STUDY: Being in the Closet Drives You to Be More Successful, More Awful

Photo: GLAAD

A new study supports the so-called “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis, that young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by overcompensating in measured marks of success, such as academics, sports, appearance or employment. Though concealing their sexuality spurs their ambition, it often results in negative health consequences and social isolation, leading to a life of accolades and general stick-in-the-muddedness.

For The Social Development of Contingent Self-Worth in Sexual Minority Young Men, Drs. John Pachankis and Mark Hatzenbuehler tested the original hypothesis — set froth by Andrew Tobias in 1973 — on male sexual minority (gay and bisexual) and heterosexual full-time students under age 29 at large public and private universities.

The docs found that “sexual minority men reported deriving their self-worth from academics, appearance, and competition more so than heterosexual men” possibly as a “learned strategy to deflect attention from their concealed stigma and assure validation if it is discovered and devalued.”

Formally closeted federal government lawyer Adam Chandler penned an Op-Ed for The New York Times, having recognized himself as the archetypal Best Little Boy in the World. What little boy doesn’t want a Barbie is beyond our knowledge, but that early tell led Chandler into a long, studious session in the closet:

By the time I reached Yale Law School, where once-closeted academic superstars are like the hay in a haystack, coming out wouldn’t even have provoked a yawn. No matter. I built a wall of casebooks, hunkered down and ignored the growing hole in my social development.

Dr. Pachankis and Dr. Hatzenbuehler would not be surprised to learn that more than half the men in my randomly assigned “small group” seminar at Yale were gay. Deriving self-worth from achievement-related domains, like Ivy League admissions, is a common strategy among closeted men seeking to maintain self-esteem while hiding their stigma. The strategy is an effort to compensate for romantic isolation and countless suppressed enthusiasms. And it requires time-consuming study and practice, which conveniently provide an excuse for not dating.

Best of all, it distracts: “What Barbie? Look at my report card!”

Being the best of course brings out the worst in people, and the study suggests that the Adam Chandlers of the world leave a lot of themselves behind on their climb up the ladder of success:

Specifically, the more that sexual minority participants reported basing their self-worth on academic competence, the more likely they were to find themselves alone…the more they invested their self-worth on the way they looked, the more problematic their eating; and 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….therefore, being the best little boy in the world seems to come at a cost.

While interesting, we wonder if the opposite might also be true. If the purpose of overachieving is to distract attention from the big, fabulous pink elephant in the room, wouldn’t it make as much, if not more, sense to underachieve as much as possible? Are the least spectacular slackers out there just a bunch of closeted queens trying their best to be the worst? Where’s the study on the Max Blums of the world:


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  • the other Greg

    This may explain several regular Queerty posters!

    Minor mistake: “Formally closeted federal government lawyer Adam Chandler…”

    Although he does sound pretty formal, unless he underwent a secret Yale ceremony to “formally” closet himself I’m guessing you probably meant “formerly”?

  • Jackhoffsky

    This seems as if it has little to do with being gay and more to do with ignoring sex during formative years of sexual maturing.

    If the abstinence programs and those that join them have proved anything, it’s that you could replace the ‘closet case’ abstract with those who whole heartedly believe in maintaining their “purity” and achieve a very similar result.

  • tazz602

    @the other Greg: LOL – that is Queerty writing for you. BTW – I was the picture of what this article (and the book) represented before I “officially” came out. I was the model child for my parents. While at work I felt I had to prove myself over and over and always excelled in evaluations, performance, etc just in case anyone suspected, which I always felt that they did. Now that a lot more kids can come out younger they can derive their self worth out of who they are versus trying to be the “best little boy in the world” as a lot of us did back in the day.

    Those in large metropolitan areas though need to realize that there are a LOT of gay kids in rural areas that are STILL having to go through this and that will not change any time soon. For them, I hope that they can eventually find a safe place to come out and make their own transition from the over-achieving caterpillar to the beautiful butterfly.

