Another Consequence Of Homophobia: Overcompensation?

In my and other scholars’ research, the damage of discrimination to one’s health and well-being is clear.  On top of the constraints discriminatory treatment places on one’s life chances and livelihood, victims of discrimination are furthered burdened by the blow to their sense of justice and fairness, and their well-being.  It is no surprise then that so much research focuses on discrimination as a mechanism through which social inequality is maintained.

From my personal life, exercised in my professional life but not as a topic of research, I know well about the “positive” consequences of prejudice and discrimination.  I do not mean positive as in good or desirable.  Rather, I mean the consequences that otherwise would be good or desirable if they were not the product of facing discrimination or prejudice.  I mean the sense of solidarity with fellow members of one’s oppressed group, pride in one’s identity and community, and a drive to persevere and overcome adversity.

The “Gay Tax”

I know well of the “Black tax” that I and other Black people face, having to work twice as hard to receive equal recognition.  This is because Black people are stereotyped as unmotivated, unintelligent, culturally inferior, unprofessional, and immoral.  I find myself particularly concerned with how others will evaluate me and my work.  I find myself having to give a second thought to people who don’t give me a first.  It is hard for me to let trivial slights go because I refuse to be undervalued or underestimated.

In comparing how I navigate this homophobic society as a gay man to the “Black tax,” I can discern a “gay tax” that manifests as regulating (read: suppressing) my gender and sexuality.  To minimize heterosexual men’s discomfort with my sexuality, I remain physically and emotionally distant, and “man up” my gender presentation.  To dodge religious folks’ judgement, I make as little reference to my sexuality as possible.  And, as many couples do, my partner and I are rarely affectionate in public.

All at once, I am aware of these aspects of the “gay tax,” critical of them, but pay them for my safety and well-being.

Another “Gay Tax”: Overcompensation?

But there may be another aspect to the “gay tax” that is similar to the “Black tax.”  Aware of the devalued status of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in society, some gay men have expressed through autobiographies that they throw themselves into their work to elevate their status.  Maybe, just maybe, if you are the first gay president, the world will see you just as “the president.”

In a recent study, Pachankisa and Hatzenbuehler (2013) found support for the “best little boy in the world” thesis.  In a sample of gay and heterosexual male college students, their results suggest that gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to derive their self-worth from academics, appearance, and competition.  And, the length of time that gay men remained in the closet, and the level of homophobic prejudice and discrimination in their state, were strong predictors of the extent to which these young gay men derive their self-worth from competition.

It’s the idea that young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by investing in recognized markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, elite employment and so on. Overcompensating in competitive arenas affords these men a sense of self-worth that their concealment diminishes (from NYT review).

The downside of this “positive” consequences of the stigma gay men face is their health and well-being.  Through a nine-day diary, these gay men’s focus on elevating their status (either professionally or aesthetically) predicted long periods of isolation, interpersonal problems, unhealthy eating behaviors, and emotional distress.

All Gay Men?  What About Women?

The researchers devoted a great deal of discussion to the generalizability of their findings.  With a non-random sample of gay male college students, there is reason to worry that these findings do not translate into the experiences of all gay men, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Further, the sample is overwhelmingly white.  So, in a blog post about the article, the lead author noted:

Importantly, like the authors of “best little boy in the world” narratives, the participants in our study were mostly white, middle class, college-educated men.  The extent to which possessing multiple stigmatized identities might shape self-worth remains to be seen, as does the extent to which this or a similar phenomenon applies to women.

In addition to assessing how other gay men (especially gay men of color, working-class gay men, older gay men), are affected by and respond to homophobia, one curiosity remains: what about women?

What about female sexual minorities, you might ask? “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,” lead researcher John Pachankis of Yeshiva University 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.” Exploring that particular question is a next step for research, he says.

