For a group of people bonded over a shared stigma, the gay community does an awful lot of stigmatizing itself. All those maxims about pride and self-acceptance can obscure the fact that the world of gay men is a cruelly stratified place. Muscly, toned men perch atop the hierarchy, with twinks—thin, hair-free, boyish men—just below them. Then come the bears, those gruff, hirsute fellows who are traditionally masculine in every way except the one. Then, at the bottom of the ladder, lies the rest—those gays with too much fat to cut it at the top, and not enough furry virility to make it in the middle. Behold: the fat gay men.
In his lively (and fabulously titled) Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma, Jason Whitesel, a gender studies professor at Pace University, attempts to rescue these guys from the bottom of the homosexual heap, to decidedly mixed results. Billed as an ethnographic study, Fat Gay Men is as much a semi-comic romp as it is an academic treatise. It’s also more than a little sad. The fat gay men described in Fat Gay Men are tired of being ostracized by their communities—so they decide to ostracize themselves instead. In an attempt to escape the stigma of corpulence, fat gay men wear it as a badge of honor. These efforts lead to some great parties and, apparently, some great sex. But reading about them also leaves you with a sharp sense of melancholy.
Whitesel’s book focuses primarily on Girth and Mirth, a nationwide social club of fat men who hang out with each other to dodge the stressful expectations of the larger gay community. One passage tracking different men’s paths to Girth and Mirth is startlingly moving. One man joined the day he was diagnosed with HIV; another stumbled across an ad for the club while looking for a suicide hotline number. Not every Girth and Mirther, of course, emerged from such dire straits; some merely wanted to socialize without fretting about their bodies. Many—perhaps most; here, Whitesel plays irritatingly coy—just want to have sex.
Still, a common thread beyond body fat unites the men of Girth and Mirth. When describing themselves, most use the term “outcast.” Twinks write them off as slobs; bears dismiss them as overly femme. By Whitesel’s telling, much of their time together is spent commiserating over their status as quasi-pariahs. Even their Super Weekend at the Cabana—a yearly festival for “big men”—is equal parts sex party and group therapy. The Super Weekend features both a scat room (Google it, though maybe not at work) and heartfelt talks about body acceptance. “Chubby chasers,” thin men with a taste for fat ones, sneak in and fetishize the Girth and Mirthers. At breakfast, everyone talks about how good it feels to be fetishized.
Then the fat gay men go home—and the troubles start again. Twinks and bears ignore them at bars; the upper echelon of beauties barely acknowledge their existence. Feelings of doubt and sorrow creep in around the edges. At gay pride parades, Girth and Mirthers draw an equal amount of cheers and jeers. So the fat gay men ghettoize themselves further, sticking to their own clubs and bars, remaining largely invisible, cordoned off from the gay community at large. Some big men grow bitter from their social seclusion and traduce their more toned brethren; Whitesel describes one glum meeting where a Girth and Mirther sourly condemns thin gay men as hollow, coke-snorting party animals. For some fat gay men, self-acceptance is a zero-sum game.
Not all fat gay men are resentful of fit ones, and not all fit gay men are condescending toward fat ones. But Whitesel touches on a real problem: Many gay men put a shockingly high premium on looks. Most pride parades are populated by unbelievably sexy gym bunnies in skimpy attire; a typical gay bar will feature a mind-boggling number of bulging biceps and rippling abs. It’s a tough market out there for an average-looking guy, let alone a tubby one. And if you can’t slip through the bear escape hatch, you’re bound to wind up a bit aggrieved.
There’s a strange irony in all this. By coming out, gay people have already thrown off the shackles of societal expectations in so many ways, defying gender roles, sex stereotypes, and sexual conformity. So why, after freeing themselves from these conventional traps, do gay men create a whole new set of stringent standards to hold each other to—standards largely cadged from heterosexual society?
Whitesel is not the first person to note this odd phenomenon. In midcentury America, where homosexuality was still considered a disorder to be treated and cured, psychologists waxed theoretical about gay men’s predilection toward personal fitness. For many alleged professionals, this inclination was proof that homosexuality was really just an especially perverted form of narcissism and that gay men were obsessed with becoming beautiful because they were obsessed with, and attracted to, themselves. In the infamous 1967 CBS documentary The Homosexuals, Albert Goldman, an English professor at Columbia University, told Gore Vidal that homosexuality was “a more narcissistic, more self-indulgent … more self centered and essentially adolescent lifestyle.”
As charted in Charles Kaiser’s great The Gay Metropolis, this explanation eventually morphed into a slightly less insulting form: The notion that gay men were so shallow that they cared only about physical beauty. Although that concept has also fallen out of mainstream view, there remains throughout much of America a belief that gay men are vainer than their straight counterparts, perhaps because of their ostensibly feminine tendencies. The belief is legitimized and, indeed, celebrated on TV shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; pop culture often depicts gay men’s vanity as a feature, not a bug, a charming corrective to straight men’s slovenliness. Gay men, pop culture tells us, are obsessed with personal appearance, especially fitness—and straight dudes could learn a thing or two from them!
Yes, for reasons that remain totally unclear, many gay men do put a disproportionate amount of effort into personal appearance. But the stereotype has also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Younger gay men think they must have perfect bodies because everyone expects them to have perfect bodies. This leads to predictable consequences: Gay men have a distressingly high rate of anorexia and are more likely than straight women to have an eating disorder. That’s a dark side of the quest for the six-pack, the one you never hear about during the fleshy revelries of a pride parade.
In one sense, then, the fat gay men of Fat Gay Men are lucky: Their willingness to embrace their fatness means they’ve wriggled out of the body image bear traps that ensnare so many. But there’s no point in outwardly celebrating your body if you still harbor jealousy of your fitter brethren, as so many fat gay men in Whitesel’s book seem to. What we see here is the inevitable discontent of a stratified community, with the lower strata basically displeased with their lot but unwilling to smash the hierarchy altogether. By boldly trumpeting their own corpulence, the fat gay men of Whitesel’s book want to challenge the norms of their community. Too bad their community doesn’t want to hear what they have to say.
Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma by Jason Whitesel. NYU Press.