The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What gay men’s stunning success might teach us about the academic gender gap

5 min

Joel Mittleman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

The gender gap in American higher education is now the largest it has ever been, and if current trends continue, two women will soon complete college for every one man. But there’s one group that has, for generations, defied this trend: gay men. Their achievement could hold the key to closing the gap for their straight peers, too.

In new research made possible by questions recently added to U.S. household surveys, I found that gay men achieve stunning success across every level of higher education. This accomplishment comes even as men’s overall college completion rates have fallen further behind women’s for every generation born since the 1960s.

I found, for example, that about 52 percent of gay men age 25 or older in the United States have a bachelor’s degree. For context, about 36 percent of U.S. adults 25 or older have a bachelor’s; this ranks the United States ninth in the world in college completion. If America’s gay men, however, formed their own country, it would be the world’s most highly educated by far.

Gay men’s academic advantages don’t end in undergrad, either. The group is significantly overrepresented among the United States’ most advanced degree holders. Compared with straight men, gay men are about 50 percent more likely to have earned an MD, JD or PhD.

Andrew Yang: The boys are not all right

And this pattern isn’t confined to White gay men. In every single racial and ethnic group I could measure, gay men outpace straight men in college completion by double digits.

Gay men’s strikingly high performance is already well established in high school. Using the first Department of Education study ever to assess student sexual orientation, I also found that, compared with straight boys from the same school, gay boys earned better grades in more advanced classes and reported more serious work habits and more academically oriented close friends.

These successes are all the more remarkable given the fact that many schools remain dangerous spaces for gay students. Indeed, the same data that documented gay boys’ high achievement also revealed them as twice as likely to feel unsafe at school.

So what’s the secret to gay men’s academic success? And can straight men learn anything from it?

Growing up, gay boys often feel like outsiders to the culture of masculinity enforced by their straight peers. Although that status creates vulnerabilities in the schoolyard, it also seems to lead to tremendous liberation in the classroom.

That’s because boys in the United States still face a very narrow set of expectations about what it means to “be a man” — and one of these expectations is that “real men” shouldn’t appear overly concerned with the daily hard work of being a conscientious student.

Analyzing about 7,000 student survey items, my research identified the attributes most predictive of being a boy. They were things such as time spent playing video games and expectations of becoming a professional athlete. Classroom striving was not among them. Gay boys, however, answered very differently from straight boys. For these students, stepping outside the strictures of straight masculinity significantly supported academic success.

If masculinity’s expectations were the only barrier to success, however, gay men should perform roughly as well as straight women. Yet gay men outperform them, too, because gay men don’t just live outside traditional masculinity; they often work particularly hard to compensate for not meeting those masculine expectations — work that can lead to a measurable boost.

For those denied the most traditional avenues for “being a man,” pursuing the kinds of prestigious careers made possible through meticulously high academic achievement can offer a way to shore up one’s standing. It’s a phenomenon documented in memoirs, clinical accounts and community samples — what’s called the “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis. As one Rhodes Scholar described it in his coming-out essay, “young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by investing in recognized markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, elite employment and so on.”

American boyhood feels like a series of masculinity contests, and even today, most of the rules are stacked against gay boys. But academics is one competition they can master. As one of my students at the University of Notre Dame put it: “I realized early on that I couldn’t change the fact that I was gay, but I could change how much I studied for my math test.”

As the United States fights to close its growing academic gender gaps, gay men have many lessons to teach us about school success. But the most important is this: It is long past time to rewrite the rules of American masculinity. Take the pressure off gay boys to be the best little boy in the world — but give straight boys the chance to be their best, too. At a time when the lives of American men without college degrees have become increasingly despairing, this masculinity makeover would benefit no one more than straight men themselves.