Ironically, the language of “overcompensating” has been used in discussions of this study, but without explicit reference to the gendered notions of (men’s) overcompensation.  It may be the case that these young men are emasculated by homophobia, and they (like many men) have found some way to compensate in their effort to measure up to the rigid expectations of masculinity.  And, funny enough, many appear to set their sights on arenas that are not vehemently homophobic — academics and aesthetics.  Athletics, sex with lots of men, and big trucks do not seem to top the list of the things gay men wish to brag about.  So, this raises some interesting (unaddressed) questions about gay masculinity.

That’s Me!

Ah, yet another study where I, as a scholar, am humbled to reminded that I am a human, equally affected by the social world as everyone else.  In his NY Times article, federal lawyer Adam D. Chandler echoed some of these sentiments:

But seeing your reflection in an empirical study has its drawbacks. The flip side of discovering you’re not alone is the melting of your presumed snowflake uniqueness. Now I’m a statistic, another data point, just an ordinary overachieving closet case.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that the biography is half finished. They haven’t told me what’s on the other side of the closet door. Once I’m no longer harboring my secret, will I lose my drive? Or will my lifelong trophy hunt expand to include a search for a trophy husband?

I don’t know the answers. But I’m ready to find out.

Toward (Some Of) The Answers

Like any manifestation or consequence of oppression, a starting point is becoming aware of this drive to overcompensate.  This is yet another aspect of the homophobic reality gay men note and challenge in raising our gay consciousnesses.  And, I can provide (some of) the answers Chandler wants.

In a general sense, strong social support will help to minimize some of the distress.  And, having multiple roles or other important, ongoing tasks, events, affiliations, relationships, etc. is beneficial as well.  We do ourselves a disservice as gay men by isolating ourselves — that’s the opposite of seeking social support and others like us (as well as supportive allies).  By focusing narrowly on elevating our status, we place so much stock into too few things, leaving us vulnerable to having our entire self-worth tank when those aspects of our status do not go well.

But, more specific to gay men is a strong, positive gay identity and connection to the LGBT community that helps to buffer the harmful effects of our exposure to prejudice and discrimination.  While inevitable, how we respond to these stressful aspects of homophobic oppression can reduce their impact to our health — namely, challenging discriminatory treatment and confiding in trusted others about these experiences rather than accepting and repressing them.  And, rejecting (rather than internalizing) the homophobic prejudice and stereotypes of our society, and general self-acceptance are crucial for our well-being.  I recommend (again) Dr. Crystal Fleming‘s advice on rejecting others’ stereotypes and hatred.

The lead author of the study, a psychologist, offered the following recommendations:

Our research also reveals some important lessons for young gay men’s health and well-being.  The results of our research suggest that gay men take careful stock of the extent to which their self-worth derives from seeking status from domains like being the best, looking the best, or earning high grades or lots of money.  If gay men do recognize that their self-worth comes from those domains, they might consider the health costs of doing so.  Do they experience trouble in relationships with others, such as frequent arguing or spending lots of time alone?  Will they compromise personal values to attain status?  Are they chronically stressed or engaging in unhealthy habits, like going to the gym to an unhealthy degree or restricting their food intake?

If gay men answer “yes” to any of these questions, it will first be important to recognize that these difficulties are not personal failings and may have their source in stigma and the early lessons learned from growing up in a stigmatizing world.  Psychotherapy with a compassionate, gay-affirmative therapist can help gay men understand the legacy of experiencing early stressors like hiding one’s sexual orientation during adolescence or growing up in homophobic environments.  For many gay men, the negative effects of these early experiences may not be obvious at first, but can nonetheless be successfully addressed with supportive help from friends or professionals.

In understanding this “gay tax” as a stressor unique to gay men (similar to the “tax” that other oppressed groups face), I also recommend mental health service that treat patients who are gay as gay patients.  That is, care that understands the unique needs and experiences of gay people, rather than treating them as interchangeable with any other patient.  I strongly recommend The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World

Oh, and eliminating homophobic prejudice and discrimination helps, too!