Review of Fat Gay Men by Jason Whitesel

While we expect marginalized peoples to band together towards a common fight for universal liberties as a result of their shared stigmatizations, minorities are often splintered further as people embody multiple “deviant” identities. In this way, those who are both African American and asexual, lower class and lesbian, or Muslim and paraplegic confront ostracism not only from their race, class, and religion, but also from their sexual and disabled peers. As Jason Whitesel exposes in Fat Gay Men, the same can be said for homosexual men, facing heteronormative isolation, who are fat, confronting more stigma still within the gay community

In fact, America’s preoccupation with weight as a measure of worth, sexuality, and capability is so pervasive that overweight, gay men created a niche community separate from their skinny gay counterparts in pursuit of much-desired comfort, sexual freedom, resignification, and normalcy. Jason Whitesel analyzes, through his own personal research, discussed in Fat Gay Men, how society injures big, gay men and, in turn, how they respond to their isolation. More importantly, however, Whitesel observes and comments on how the “Girth and Mirthers”, members of the fat gay society he studies, redefine what it means to be chubby and homosexual to reflect value as opposed to worthlessness.

Whitesel, who also identifies as gay (but thin), is a sociologist who earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 2009. Now, while writing to incite intersectional interventions that expose the multiple layers of stigma existent in American society, he works as an Assistant Professor at Pace University. His work as an LGBTQ educator has earned him status as 2016’s LGBTQA Educator of the Year, for his tireless devotion to guiding students’ introspective analyses of their own privileges and powers relative to others has sparked change in the minds of our youth. Through Fat Gay Men, Whitesel extends his instruction to the general public, working to undermine the conventional wisdoms equating fat with disease and homosexuality with deviancy.

Before delving into the research Whitesel conducted, he finds it essential to discuss his methodology. Unlike a controlled scientific experiment, in which a researcher manipulates an independent variable and controls for all others in an effort to draw conclusions about the effects of a treatment on a test subject, Whitesel conducts an observational, ethnographic analysis of a society he becomes a part of. Not only does he study the Girth and Mirthers, as they are so affectionately and proudly named, he becomes a “dues-paying member” serving “functional roles” for the group, all the while divulging his researcher status to fellow members (Whitesel 4). As a result, his dual role as participator and investigator allowed him entry into many private lives, earned him companionship and friendship, and thus shaped the nature of his findings; he listened and empathized with honest confessions of hardship and shame, donning both his researcher and friend caps simultaneously.

Once Whitesel commits himself to his readers as both an objective observer and loyal confidante to the Girth and Mirther community, he sets the stage for the direction of the rest of the study. With conviction and transparency, Whitesel promises to “lend legitimacy” to the Girth and Mirth culture placing fat studies in direct communication with disability and sexuality studies over the course of his analysis (5). For, it is the intersectional nature of the various stigmas attributed to fat gay men that drove his study in the first place. Then he sections the feast of knowledge accumulated over the course of his three-year immersion into the fat gay community into five, bite-sized chunks and delves into each chapter in turn.

First, Whitesel defines the term Girth and Mirth, which will be discussed at great length throughout the study. The name in and of itself attempts to reconfigure the shame productive power dynamics produce within fat gay subjects; in laymen’s terms, the phrase means fat and happy–two ideas heteronormative persons rarely join hand in hand. Thus, the fat gay men who join together under the Girth and Mirth umbrella seek or already identify with the sentiment of happiness not always in spite of, but often as a result of, their weights. Why? The Girth and Mirth society provides large homosexual men with a make-shift kin, complete with coffee-groups, pot-luck dinners, and life-long friendships that help these doubly marginalized men confront and alleviate shame. Moreover, the group “draws big gay men out of social isolation” through multiple community-based activities, offering the men a sense of membership and inclusion they never experienced before (Whitesel, 10). Through testimonials, Whitesel supports the above claims with evidence that, indeed, the Girth and Mirth community provides members with sanctuary, society, and family—three facets of social interaction essential to human survival and prosperity.

Next Whitesel backtracks, discussing the various injustices dealt to the big gay men who ultimately seek the Girth and Mirth membership discussed in the previous chapter, ranging from desexualization and dehumanization to “marginalization and shame” (29). In the same ethnographic style as before, Whitesel employs testimonials to provide evidence for the institutionalized discrimination against fat gay men. Some of the systemic wrong-doings include denying health care to overweight, gay patients and, in a Pretty Woman-esque scenario, denying service to overweight, gay customers. For example, one man describes walking into a retail store and failing to flag down a sale’s rep. Despite his efforts, he appeared “invisible” to the salesmen, for fat is often equated with sloppy and poor; how could a man with such disregard for his appearance afford much less desire a crisp, clean suit (Whitesel, 30). Only when dressed in business attire did this large man receive the service he deserved. In this way, Whitesel not only frames the plight of fat gay men, but he illustrates it in such visceral detail his readers are left cringing with embarrassment as they empathize with the overweight customer.

