Are Gay Men Less Stressed Because They Don’t Have to Prove They’re Straight?

A surprising study, a popular sex writer, and a daring hypothesis.

A recent study published in Psychosomatic Medicine suggests that gay men who are out of the closet have consistently lower stress levels, as measured by stress hormones in the body, than heterosexual men. This is one of those wonderful studies where scientists get to say “contrary to our expectations”, the phrase that often denotes the discovery of useful new information. It does, however, leave the scientists groping for an explanation for this interesting new data.

Veteran sex advice columnist Dan Savage has an explanation he believes fits the facts well:

So long as you’re into dudes and out about it, no one wonders if you might be secretly straight. A guy who comes out as queer is consequently free to do pretty much whatever and whoever he wants. He can be as butch or femme as he wants to be. Are you interested in stereotypically gay things like fashion, art, and musicals? Go for it, cocksucker. Are you interested in stereotypically straight things like football, baseball, and basketball? Go for it, cocksucker. You’re free.

Straight guys aren’t nearly as free—sexually speaking, I mean. Yes, yes: Straight guys run the world, the bastards, but when it comes to sexual identity, straight guys are pretty screwed. And this is because male straightness is defined by two negatives: To be a straight guy means (1) not being a girl and (2) not being a fag.

I don’t know any gay guys who worry that people don’t think they’re gay. But I get letters every day from straight guys who are not only worried that people might not think they’re straight, they themselves are worried that they’re not straight.

This is an interesting theory. It seems like a rather thin and performative notion to explain such a consistent finding, but it’s got a certain evocative quality. After all, one of the key differences between male heterosexuality and homosexuality is that the former is perceived as fragile.

The old joke that everyone laughs at and takes completely seriously: “You can fuck all the girls you want, but you suck one dick and you’re gay forever.” Everyone’s heard it, everyone knows it. And as Mr. Savage points out, it does not work in reverse. Once you’ve sucked that one dick, nothing else you do matters.

Think about what a blissfully liberating, stress-relieving phrase that is: nothing else you do matters. Imagine if you could apply that phrase to one aspect of your life or another. Work, family, money, love, sex, whatever causes you stress. Imagine if you knew, for a fact, that with regard to that issue, nothing you did from now on would matter any more. Would that reduce your blood cortisol levels to a statistically significant degree?

I’m not saying Mr. Savage’s theory is entirely correct. It’s an unsupported hypothesis that may ring emotionally true, but I’d like to see some more hard data before we start trying to rest weight on it. I think, though, that it’s a good place to start looking.

What do you think? Is Savage just looking for an explanation that suits his own worldview? Do you worry about the security of your sexuality? Do you think the original study might be flawed?



About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. I think it’s important to note here that gay men face incredible violence and discrimination for their sexuality, which is usually also a punishment for their gender expression. So do straight men, if they don’t conform. I think gender norm discrimination affects both parties.

  2. I think that heterosexual men are a bad control group.

    To come out as gay you have to be relatively comfortable and confident about yourself.

    Some hetrosexual men would be out gay, if they were gay.
    Some hetrosexual men would be in the closet, if they were gay.

    By removing all of the guys who aren’t in a safe enough position to come out of the closet, you reduce the average stress level in your sample.

  3. I’m guessing the have more regular and fulfilling sex lives than a lot of straight men. A large percentage of straight men are trapped in sexless marriages, of course they’re stressed. Also the gay men and couples I know are generally self sufficient with their own jobs and careers. About half the married guys I know are constantly stressing about taking care of their families and making enough money to keep their non-working wives happy. Heck I even see married couples where both are working, but the wife constantly comes home with stories of how her friend’s husband makes enough money to afford to do this or that, so why can’t we?

  4. People comfy with their sexuality are probably more relaxed. People that find a partner are probably more relaxed. I am a straight guy that doesn’t give 2 shits if people think I am gay, as long as the women I am into know I am into them and want to date them. They’ll figure out that I’m not gay soon enough, but it doesn’t really matter what others think as long as I can still date women fine. I’d only be annoyed if it harmed my chances of getting a date with women but I highly doubt most people would think me as gay anyway. I don’t see a point for straight men in worrying about only being seen straight, you know what you are and your partner/s will know too.

  5. “This is one of those wonderful studies where scientists get to say “contrary to our expectations”, the phrase that often denotes the discovery of useful new information”

    Why is this ‘wonderful’ because it is ‘contrary’? I would say that I would have been stunned to read a different conclusion after seeing the title. There really is only one acceptable view now, and we should be very careful about confusing hard science with the demands of sociology, cultural trends and the zeitgeist.

  6. One study doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Drawing any sort of wide conclusions from a single study is kind of ridiculous.

    Savage does touch on the fragility of a socially privileged position (straight guy…also whiteness, able-bodiness), but I think it’s far too simple an explanation for different stress levels. It’s attempting to take a very complicated biological condition (stress) and a very complicated set of cultural conditions (social privilege, performativity of gender/sexuality, etc)…and boil it down into a simple cause-effect relationship. Doesn’t work.

    Finally, though, Savage’s take on the freedom queer men have from performing their gender/sexuality, is kind of wrong. Especially as homosexuality has become more and more mainstream, there is now more and more pressure to perform that correctly too. You can’t be “to gay,” or “too feminine,” or risk ridicule. Now it’s certainly true that there is MORE freedom if you’re out of the closet and less pressure to perform masculinity and straightness…but it is by no means gone.


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