focus because the “best child in the world” narrative was simply less common in lesbians’ memoirs:

The notion of the ‘best little boy in the world’ crops up everywhere in stories about gay men’s early lives and not as much in the narratives of young lesbians,” [Pachankis] told me in an email. “That certainly doesn’t mean that women don’t experience a similar phenomenon, but only that lesbians’ personal stories don’t seem to emphasize it as much.”

That brings us to one of the major issues with this study, which is not only that it involves a small sample size, but that it also is focused on college students. Obviously, people who go to college are more likely to be academic overachievers than those who don’t – especially given how competitive college admissions processes are these days. A wider sample, that included some young adults of comparable age who weren’t in college and weren’t graduates, might give us a better idea of whether this is a real trend among queer men, as opposed to just those who go to college. People who get a chance to write memoirs about their coming-out experiences tend to be more educated and privileged; how do we know that this is really a thing that affects gay men all over the map, and not just those with the clout to get book deals?

It’s important to note, for those worried about how people might take this to mean that homophobia makes kids into better students, that it’s particularly concerned with tying self-worth to grades or other external factors, like judgments of appearance or excellence in sports or an extracurricular activity. It’s one thing to be a good student; it’s another thing to think you aren’t a worthy person if you get a sub-par grade or several. Along with the obvious issues that come with becoming too invested in appearance (the study warns against problematic eating habits), there’s also the fact that “the more they based their self-worth on besting others, the more likely they were to find themselves being dishonest, arguing, and experiencing emotional distress.”

Another interesting question worth asking is how these findings might impact anti-bullying campaigns targeted at LGBTQ students. If homophobia is not only leading to social ostracization, but also greater academic stress for LGBTQ students, this may be seen as a contributor to rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among these students. Having been an overachieving closet case myself as a teenager, I know too well how that first D can be an incredibly traumatic experience for the kid who has learned to define themselves by their GPA. Truly, a homophobic environment is bad enough on its own for LGBTQ students, but maybe other factors – like an academically-stressful environment – make it worse for students who learn to identify themselves by their achievements because they’re left out of a heteronormative high school social world. It could be this combination of factors (or others) that make certain school districts such particularly dangerous places for queer students.

Hopefully, though, this won’t mean that we’ll end up with anti-bullying policies that focus only on academically-successful LGBTQ kids, and less on those who likely are hurting just as much from homophobic environments but haven’t poured that resentment into academic or extracurricular achievement. Especially if the study is right that this is primarily a gay male problem; the last thing we need are more policies and projects that focus on just one letter under the increasingly-expansive LGBTQ umbrella.

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 11

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    This is really interesting. For myself, I was hyper focused on my appearance. I didn’t want others to think of me as ‘gross’ or a ‘dyke’ so I would spend hours doing my make-up, plucking my eyebrows, working out etc. so that if anyone ever did find out, at least they would still talk to me because I was ‘pretty'(i know, i’m cringing as I remember it). And i found that I didn’t really pour myself into my studies, i actually sort of gave up on that aspect. I would push them aside and focused on my friendships. If my friends weren’t with me 24/7 I would have an emotional breakdown and think they didn’t like me anymore, or that they somehow new I was gay and decided to ditch me.

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      I did this too. I think there’s just so many negative things people say about lesbians that maybe I didn’t want to be associated with? And went too far trying to prove I didn’t belong to that group.

      As a side note, this whole thing reminds me of the speech Roy makes in Angels in America where he is convinced that he is much better than gay people because he is high ranking and influential.

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      I did something similar to this too because I didn’t want to be associated with negative stereotypes. I became really obsessed with my weight. I had this ideal vision of being the “perfect skinny smart straight girl.” I kept a food journal and purposely under ate and sometimes tried eating nothing at all. When I got really hungry, I would put all of my attention into studying to avoid eating. I would tell myself “the more you study the better grades you’ll get and the more successful you’ll be, but the more you eat the fatter you’ll get and you’ll be a failure.” I ended up being underweight and I didn’t get my period for an entire year. Nowadays I’m (thankfully) very far from this mindset, although it wasn’t that long ago. I still worry about my weight sometimes though, but I’m more healthy about it, as opposed to masochistic. I find the more I accept myself, the less I care about how others perceive me.

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    It’s a bit scary to remember how angry and self-hating I used to be, but throughout high school I was an embittered overachiever set out to prove all the straight people who hated me that I’m 500% better than they are. I don’t think it was just trying to ‘humiliate’ straight people the way they humiliated me, it also had to do with (stupidly) attempting to ‘earn’ straight people’s acceptance / esteem by appearing to be such a dazzlingly intelligent person that they can’t help admiring me despite my queerness.