Nonethelesss, Whitesel notes how this sort of fat-profiling often causes more pain when the source is a member of the gay community. For, when gay, fat men seek refuge from the discrimination they face from heteronormative society on the basis of their sexuality, the majority of gay men turn them away, only seeing “‘a bunch of big guys’” (Whitesel, 35). This experience of feeling fat and simultaneously unattractive is one heterosexual women have grappled with for decades. However, Whitesel notes once more how fat, gay men cannot commiserate and work through their shame with heterosexual female counterparts on account of their sexual deviancies. Thus, Whitesel structures the true plight of two-fold marginalization that inevitably relegates fat, gay men to the furthest outskirts of society, and forces readers to understand how and why the Girth and Mirth community came to be.

Over the course of the next two chapters, Whitesel compares and contrasts two national Girth and Mirth events not only in their structure, but in their methods of resignifying fat, gay shame. Every year, fellow Girth and Mirthers look forward to two fat, gay holidays: the Super Weekend and Convergence, with the former occurring in July and the latter over Labor Day weekend. While the Super Weekend is known for its “campy queer” events, which depend on sexual absurdity and perversion to re-establish fat, homosexual men as attractive, Convergence relies on organized programming dedicated to the imitation of “high class” so as to “raise their own status” (Whitesel, 93). In this manner, both events share the same goal: to redefine what it means to be fat and gay. However, the events tend to attract slightly different demographics due to the different methods they employ to achieve a higher social status. While Super Weekend guests partake in casual sexual encounters and perverse sexual performances, Convergence attendees work within the framework of heteronormative society, visiting museums and sculpture gardens in order to emulate skinny, straight peers. Thus, Whitesel’s experiences at both conventions were quite different, but the sentiment he observed and reported upon was the same: an overall desire for inclusion, value, and sexual validity.

Finally, Whitesel discusses alternative methods for coping with shame. Thus far, he discussed how many choose to perform their bodies while others seek status through emulation of the elite, but still others manage their personal shame discourses simply by “weathering” the storm (Whitesel, 111). As Whitesel notes, many fat, gay men meet with their local Girth and Mirth chapters and engage in family-style dinners to escape the ostracism they would otherwise face alone in public. Others choose to confront their shame, with one man submitting nude photos of himself to a magazine in order to deconstruct his body discomfort and replace it with body appreciation (Whitesel, 112). This narrative is important as it acknowledges the tendency of many fat gay men to have a second “coming out”—as fat (Whitesel, 111) .

Those who read Fat, Gay Men will note how Whitesel adequately places his own findings in conversation with other established authors and academics in fat studies, sexuality studies, and disability studies. For example, in Chapter 1, Whitesel not only puts Erving Goffman, an academic expert in stigma, and Eriche Goode, a sociologist specializing in social deviance, in conversation with himself, but in conversation with each other. He demonstrates how Goode’s comment on the tendency of “normals” to “focus on a negative trait” directly plays into Goffman’s concept of “nonperson treatment”, which describes the tendency for heteronormative folk to treat stigmatized people as though they do not exist (Whitesel, 31). Then, he relates both concepts to the experience of the Girth and Mirther who is refused service at a retail store as a direct consequence of his size and appearance, connecting key concepts of disability studies, as obese folk are deemed incapable and undesirable, with fat studies.

Nonetheless, Whitesel’s study design carries a key flaw: his role as an honest researcher and disguised participant switched throughout the three-year investigation. While Whitesel was open with his local Girth and Mirth chapter and attendants at Convergence of his status as a researcher, he concealed that valuable information from participants at the Super Weekend, which may have changed the nature of his conversations with various fat, gay men. For example, while Super Weekenders might have felt comfortable engaging in sexual play with Whitesel, assuming he was one of their own, Convergence attendees might have engaged in more reserved interactions with Whitesel for fear of judgement and perpetuation of the shame discourse that propelled them towards the Girth and Mirthers in the first place. The nature of power dynamics is such that we inherently act differently towards members of authority than others within our own class. Thus, it is entirely possible Whitesel’s encounters with fat, gay men at Convergence were skewed, such that he only saw their efforts to achieve sophisticated class while casual, campy interactions were occurring behind the scenes. Standardization of Whitesel’s behavior may be deemed necessary in order for his findings to merit validity.

Despite his design flaws, Whitesel’s commitment to the Girth and Mirth community over the course of three years merits his findings, in Fat Gay Men, praise, for he engaged with these men for an extended period of time, developing relationships with a few and interacting on a personal level with many. The use of Girth and Mirther testimonials to engage fat studies with sexuality and disability studies was a powerful choice that inherently evokes empathy in Whitesel’s readers, despite their background; while some readers may not be gay, they might identify with weight struggles and the pursuit of an unrealistic skinny goal perpetuated by American media. In this way, Whitesel’s book serves beginners in the fat studies and sexuality studies realms, for his clear, conversational speak welcomes all readers, effectively opening the door to changing dominant heteronormative ideologies. Thus, Whitesel’s piece inherently promotes change, if not in one’s treatment towards marginalized peoples, at least in their understanding of intersectional stigmatization. This newfound understanding serves many as an ideological stepping stone towards altering the productive discourses of shame that have ruled American society into the present, deconstructing the monolith regarding homosexuality as deviant and fat as worthless.

Works Cited

Whitesel, Jason. Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. New York:        NYU Press, 2014. Print.