When it comes to gay men, the positive stereotypes abound. In the words of Northwestern University associate professor Brian Mustanski, gay men are often characterized as being “fit, well dressed, good looking and rich,” which doesn’t sound like bad thing at all. A pair of psychologists has examined whether these stereotypes of gay men as striving for (and apparently attaining) perfection holds any merit and come up with, as a result, The Best Little Boy in the World Hypothesis.
Writing about “Best Little Boy” for Psychology Today, psychologists Dr. John Pachankis of Yeshiva University and Dr. Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University explain that younger gay men may indeed over-achieve in an attempt to protect against prejudice. The hypothesis title riffs on a 1973 book by the same name that recounts the author Andrew Tobias’ coming out process and his attempt to maintain an infallible facade leading up to it in order to deflect any attention from his sexual orientation. Since then, other gay men have described similarly aiming to be “the best” as a coping mechanism and help ensure that their family and friends will accept them.
Based on detailed interviews with gay and straight men, Pachankis and Hatzenbuehler found support for “Best Little Boy”:
Our research showed that young gay men strategically invest their self-worth in those areas in which they can succeed, namely academics, appearance, and competition, more so than straight men. Essentially, it seems as if young gay men go to great lengths to prove their worth to others in those domains. This is particularly likely for those who concealed their sexual orientation for long periods of time when growing up and for those who grew up in more stigmatizing states.
The psychologists offer that as a reason why other studies show that despite homophobia in society, gay men’s self-esteem is just as high as their heterosexual counterparts. Yet, as those kinds of investments may be healthier than turning toward more acutely destructive behaviors, such as drugs or self-harm, they still took a toll.
Our results also showed that being “the best little boy in the world” comes at a cost, as young gay men who invested in these status-related domains were more likely to spend more time alone, to report more daily eating problems, getting into arguments and lying to others, and to feel more stress each day.
What’s the outcome of understanding this particular pattern? Pachankis and Hatzenbuehler see it as evidence of gay men’s resilience and “creative adaptation.” And as the world becomes more open and accepting of people spanning the entire LGBTQ spectrum, there’s hope that such coping mechanisms may fall by the wayside as young gay men are increasingly granted the social freedom to simply be themselves, rather than having to be the best.