CLOSET CASE

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

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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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