Are gay men born to be overachievers?

Written by:

Yen Feng

Yen Feng

Yen is the editor of asia.gay. You can reach him at editor@asia.gay.

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For most people, it took a global pandemic to slow them down.

For me, it was my foot.

Several weeks ago, I fell down the stairs and broke my fifth metatarsal – that’s the little bone that connects to your pinky toe – and had to go on crutches.

Slowing down was hard for me. I’m a self-confessed overachiever, and as a former journalist for a daily newspaper, I’m trained to chase stories and rush to meet deadlines. Slow doesn’t work for me.

Not just for me, it’s hard for most people I think.

As a society, we’ve come to value productivity and efficiency, over dawdling and taking time. Our computers and phones are getting faster, not slower. The tortoise may have won the race in the story, but it’s usually the hare that gets the promotion and the big corner office.

American journalist Nick Martin said this always-on work culture is getting to a point where “every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.”

I don’t disagree. But Nick, here in Asia, we have been doing that for generations. Growing up in a Chinese household, there was no such thing as “slowing down”. Only “wasting time”.

Overachieving gays

But here I was, foot broken, not able to walk, much less do the things I love doing, including working out, and practising and teaching yoga. After a week or two of rest, I began to feel a sense of depression creeping over me. I lost my appetite, slept all day. I felt useless and could hardly bear to talk to anyone.

I began to wonder: Why is so much of my self-worth tied to my being productive?

As it turns out, at least one psychologist has suggested it may not be my race or ethnicity, but rather my sexual orientation.

In a study conducted at Yeshiva University in 2013, professor of psychology John Pachankis and Dr Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University found that gay men were more likely to be overachievers than their straight counterparts.

They found that gay men based their sense of self-worth on “academics”, “appearance”, and “competition”, more so than straight men.

Interestingly, the amount of time that the gay men had spent hiding their sexual identity positively predicted their investment in these areas.

In trying to quantify the stigma that the gay participants experienced, the researchers concluded that the measure of stigma also positively “predicted the degree to which young sexual minority men sought self-worth through competition”.

In other words, the more you tried to hide that you’re gay, the harder you worked to be attractive and successful.

The researchers based their work on an idea that was in fact first put forward in 1973, by author Andrew Tobias, who in his coming-of-age autobiography, called this the “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis.

It is the idea that young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by investing in recognised markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, a good job, and so on.

Overcompensating in competitive arenas offers gay men a sense of self-worth that furtive concealment of their sexual orientation diminishes.

Learning to slow down

Does this still ring true? Probably for some, but times are slowly changing.

More gay men are coming out of the closet and at ever-younger ages. These days, I’m often struck by how confident and articulate young gay men are in their sexuality – even as teenagers! I don’t remember ever being this confident – or even aware – of my sexuality when I was in secondary school.

Perhaps over time, this “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis will become less pertinent, and as men, we will find it easier to just be ourselves, with nothing to prove.

But, I’m afraid it may be too late for me.

Recently, after a second X-ray, the doctor said it will take another two months before I will be able to get back on my feet and walk properly again. I think I can do it in just one month.

Now tell me, am I a good boy?

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