  • Wayne

    I wonder if the study would indicate that the repression of homosexual impulses leads to the “reaction formation” in which repressed homosexuals turn into homophobic Republicans. Of course, it does make you wonder “Why are there Log Cabin Gay Republicans?” (Unless there is a huge amount of self-loathing in that woodpile.)

  • Little-Kiwi

    ha, same with me, guys. i focused on education, honing skills and talents. honour roll. fast-tracking high school. made sure i was the best damn ______, at whatever it was i was focused on at that time. yes, the “best little boy in the world”, TOTALLY.

    and then when i Came Out i had all that work in my back pockets. the thing is – while it can galvanize you to work harder, the longer you stay in the Closet the more you end up going insane.

    as many a gay-conservative-commenter’s crazy anonymous rambles will prove.

  • Charlie in Charge

    Very pleased then that I came out early, was happy with a state school, and have a sense healthy emotional intelligence. I wouldn’t trade places with an Ivy League closet case.

  • 2eo

    @Little-Kiwi: I was already insane, I never need a closet. Also bludgeoned my way to being the only headhunted graduate at university. Rapier like wit, pretty awesome looking beard, accomplished and ridiculously smart other half.

    I got it all. Well apart from a solid gold death star.

  • tdx3fan

    I fail to put any credence into this study since it was qualitative in methodology and therefore cannot be generalized beyond the actual group that they studied. An alternative theory could be that many gay people that stay closeted do not go to university because they cannot deal with the drama that having to be in a more open environment entails.

  • tdx3fan

    @Charlie in Charge: GW Bush graduated Ivy League. The truth is, that Ivy League schools often to do not offer a better education, they just have more money and can offer more visibility.

  • tdx3fan

    In my case, being closeted made me completely miserable. So miserable in fact that it impacted my grades and attendance in high school. I did not really care about school, so I did my best to miss at least 20 days a semester. Then I did catch up work in about one day. That was much more rewarding for me.

    In college, I never really cared about grades or attendance either. The closet kept me from wanting to go to class.

    When I finally did come out and started graduate school, it was as if I did not know the former person who hid from others. The new me made Dean’s List for the first time last year, and has finished this semester (my first actual semester of graduate school) with at least a 3.9 average (full time).

  • Wayne

    What Statistical Method? Should we interpolate by the factors missing in the work done by the Harvard economic luminaries, Reinhart and Rogoff, whose work has had enormous influence in one of the biggest economic policy debates of the age, and it doesn’t add up? …Genius ! Perhaps the IQ factor could be statistically significant, (<.05) And what is the null hypothesis?

  • the other Greg

    Interesting comments! Some of the most thoughtful I’ve seen here.

    No one has commented on Lester’s “slacker” theory, which seems dubious to me as someone with a blue-collar slacker background. The schools I went to as a kid, I got beaten up just as quick for getting an A as I did for any supposed “gay” traits. (And my father beat me up for the latter if not the former.) Since college wasn’t discussed, even by teachers, it never occurred to me to try to excel at anything. Unless pot-smoking counts as a skill.

    On the other hand, if you survive this kind of background I think you tend to develop a fairly secure sense of gay identity. It’s pretty thoroughly beaten into you, after all, so I guess you either kill yourself or just go with it. Eventually I looked forward to coming out as soon as practical, 22 in my case (after pre-DADT peacetime military, which was fun compared to high school). Coming out was an easy decision to make, with little anxiety, and no obvious excuse NOT to do it. Family opinions had already long been dismissed as irrelevant. Jobs were merely for paying the rent, even if I got good at some of them and sorta/kinda enjoyed a few of them. Also I didn’t have unrealistic expectations about the “gay community” magically paving my way with rainbows, and then getting pissed off when that didn’t happen – perennial lament of so many Queerty posters!

    So it doesn’t make sense to me that there are closeted slackers out there, but I’d be interested to hear an alternative explanation.

    The only theory I can think of is that maybe now, with high unemployment and the student loan crisis, a lot of young gay people delay coming out because they’re still financially dependent on their parents and/or living at “home”? (Damn, that must suck!)

