“Big gay men have an added exclusion,” contends Jason Whitesel, author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. “There is the exclusion that all gay people experience; then there is within-group prejudice big gay men experience because of their size.”
Antigay activists labeled Whitesel’s recent presentation of his research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as tantamount to a discussion on “how to sodomize overweight men.”
Queerty spoke with Whitesel about the protest and the persistent problem of fat-shaming within the gay community.
Queerty: Were you surprised to learn some people were spinning your recent UCSB presentation as a discussion on “how to sodomize overweight men”?
Jason Whitesel: I was indeed surprised that a UCSB student would use my book-talk as a platform to help him garner attention for his anti-LGBTQ beliefs. This individual spoke with a journalist from Campus Reform, a so-called “watchdog” organization for young conservative students. His assertion that I, as a queer scholar, teach others “how to sodomize,” is antigay hate speech, inflammatory and archaic. I am used to Internet trolls who attack me and especially the men I studied, in the comments section of articles featuring my work, but I must admit I was upset by neo-conservatives who glommed onto “sodomy” to denounce my talk as “morally questionable” in their eyes.
Despite those critics, how did the presentation go? Did you have any hecklers?
The presentation went off without a hitch. No hecklers, whatsoever. It has been my experience that those who make such homophobic comments usually do not attend these events, but make their remarks from the sidelines. Moreover, the students who attended were phenomenal; they were so engaged. We participated in such a vibrant Q&A that the event ran over the scheduled time.
What is the greatest struggle big gay men face today?
Big gay men constitute a multiply marginalized group, who feel stigmatized for their size and for their sexuality. Like women, gay men experience conflict with their appearance, physique and relationship to food more so than heterosexual men do. Since looks are one of the organizing features of the gay world, big gay men have an added exclusion. It is ironic that the worst injury inflicted upon gay big men is, in fact, coming from gay society.
Your book, Fat Gay Men, tackles this. What inspired you to write it?
As a gay man myself, and as a sociologist and professor of gender and sexuality studies, I have been disconcerted by body fascism in the gay community. When I conceived of the project, I was witnessing a gay scene full of fat-shaming and negative body talk. My initial idea was to see if I could find a group engaged in an alternative.
And that’s how you discovered Girth & Mirth, a social club specifically for big gay men. What was the most surprising thing you learned from meeting with them?
I was most surprised by the ordinariness of the group gatherings. There seemed to be nothing terribly revolutionary about the Girth & Mirthers. I thought I might have a failed project because everything the Girth & Mirthers did, like a potluck or a pool party, seemed so ordinary. I was worried that I was going to come away without much data worth writing about. Instead, what I learned over time was that what I had anticipated being a group of men protesting body fascism was actually simply a group trying to carve out an ordinary place for itself.
What else did you observe?
There is real joy in the group; there is mirth in Girth & Mirth. Its members are a positive, fun-loving bunch. More importantly, they resist the belief that they could be denied such fun because of their weight and size. Girth & Mirthers nurture one another’s joy in being fat and happy. Though they are constantly confronted with humiliation, they manage to sustain the integrity of their everyday lives, and they continue to look for creative responses to the stigma that comes with being fat and gay.
How do you respond to those who argue that there is no excuse for being fat and that fat people simply need to eat less and exercise more?
Big gay men are people too, and they deserve the same opportunity to get together and socialize. In fact, the need for a group like Girth & Mirth is, in part, related to the fact that people stigmatize them in those ways you mention. Typically, people reconfigure fat as a disease or deviance, such as when doctors medicalize it as “obesity” or when people say someone is “overweight,” meaning she or he has deviated from some ideal measurement. I guess I would say I have heard it all before, but still find myself getting agitated by people’s disparaging remarks about fat people or the pushback I have gotten from researching big gay men.
Lastly, why do you think fat-shaming and negative body talk persist? And what are the steps we can take to fixing the problem?
We presume the more physically fit someone is, the better a person one is. Frankly, I have no interest in parsing out “good” vs. “bad” fat people. A couch potato is a person just as worthy of respect, and the real question we are overlooking is: “Why do we hate fat people so much?”