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      Exactly the same for me, except that I’m trans**. In high school, I was so determined to be respected and to avoid bullying (and to bury my unrequited desires under mounds of denial) that I gave everything to my studies. I was convinced that if I was just smart enough, pretty enough, people would try and look past the trans-ness. Now that I’m past the self-loathing, I still study hard– but more so that I can one day write a book of queer theory and blow cissexism to smithereens! I find that the more I learn to value/ respect myself, the more invested I become in independent study.

      **I still don’t know whether I can call myself queer in good conscience. Since I am a trans lady who is into men, I get that *nominally* I’m hetero. But to me, my trans identity, regardless of my sexual identity, makes me queer. But I don’t want to appropriate labels that weren’t meant for me, so I’m still pretty confused about this. Also, sorry for this very navel gazey addition to my comment!

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        Ha, after I got to university and managed to unlearn most of the nonsense I internalized, I became absorbed in studying queer history. I was so overjoyed to be able to read about other queer people, I ended up spending days and days in the library just going through all the books with queer content they had. I still stress out more than I could over being ‘good enough’, but pouring energy into something that you know is ‘good work’, work that could, in some small way, contribute to improving queer people’s lives feels amazing. I look forward to reading your articles / books, there’s a huge need in queer theory / history / ‘studies’ for more trans writers.

        (I do hope that ‘queer’ is a wide enough umbrella to fit trans people who want to identify as queer, I’m pretty cis but my feelings towards identity labels less loose than ‘queer’ are conflicted.)

  3. Thumb up 6

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    I never really thought about how maybe my academic achievement could be tied to my queerness in that way. I used to hang with the nerdy boys in school, and I figured my academic success, like theirs, was correlated with how much sex/romance I wasn’t having. I guess for me it’s hard to untangle how much of my social awkwardness came from my inability to relate to my peers’ heterosexual identities and how much of it came from me just being weird in completely unrelated ways.

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    Not that this is a direct confrontation, but don’t we all just LOVE that male sexual minority automatically equals gay? Ugh.

    It’s great that most liberal places are now aware of lesbian/queer/bisexual identified females, but yet any male who isn’t straight is automatically tagged as gay. Can we at Autostraddle at least stick to those umbrella terms consistently between (all) genders?

  5. Thumb up 10

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    This article could basically have been about me.

    Since I was little, every time I did well on a report card or got a school award, my mom would say, “I’ll keep you.” And of course it’s TOTALLY a joke but she says it EVERY TIME because she thinks it’s hilarious.

    And when I realized I was gay, then I get really scared, because what if she doesn’t want to keep me anymore? Maybe if I do well in school, she’ll keep me. Maybe if I do really well in school, she’ll keep me. Or maybe none of it will matter.

    I want to be defined by what I do, not what I am. If I do a lot of things in my life, and gain respect, I don’t want that to all be thrown away because, “oh, she’s gay”. So a part of me says that if I work really hard and do everything perfectly then it’ll be OK, so if I don’t do everything perfectly then I get very anxious.

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      Also thank you for writing this article, especially about the critiques of the study! Like, I especially like how you mentioned that it would have been better if they had chosen people who were of comparable ages but not in college. And also choosing people of different ages as well as people of different gender identities

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      Not to claim the same extreme anxiety of your situation, but I’ve had my mom tell me that because of my over-achievement in my church community, it’ll lessen the blow when they learn that I’m gay. So, even though it wasn’t a conscious strive to be super-involved, it’s obviously a way that will be used to compensate the disappointment and/or confusion I’m sure many would feel about me being unable to marry or baptize in my own community. I see it done to other gay members – “Oh, he’s gay!?!? Well, at least he’s still a good member of the community because he does X, Y and Z. We’ll just never talk about him being gay.”

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    Hmm. I don’t know how to feel about this study. First, I have to admit that being a kid that moved around a lot didn’t help me form long term friendships. Second, I am a trans* woman and all I ever wanted was to get away from where I grew up (mostly rural Oklahoma and Texas). And third, I was fat, sickly and not athletic…basically, life where I grew up was all about football. I turned my eyes towards the stars. I studied astronomy, physics, biology, mathematics, chemistry. I didn’t have access to tutors, so I just buried myself in books from the library. My family thought I was worthless. I didn’t hunt, work on a farm, or play sports (football). I was considered defective anyway because of being sick all the time.

    I would hate to think my love of STEM would have been detoured by love and acceptance from peers and family. Or maybe I would have done better because I wouldn’t have had all the depression and alienation constricting me.

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    Measuring the stigma one feels by where they grow up seems sketchy, too. Shouldn’t the measure of stigma be personalized? I know the experiences people have in more liberal states are very different from one another (based on family beliefs, etc).

  8. Thumb up 7

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    Fun article! It’s a shame the study is so flawed, because it’s an interesting connection to look into. I always felt huge pressure to achieve academically from my family. Gay or straight, over-achieving in school was non-optional. But among my classmates, even before I knew I was gay, I felt like I was different, and I definitely sought refuge in my work. By my late teens I still identified as straight, but I could tell I couldn’t quite hack it in the hetero world. I assumed I probably wasn’t cut out find love or have a family, and I consciously decided to identify as a “career person.” (i.e. my career and my talents are the most important things in my life.) I’m still trying to get over that.