  • johnn123

    i was the overacheiver in high school since i couldnt do well at sports i became the president of the student govt, the vp of my class and chair of our community service organization. i made sure i talked like and acted like all my str8 friends. in college it was the same always busy lots of volunteering and a job, the job ”helped” because that sucked up the rest of my time ie no time for a girlfriend. i have been working in higher education the last 20 yrs or so and still i am unable to bring myself out of the closet. well i did make gay friends on the net but in another town and that part of my life stayed secret i never ‘mixed’ the two. my family is so religious and conservative i just couldnt ever bring myself to tell them. i eventually lost contact with most of str8 friends. i never went back to a high school reunion always afraid i’d be asked why i never married. i have lived and worked in my town over 25 yrs but never have i told anyone at work on in town. i understand theres probably whispers or people thinking but no one has ever asked me. i used to have fun with those ga friends in another town but few yrs ago i just realized i was being lied to by gus about their status ( i know i was niave thinking a guy would tell me) so i then became too paranoid to even have sex anymore. i am happy for these young gus today that they are out i wouldnt want anyone to end up like me lonely and still afraid. it sucks. all i do is work out and run and i really think i over do that at times too..and waste endless hours on the net every night. while i consider myself financially successful i often wonder how much farther i could have gone had i not used so much energy hiding. i wish i was caught doing something nasty in the boys room in jr high and got this out years ago …

  • Wilberforce

    The study is too stupid for words. I guess it’s just coincidence that it comforts underachievers and supports the heartless activists who demand that everyone come out regardless of the consequences.
    Full disclosure: I’ve been partially out from seventeen to fifty-five. I’m out to people who have earned the right to know, not to ignorant rubes who might cause me trouble. I figured that out very early, and it’s such an easy solution, I haven’t given it much more though over the years. I have also overachieved from day one, not to distract attention, but because I was taught by my parents to improve myself.

  • the other Greg

    @Wilberforce: So are you out to your parents, or not? Have they “earned the right to know”? You see, as an underachiever, I’m always puzzled whenever anyone over the age of 17 talks about how wonderful their parents are/were. Well the word isn’t “puzzled,” it’s “nauseated”!

  • the other Greg

    @johnn123: I hope this will help you! You do realize that practically everyone knows you’re gay already.

    Your family figured it out long ago, whether or not you’re still involved with your childhood church. (In fact if you joined one of those liberal gay-friendly churches like UCC, that’s a dead giveaway.) They know.

    You say you work in “higher education,” LOL: everybody knows there too.

    What would you do if an acquaintance, thinking you are straight, took pity on you and wanted to set you up on a date with a woman? Will you even be quick enough on the draw to say you were “too busy”? (Since you work in higher education that will sound unlikely.) Will you involuntarily bust out laughing? (My hope!) What would you do?

    You’re “financially successful” but suppose you were to win the Megamillions jackpot ($200M) next Tuesday? Would you move to some gay mecca like SF or P’town? (Indeed, you’d have to because everyone you know would be bugging you for money.) What would you do?

    Suppose you are in a terrible car crash next Tuesday and are almost killed. But after a year of painful recovery you get pretty much back to normal, physically. How would this affect your view of life? What would you do differently?

    Suppose you were to develop troubling cancer symptoms – you seem to be the type of gay man who forgets there are any life-threatening things out there besides HIV! – and the doctors told you you had six months to live? What would you do?

    As someone in a sero-discordant relationship I must tell you, you have an irrational fear of HIV. It’s good that you’re worried about people “lying about their status” (or being genuinely ignorant about their status), so make them put on a condom for anal sex. Or just avoid anal sex. Problem solved!

    If by chance you do hit it off with someone, don’t rule him out as a boyfriend if you find out he’s poz. You’ll already have had safer sex with him dozens of times. And frankly, you’re not in a position to picky about such a thing anyway, so get over it.

    More important than that, you need some NON-sexual gay friends. Maybe there is a group in another city that you can get involved in – far enough away to make you comfortable, for now, but near enough to get to often?

    And eventually, dude, you need to move. Hopefully, BEFORE you retire!

