These days, I’m weighing in 235 pounds. Ouch.
As a gay man that sentence hurts to write. I’m no muscle-bound, steroid-enhanced Chelsea beefalo, so that means I’m packing some extra poundage around the waist—not exactly the ideal body type in our gym-obsessed homo culture.
But even as I rue the loss of my more slender pre-30-something physique and make elaborate plans for dieting and an exercise regimen, I must admit that I have always had a fascination with the intricately calibrated fat man.
The Falstaffian “mountain of flesh” with the nimble mind and effete tastes has a long history among gay men. The archetype of course is Wilde whose appetites famously betrayed him even as he thrust his protruding opinions and desires forward into polite society as a mocking challenge, a gauntlet of fleshy provocations thrown down.
The mostly closeted Charles Laughton played numerous “heavies” in film, but best represented the gay fatty as he alternated between the twin poles of the type—the supposedly sexless comic commentator standing slightly to the side and the tortured grotesque swinging from the bell rope of the cathedral to drown out the mocking cries and the pain of unrequited love.
In our own time, it was the incredible Divine, the lamented muse of Baltimore, who embodied our desires to be at once both flawed and fabulous. She took society’s repulsion and spat it back in its face, making a virtue out of vulgarity. All this and 370 pounds crammed into cha cha heels. Oh, mama!
There is indeed an inherent femininity in fat. Fat tissue produces estrogen—did you know?—but more than that, a fat queer is feminized by his exclusion from the gay male culture of desire. The body armor of the steroid queen is amassed as a protection against accusations of weakness and as a statement of virility. It has as its counterpart the rolls of flesh that act as a moveable fortification to mediate between a sensitive individual and the dangerous world.
The straight fat men are a related breed. But Fatty Arbuckle, Jackie Gleason, Orson Welles, and late Brando all were known for outsized appetites for sexual conquest. The gay fat man must hide his libidinal energy if he wants to maintain his position as welcome mascot.
It’s funny that all my examples are actors, but fat is an irremovable mask and by its very nature a performance. It is public and undeniably evident to all with eyes to see, both a curiosity and a conundrum. Look how big he is! Will he be able to get up? Can he manage sex at all?
Certainly, it is unhealthy to tax one’s heart and other organs with excess weight. And certainly many heavy gay men endure great emotional pain from the sense of exclusion experienced externally and an internal sense of lack of control over their food intake.
Fat is failure in gaydom, as to be gay was itself once seen as a failure, a shameful condition perpetuated by moral weakness. The exception to this, of course, is the bear culture which fetishizes the extra flesh and creates an alternative narrative of masculinity around girth. But these bears rarely congregate except in their own caves and watering holes and remain an infrequently visited subculture of our kind.
Ultimately, all fat men become philosophers. They develop compensatory skills of empathy and of wit. They channel their rage into the perfect zinger or the provision of puppy-eyed consolation. These are the sublimations of the gay man writ extra-extra-large, so to speak, exaggerated by increased mass and weighed down by greater density of experience and emotion.
So, while I may wince at the number on the scale, in these days where gay identity seems more and more to mean less and less, I will celebrate our fatties and what they long to put in their mouths.