    I think a lot of straight kids go through the academic-pressure-leads-to-misery-trap too, though. Yeah, it’s worse when you add homophobia to the mix, but tons of kids from varied backgrounds undergo pressure to achieve. With an economy like this, that’s bad news for all. Depending on academic and professional success for your self-worth leads to even more misery when you can’t get a decent job after college. I would love to see a study like this carried out with a wider subject base and over a longer time-frame because of that.

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      I had pretty much the same experience growing up. I defined myself by my academic achievement because everyone in my family did. I remember being three and being made to practise writing every day after the pre school that was already teaching us French and print finished for the day by my grandmother. Then it became about how people said I couldn’t excell at something for whatever reason, being Irish, weird, a girl etc. It only related to my being queer when I realised I could not live a heteronormative life and then it became a thing I could offer my grandparents so they’d still love and be proud of me.

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    I wonder how much this relates to the bullying that queer kids face, in general. For me personally, as a kid I didn’t have very many friends. Not because I was queer, specifically, but because I was a bit of an unusual kid. The teachers praised me for being smart, and the kids snubbed me. They’d have snubbed me anyways, so I might as well just make sure the teachers would continue to like me. By the time I got to high school, I was worried that hanging out with kids who talked about dating, boys, and all that would out me. So instead I made friends with band nerds and math geeks who recited pi and made jokes about cultural capital. Who was dating who wasn’t relevant in that crowd at all. Then the peer pressure was to do as well at school as my friends. Part of it was wanting to do well, because I’m programmed, it seems, to want to succeed academically. But part of it was fear, that that was the only way I could be accepted.

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    This was me 100%. It was hard has fuck. In high school, I’d use the excuse “I don’t have time for boys, I’m so busy with school” whenever people asked me if I had a boyfriend. I might be smart, but because I didn’t experience any kind of deep relationship, I’m playing catch up with everyone else my age. When I graduated from university, I no longer had my over-achieving identity… cue identity crisis.

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    So THIS explains why I didn’t put down a book and go on a date till I was 27 years old!

    Kind of an oddly framed study, but I think it touches on a common theme that any kid who feels like an outcast goes through — finding something to hide themselves in as a way to attempt to protect themselves.

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    I always wonder how much my being trans and into ladies affected my focus on my studies. I was and continue to be a total overachiever (HS salutatorian, summa cum laude college grad, Law Review, etc.) and I had severely isolated myself from other people for all but the last two years of my life, along with severing myself from every other aspect of my life.

    My feelings about my studies have always been dialectic, though. On one hand, I feel like they’re all I have since I’m so emotionally and socially stunted, and even worse, my body will never really be what I want it to be (add in the sick twist where most of the people I’m attracted to have a body much closer to the one I want than my own). But for the same reasons, it’s hard to care about them. I feel like grades are poor reflections of overall ability (better reflections of the ability to get good grades) since I’m so incompetent at everything else and getting good grades won’t help me find emotional stability, friendship or love, or the body that I wish I could have.

  13. Thumb up 2

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    I relate completely with the findings of this provocative study. Ive encountered homophobia firsthand being an uber lesbian butch. My studies were my first priority but even so, I was subjected to common pre dispositions regarding the butch/lesbian community and i found it rather frustrating to have my intellect consistently underestimated. Ive since grown to look like the “straight, overachieving minority femme girl.”

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    I didn’t distract myself with work because there was homophobia going on. I distracted myself because I didn’t want to deal with all my horrible emotions of confusion and unrequited crushes.

    Work defiantly became an important part of life at university, but there would be some social events I didn’t go to because I was insecure about who I was as a person. So I just avoided the parties and social event night outs, because I never felt like I could do that, as I was so lost on how to enjoy myself or even what all the fuss was about. (To be honest I am not a going out sort of person, But I love music and thats about it… if theres good music I’ll end up enjoying it for that reason).
    But I remember in my first two years I just isolated myself completely and focused on my work! – And well I got a great results but I didn’t really have a BIG social life.
    Now that I have come out, I have more friends that know me from LGBT society, I go out more often and still produce great work. I HAVE A LIFE.

    But now that I have had a few dates.. which have all NOT turned out into relationships – I can’t manage to distract myself with work, I just think about.. what went wrong? But I never wish to back in time because life wasn’t so good when I isolated myself with work.

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    I think I’m an overachiever #1 because I’m a woman. Since I was a child I felt I had to excel in something that wasn’t normally considered to be associated with women, just to prove people wrong. To be perfectly honest, the other reason I think I pushed myself to excel is because girls like successful women too. I just received my PhD in engineering.

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