What This Study Tells Us About LGBTQ+ Identity Formation

Recently, Ben Blankenship, P.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, published a piece of empirical research with Dr. Abigail J. Stewart on LGBTQ identity in The European Journal of Social Psychology, as a part of a larger special issue on the social psychology of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The research article, titled The best little kid in the world: Internalized sexual stigma and extrinsic contingencies of self-worth, work values, and life aspirations among men and womenexplores how many lesbians and gay men develop a drive to be successful in extrinsic pursuits (e.g. money, status, appearance, etc.), as a result of a defensive strategy that they likely learned at a young age.

Since they learn that others may reject them at any point as a result of coming out, they learn to not rely on the acceptance of others as a way to feel good about themselves (what we called “contingencies of self-worth” in psychology), instead learning to rely on aspects that are seen as within their own control, such as their achievement in their career, their ability to gain high status, or their drive to earn financial resources, as a way to feel good about themselves.

This tendency was found to be driven by internalized stigma, or the tendency for some gay men and lesbians to feel negatively about their sexual orientation, as a result of the larger society’s negative attitudes toward their marginalized group.

Dr. Benjamin T. Blankenship

Drs. Blankenship and Stewart explore how internalized sexual stigma and extrinsic contingencies affect the path gays, lesbians, and bisexuals take in their lives. “The study looked at how LGB folks identify with their sexual minority identity, and then how that translates it to their values and things that they want to get out of their work, their life, etc.,” says Blankenship.

The findings lined up with a previous study by the name of “The Best Little Boy in the World Hypothesis” looked at gay men and why they felt driven to excel in achievement related areas of life that others could not take away from them; for example of this individual success, wealth, education, and appearance are all things that they may strive to exceed expectations in. 

What Dr. Blankenship wanted to explore was twofold; the first aspect looked at if this phenomenon was true for anyone in the LGB community, not just gay men, and the second was the mechanism in which this psychological process happens. To do so, he looked at domains of internalized stigma or “the extent to which sexual minorities feel negatively about their sexual orientation status.” Through this he found that this was true not only for gay men, but lesbians and especially bisexuals. He theorizes this might be because, “bisexual people kind of have this dual stigma. In mainstream society, they get marginalized for their  same sex orientation, and same sex attraction. But within the LGBT community, they get marginalized for their opposite sex attraction.”

But further research needs to be done because there are many bidirectional influences that play a role in why this could be. Furthermore, he discusses the need for transgender inclusive research. While he does not comment on a hypothesis for what might be found within this community, he does stress the need for inclusivity in all aspects of research. While he did not have the scope to attain data for anyone outside of the binary, when participants that did not identify as a man or woman were included in the original data, there were no differences found in the results. 

When asked about his own research team and how that played a role throughout the process he talks about how important inclusion is: “ I legitimately think if I don't have certain experiences on the team, I'm going to miss something important.”

Dr. Blankenship stresses how vital it is for research and for representation to be present for all of the communities being looked at. Additionally he talks about the effect discussing this with his students has had. The students really like the approach of the study. And they like some of the more nuanced things where they have discussions in the lab and they disagree. Is it something that's a problem? Or is it something that needs to be evaluated?

And these questions carry outside of the current research leading into new ideas of interest that can then be explored more in-depth. So this research is really important, not just from a psychological perspective to better understand how these things work but for learning and life experience. Blankenship shares an experience he had after a presentation at a conference where people engage how “that makes total sense. Like it clicked for me, you know, that's why I'm pursuing a PhD.” 

And for a lot of people LBTQ+ this sentiment probably resonates close to home. It’s something that is almost never at the forefront of the mind, but an unconscious pattern a lot of us share. It’s comforting knowledge knowing that it is a commonality but it also begs the question of why is it that society does this or is allowed to do so to an entire marginalized group of people. But perhaps that’s another study to be done another day.

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