Originally published in The Village Voice, June 19, 2007.
Big Girls, Don't Cry
The fight for the right to be fat, queer, and proud.
At first glance, the scene at the Surfside Grill, with its windows overlooking the Asbury Park, New Jersey, beachfront, could be any high school prom. The 50 or so guests, wearing formal gowns and tuxedoes, have just finished a buffet dinner—salmon, pasta, and salad—and are taking pictures of each other in front of the restaurant windows. On closer inspection, though, this isn’t your typical prom, nor are these your typical promgoers. Just look at what’s happening under the rainbow-balloon trellis, where Theresa Meire, a chubby 29-year-old woman dressed in a tuxedo T-shirt and blue jeans, is selling raffle tickets. For five dollars, people can get a “body wrap,” and women happily come up to let her circle their breasts, or waists, in tickets. The catch: the greater the women’s girth, the greater their chances of winning one of the evening’s prizes, including sex products, a wine sleeve, or the title of Prom King or Queen. One woman, breasts spilling out of a bright red evening gown, buys four wraps and emerges with 10 feet of tickets.
Welcome to My Big Fat Queer Prom, a celebration of body size and sexuality. Here, the words “fat” and “queer” aren’t pejoratives, they’re statements of purpose. The prom-attendees’ ages range from the teens to the fifties and the crowd is composed almost exclusively of women. Everywhere you turn, there is soft flesh—large tummies and rolling cleavage—cheerfully on display. For some of the women, who’ve spent lifetimes ostracized for their size, or their sexual orientation, or both, tonight is an opportunity to experience the prom they never had. For others, it’s just a chance to have fun.
On the dancefloor, Sharonmelissa Robertson, wearing a top made of duct tape, grinds with Miasia, a burlesque dancer. Robertson made her shiny outfit, held together by string, especially for this party. Justin Timberlake blares on a boombox. The crowd jumps and heaves.
My Big Fat Queer Prom is a benefit for NOLOSE, formerly known as the National Organization for Lesbians of Size. For NOLOSE members, fatness is an identity to be redeemed, celebrated, and flaunted. Let the rest of America panic over the obesity epidemic. For this new wave of radical queers, fat activism just makes sense. “Previous to the last 10 years there were other struggles,” says Chelsey Lichtman, a member of the Fat Femme Mafia performance group. “Now, fat is another identity that queer is making OK.”
It’s common knowledge that Americans are getting fatter. We’re reminded of this by an endless parade of media reports and medical statistics. According to the most recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control, two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Of those, one-third are fat enough to be fully obese.
Even as official concern about obesity grows, the so-called “size acceptance” community has organized its own countermovement. Since the ’60s, groups like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance have been fighting “fat-phobia” and advocating for fat people’s rights. In 2001, San Francisco passed legislation making it illegal to discriminate based on body size, and in academic settings, fat studies—a close relative of queer studies—are gaining popularity. In 2006, the first Fat and the Academy Conference at Smith College attracted nearly 150 participants.
Lesbians, in particular, have good reason to concern themselves with fatness. In a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from Boston University and the University of Western Ontario claimed that lesbians are more than twice as likely as straight women to be overweight.
“We don’t have the data to find out why that is,” says Ulrike Boehmer, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University and an author of the study. Lesbians seem to be at higher risk for a wide range of health problems, ranging from depression to polycystic ovarian syndrome and some forms of cancer. But Boehmer says it’s hard to get funding for research into what’s causing the diseases or their effect on lesbian health.
Surely some, if not most, of the obesity among lesbians is the direct result of eating too much and exercising too little. And what of it, say the fat activists. As an outgrowth of the feminist movement, lesbian activism has often questioned conventional body politics, embracing butchness and fatness more openly than straight culture. “The fat movement is an extension of the queer movement,” says Lichtman. “It’s about fighting for the rights of people who live outside the bubble of normal.”
But while many fat, hirsute gay men have found acceptance in bear culture, queer women are now only beginning to organize a female equivalent. The bear community, which rejects the conventional gay male aesthetic of buff, hairless bodies, has traditionally favored a scruffier, heavy look. Bears have a thriving bar scene—with bear bars like the Dugout in the West Village and Big Lug on Avenue A—but the subculture operates primarily as a social group.
“Gay male communities that center around fatness tend to be apolitical,” says Kathleen LeBesco, Marymount Manhattan College professor and author of Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity. “Whereas lesbian groups tend to be highly politicized.”
On a Thursday night at the Delancey, seven blocks south of Big Lug, a different form of fat expression is on display. At midnight, the dancefloor is packed. Drag queens, rail-thin Williamsburg hipsters, and downtown professionals are sweating to the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.”
Above them, on a low stage, Glenn Marla, one of the party’s go-go dancers, strikes a pose—lips pouting, arms raised, legs akimbo—and stares across the crowd. Marla is a sight to behold: 300 pounds of curly-haired androgyny, slathered in pink glitter and makeup, and clad in a ripped T-shirt, fishnet stockings, and a pink, bouncing strap-on dildo. His considerable belly extends unashamedly over a rhinestone fanny-pack.