  • johnn123

    @the other Greg: thanks for your comments, i am sure people have discussed if i am gay or not, i guess thats pretty normal when you meet someone that has no girl. if my family ever figured it out then i have no idea why they would say the things they do when the gay topic might come up (in the news etc) no one in my family has ever asked ..ever. i was raised catholic and still occasionally go but admit i am am a terrible catholic, i dont go to any other church. i do work at a university but again no one ever has asked including gay people ive worked with for over 20 yrs its not something that comes up at work, colleges are very PC so asking sex questions is dicey. i have had a question or two over the years mostly from students and i just reply i’m fine by myself and no one has asked again. there are gay people i work with and local gay places but i’ve never gone i think i am just too afraid to see someone i know from work. i dont think i would ever move to SF or Ptown, ive been to SF for pride one year with a friend that lives there i had a BLAST and would love to go to folsom (i do have gay friends but not where i live and work but mostly in philly about 100 miles away)i over hear that a bunch of gay coworkers go to ptown so i’m reluctant to go although i must admit i think i would love it. when i first came out i got in with a circuit party group and for a good 5-6 yrs i did A LOT of partying and A LOT of sex. im not a virgin. ive lost a lot of those friends when meth really hit ..some died others faded away. now i have very few gay friends at all. i really miss those days too. as time went on i just seemed to get in with more and more poz guys it began to scare the hell out of me i ALWAYS used condoms but the hiv health people tell you to test even IF you use condoms …so much for condoms being so safe eh? i just kept thinking that with all the sex i had i was pushing my luck..and eventually if i kept fucking around it was going to happen to me, i know theres other diseases out there but this one can be prevented by stopping fucking around. i have had some great guys i was with ..but they lied about being poz so i moved on. im not sure what you mean by “i cant afford to be picky??” i’m not looking for a relationship actually i never really had any kind of a relationship guy or girl. just things that would last a few weeks here and there. i love my job and am about 100 miles from philly and 80 from NYC so i am in a good location. and youre right i really wish i had some non sexual gay buds. obviously theres gay guys here in my town and school but i just feel awkward..i sense they reached out once or twice but i was too afraid and gave them the str8 brush of..thx for replaying again feels good to talk to someone about this

  • the other Greg

    @johnn123: I’m glad it helps you to talk about it!

    Meth, yikes, personally I’ve never encountered it (had some druggy friends but never meth), sounds like you’re right to be scared of that one.

    Re: relationships I was kind of taking guesses and trying to figure out your situation. Relationships develop out of emotional attraction and I think you should neither rule it out, or unrealistically yearn for it when you probably have limited skills for it right now. I was concerned about the latter, but it sounds like you are being realistic.

    If any health professionals were using those HIV scare tactics on you, shame on them, they should get another job. And if any poz guys were lying to you, the point is not THAT they were lying, the point is WHY they were lying. They were afraid of rejection by someone ignorant of how HIV works, and hey, looks like they were correct.

    My point was that IF for instance you had been getting along great with a guy, there was a real emotional attraction etc., but then you dumped him because he was poz (after you’d already had sex with him several times anyway!?), that’s ridiculous. Your loss not theirs.

    (My personal view and that of my bf is, anal sex is way overrated anyway and there are plenty of other fun and hot things to do!)

    That’s not such a bad location, maybe once in awhile try the Gay Community Center in NYC where there are literally dozens or hundreds of groups. I’ve been to Philly several times but my impression is that Philly is more of a sleazy sex place. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) But if you’re not looking for THAT anymore, it’s probably better for you to go once in awhile to the new, prudish, non-sexual, squeaky-clean, Disney-fied New York!

    Best of luck to you, and feel free to write again if it helps you, I’ll check back tomorrow.

  • the other Greg

    @johnn123: I apologize for being a little blunt at times! Trying to shock you out of lethargy. :-)

    I think you could focus first on making ONE change, which in your case the simplest & most practical one is probably to find a non-sexual gay friend or two, some distance away. If you got something out of writing about this with a total stranger (me), this seems like a good way to go and maybe not that difficult.

  • Eddy


    Actually, the study is quantitative not qualitative. There is a link to it in the second paragraph — and it’s free to download for the next little while.

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