It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat
I never had to come out as fat.
When you grow up overweight, everyone notices — not just your classmates, who are too young to have mastered the art of tact, but also friends’ parents and teachers. I knew I was fat because people told me I was fat, either directly (a slap to the stomach and an unkind word) or in subtler ways (having a teacher rifle through my lunch box and comment on the contents). I felt shame over my size long before I had any concept of my sexuality, and years after coming out as gay, I still feel anxious identifying as fat.
As an openly gay writer, one of the questions I’m asked most often is, “Were you bullied growing up?” And the answer is yes, but it’s never the answer they’re looking for. In many ways I was lucky to have come of age in a liberal enclave where my sexuality was accepted if not embraced. Oh, sure, I’ve had the word “faggot” hurled at me — and the sad truth is, I’d be shocked if a gay man hadn’t — but it was always secondary. The real source of my bullying was the extra weight I’ve carried since childhood. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been called a “faggot” to my face, but I couldn’t tell you how often someone has made a dig about my weight.
Outside of anonymous internet comments, the gay slurs have stopped almost entirely. Remarks about my weight, however, are a depressing constant.
I share this not for sympathy but for context. It’s an answer to the people who seem surprised when I explain that no, I was never really bullied for being gay, but instead got made fun of for being fat on a daily basis. They are open-minded progressives, and I appreciate their fixation on the way LGBT people are treated; obviously, I share their concern. But the treatment of overweight people is, for the most part, lost on them. And that’s largely because so many of my allies and fellow gay men championing equality — compassionate, forward-thinking individuals — are the same people delicately suggesting I lose some weight.
What it comes down to is good intentions. Call someone a gay slur and you’re homophobic. Use a racial slur and you’re a racist. But when you wonder out loud why I can’t just lose some weight, you’re looking out for me. At least, that’s the perception. The hurtful degradation becomes socially sanctioned, because being fat is considered to be innately wrong. The common understanding is that fatness is unhealthy and unnatural and always the fat person’s fault, despite the fact that science does not agree with these assessments. And suddenly, otherwise good people — those who are proud to not have a bigoted bone in their bodies — feel no shame in condemning us fatties. It’s not bigotry if we deserve it.
Being fat is never easy, but in the spirit of National Coming Out Week, I’m offering this potentially controversial perspective: As hard as it is to be gay, being fat and gay makes everything so much worse.
I was once told that coming out as a gay man was like being welcomed into the best club in the world. It was maybe an overstatement, but I understand the sentiment: When you first come out, you’re automatically granted inclusion — if not by friends and family, then by the gay community as a whole. They get it. They get you. And they’re eager to let you know that you’re not alone, and that you have a seat at the table. Unless, of course, you’re also fat, in which case, no, you can’t sit with us.
Certainly this isn’t true of all gay men: I’m speaking in generalities based on what I have experienced. There are, of course, gay men who don’t obsess over their weight or the weight of potential sexual partners. There are also those for whom going to the gym is not an activity to build one’s days around. But the stereotype of the gay obsession with body image and a six-pack is not unfounded. There is a widely held understanding that being gay means maintaining a certain standard of physical beauty, with very little room for deviation from the norm.
I can’t speak for all gay men, but I can tell you what I have faced as an overweight gay man. I can tell you that when I lost 15 pounds due to depression, a well-meaning older gay man told me I had done the right thing, because my only other option would have been to gain weight and become a bear. I can tell you that one person I tried to date helpfully offered, “You could be really attractive if you lost some weight.” And I can tell you that I deleted Grindr after one night when a stranger messaged me to let me know that if I shed a few pounds I “might actually be cute.”
It would be comforting to dismiss these as isolated incidents, but based on conversations with other gay men like me, I don’t think they’re all that unusual. The truth is, the gay community isn’t interested in embracing overweight people because we’re a blemish on the image of perfection. And much in the same way progressives as a whole can get away with ignoring anti-fat bigotry, gay men never bother examining the way they treat their overweight brothers. Ignore us or relegate us to the butt of hackneyed jokes: We just don’t matter. It doesn’t get better for us.
From the beginning, the “It Gets Better” campaign has been fairly criticized for its limited scope: Yes, it does get better, provided you’re an attractive, able-bodied white cisman. I want to be clear — it has gotten better for me since I came out. I don’t for a minute regret being an openly gay man, and I consider my life now to be a drastic improvement over life in the closet. At the same time, I can’t help but grimace at the “it gets better” trope for the way it glosses over so many problems within the gay community. Just because it gets marginally better doesn’t mean it ever gets good enough.
The internalized shame I feel about my weight is largely a credit to society, where all fat people are treated like second-class citizens. But adulthood should be about repairing those wounds and learning to love myself as I am. Instead, I’m surrounded by people who, despite having faced the same oppression I have as gay men, largely refuse to embrace me at my current size. The end result is that I’ve been out for nearly a decade, and I still feel like an outcast within the gay community. I wish I had faith in that getting better any time soon.