New York’s self-proclaimed “Hottest Fat Queer Go-Go,” Marla, who was born female, does fat-themed performances at venues around New York City. For a recent Hanukkah-themed show at the Cock, the 23-year-old lit a candle in his ass and cajoled the crowd into doing the hora.
Marla wasn’t always this comfortable with his body. Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, he has battled an eating disorder since his early teens. Eventually, his weight reached 500 pounds. Auditioning for theater school in Manhattan, he knew his outsize size was on people’s minds. “I was too fat, even, to play the fat girl,” he says.
Daily life in New York posed other challenges. People on the street called him names. On the subway, mothers would point him out to their children and say, “If you don’t stop eating, you’re going to end up like that.” He dreaded job interviews. “I wouldn’t wish my experiences on anybody,” he says.
Then, in 2003, he stumbled on a call for performers at Jiggle-O, a cabaret benefit for NOLOSE. At the benefit, after dancing to “I Am What I Am,” by Gloria Gaynor, he stripped off his clothes and, for the first time, stood onstage completely naked. “It was like a second coming out,” he says.
After his performance, a few of the audience members approached him. “They were like, ‘Oh my God, you need to come to NOLOSE,’” he says, and, that summer, with financial help from the organizers, he attended his first-ever NOLOSE conference. A weekend gathering of fat queers, with workshops, social events, and vendors selling fat-themed products, the conference set him on the path to becoming a fat- activist. “It was life changing,” he says.
Dot Nelson-Turnier founded the group that became NOLOSE specifically for fat queer women in 1999. The first conference, which took place in a New Jersey hotel, drew approximately 50 women—many of them “supersize” or disabled by their size.
These days, the annual NOLOSE conference attracts nearly 150 queer women and trans men from across the country and the group’s mailing list has 800 subscribers. Among the conference offerings are seminars on grassroots activism and workshops on belly love. “Loving your belly,” says Marla, “is a hard thing for people.”
For some, the NOLOSE conference offers a first-ever chance to feel sexy. “I was always more of a slob in school,” confides Meire. “I was never hot.” Now she’s a regular attendee, with particularly fond memories of the pool party. “Every year everybody gets naked,” she says.
Others are drawn by the politics. “I’d politicized just about any kind of identity, oppression or issue,” says Zoe Meleo-Erwin, one of the group’s board members. Then her ex-girlfriend encouraged her to attend a NOLOSE meeting. “It totally fucked up my mind,” she says. Now she’s one of five people planning the group’s first West Coast conference.
While some members of the group are critical of the very idea of “health,” claiming that it merely gives thin people an excuse to judge fat people, others argue that health and fat shouldn’t be considered mutually exclusive. “There are fat unhealthy people and there are skinny unhealthy people,” says Leah Strock, a former board member and a nurse practitioner in Manhattan, “but not every fat person is unhealthy.”
Tonda L. Hughes, a professor at the College of Nursing and School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written extensively about lesbian health, thinks Strock has the right idea. “Some people can be overweight and healthy,” she says, “but not everybody.” It’s important for the community to accept different body sizes, Hughes argues, but also to remember that for many people obesity carries real health risks, including diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac disease.
Some members of the queer community are also offended by comparisons between fatness and queerness. “That’s like saying the gay rights movement makes adultery or doing drugs OK,” argues Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of Outsports.com, a gay and lesbian sports website. Zeigler worries about rising health-care costs. “Everyone has a responsibility to everyone else to stay healthy,” he says.
Many NOLOSE attendees, however, argue that queers have a responsibility to question the status quo. “I think that anybody who has faced discrimination should be a bit more sensitive to it,” says Strock. She wants to encourage doctors to start taking fat people’s medical issues more seriously, and stop tying all of their ailments—from in-grown toenails to stomach pains—to their weight. “Imagine you went to a medical appointment,” she says, “and they blamed everything on the fact that you were gay.”
Back at the Prom, Meire is about to announce the Prom King and Queen. People fish out their tickets, balancing long loops of them on their laps. When the winning numbers are called, they sort through their piles of paper, frantically shuffling. An awkward silence stretches on.
Finally, Bevin Bermingham, a bodacious blonde from Jersey City, comes up to claim her Prom Queen crown. As the crowd cheers, Bermingham gives a prim wave, and, moments later, in a strange coincidence, Bevin’s real-life fiancé wins the title of Prom King to a smattering of applause. They are two of the handful of straight attendees at the Queer Prom. It’s not a terribly radical way to end the evening—with a straight King and Queen—but the surprising turn does little to dampen the crowd’s mood. Soon people are dancing again.
Eventually, Meleo-Erwin hopes, NOLOSE will expand beyond the existing conference and the prom. It already runs the annual Fat Girl Flea Market, a plus-size clothing sale at the Manhattan LGBT Center, and is hoping to do more parties. But Deb Malkin, who organizes the flea market, is skeptical that their community will ever become as prominent as that of the bears. “The commodification of bear culture is pretty brilliant,” says Malkin, “but women just don’t do it that way.”