Fat Gay Men and Female Ex-Prisoners


Sarah Arnold

April 9, 2015

Two RDCJN members, Jason Whitesel and Andrea Leverentz, have recently published ethnographic books that focus on how marginalized individuals reshape their identities to compensate for the social stigma that they face, and in a recent interview, I was able to ask both of them about their experiences researching and writing their new books. While Whitesel’s book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma and Leverentz’s book, The Ex-Prisoner's Dilemma: How Women Negotiate Completing Narratives of Reentry and Desistance study two very different populations, these two considered and enlightening books depict how big gay men and female ex-prisoners cope with their diminished social status and strive towards normality. This brief column about their work is followed by their full interviews, which provide greater insight into their experiences writing their books.

Fat Gay Men Book Cover

Jason Whitesel is an Assistant Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Pace University, and his book Fat Gay Men addresses how, in Whitesel’s words, fat gay men, who are “marginalized both for their sexual orientation in a heteronormative society and for their size in gay society… seek dignity and respect in the gay community.” In his book Whitesel analyzes his experience studying the men of Girth & Mirth, social club dedicated to big gay men, and explains how their many events, some over the top and some surprisingly mundane, help these men reshape their identities.

Ex Prisoners Book Cover

On the other hand, Leverentz, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at University of Massachusetts: Boston, studied a vastly different population in her book, The Ex-Prisoner's Dilemma. In her book, She describes what she learned through her interviews with women who had recently been released from prison. She describes how the women she interviewed are labeled as “bad women and bad mothers” and how they struggle to redefine themselves, despite the many barriers to employment and stable housing.

While fat gay men and female ex-prisoners are vastly different groups, they both deal with social stigma, but even more specifically both Leverentz and Whitesel witnessed how these women and men long for “normality”. In the interview with Leverentz she noted how many of the women sought to redefine their identities by being good workers, finding meaning in their work, becoming economically self-sufficient, and strengthening their relationships with family members. These women hoped that these steps would help them to become “normal,” even when the women were not sure what normal meant to them. Additionally “many of the women also felt out of place in “normal” situations, like college classes or work. They wanted to do these things and they strove for “normality,” but also felt uncomfortable, because of both real and perceived stigma and, in some cases, a lack of shared experiences.” Similarly Whitesel described how he was “surprised by the ordinariness of the group gatherings,” and realized that “there was nothing terribly revolutionary about the Girth & Mirthers.” He explained how he learned that the gatherings specifically for fat gay men, that he had “anticipated being a group reaction to body fascism, was actually just a group of men who were struggling to carve out an ordinary place for themselves.” Both female ex-prisoners and fat gay men have disadvantaged social statuses, and individuals from both groups yearn for the ideal of normality and attempt to reshape their identities to become more like what they perceive as normal.

As mentioned above, I had the pleasure of interviewing both Jason Whitesel and Andrea Leverentz about their recent books, and below are the full responses from their interviews. I would highly suggest reading through their testimony, because they address a variety of topics including the struggles and surprises they encountered during their research, as well as their future plans and their advice for young sociologists and criminologists.

Jason Whitesel’s Full Interview

What motivated you to study fat gay men?

As a gay man myself, and as a sociologist, I have been very uncomfortable with body fascism in the gay community. Therefore, in my career in sociology, body image/appearance concerns among gay men have increasingly become a socially relevant topic. I had observed the gay scene full of fat-shaming and negative body talk and my initial idea was to see if I could locate a critique of this; I expected to find it in the world of big gay men who belong to Girth & Mirth. This is why I set out to study members of the group for almost three years. My book about this group places sizism as a central social problem in the gay community that must be attended to.

What was the most difficult part of conducting your research?

It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but I am a bit of an introverted ethnographer. Ethnographic research became my niche, but like teaching, the risk for me is emotional drain. Suffering a bit from group anxiety, it was difficult at times to participate regularly in the club I was studying. This in no way reflects poorly on the group: the members of the club I studied made my research experience a total delight.

Throughout my research and writing, I was also very conscious about my own status, (e.g. being gay but thin) and also the many challenges that come with being a participant-observer in a community. In conducting this research, I negotiated my position as an ally-outsider-within. I am gay, but I have thin privilege, among others.

What are some of the elements of social stigma facing the group you studied?

Big gay men constitute a multiply marginalized group, who feel stigmatized for their size and sexuality. Appearance is especially important in the gay community. It is ironic that the worst injury inflicted upon gay big men is, in fact, that coming from gay society. Big men are rendered second-class citizens in the gay community for being fat. They are also rendered third-class citizens in the heterosexual world for being gay and fat.

Like women, gay men experience conflict with their appearance, physique, and relationship to food more than heterosexual men do. Since looks are one of the organizing features of the gay world, big gay men have an added exclusion that has not been fully explored. There is the exclusion that all gay people experience; then there is within-group prejudice big gay men experience because of their ample size. So they are marginalized both for their sexual orientation in a heteronormative society and for their size in gay society. Given this doubly marginal position, my study explored how big gay men seek dignity and respect in the gay community.

What are some of the ways that the people you studied redefined themselves?

Despite the unfortunate tendency to internalize shame and allow it to run their lives, the big gay men I interviewed in the group engage in normalizing activities. To remedy the denial of citizenship in the gay community and recuperate class status, they engage in cultural activities. They try to assuage the feeling of being desexualized, or if they are sexualized, being sexually degraded, by creating outlets like weekend retreats for sexualizing with one another. True to their mission and moniker, one of the Girth & Mirther’s overarching responses to their injuries is playful disregard of shame. They play with, exaggerate, and accentuate the very things about them that are stigmatized. They embrace the stigma and make it acceptable by accepting themselves. 

What most surprised you about the way the subjects of your research reshaped their identities?

When I first started my study, I was most surprised by the ordinariness of the group gatherings; there was nothing terribly revolutionary about the Girth & Mirthers. This worried me that I was going to come away empty-handed in terms of data and research. I thought I had a failed project because everything the Girth & Mirthers did, like a potluck, for example, seemed so ordinary. Instead, what I learned over time was that what I had anticipated being a group reaction to body fascism, was actually just a group of men who were struggling to carve out an ordinary place for themselves. But this surprised me because it seemed so contrary to the paradigm shift that queer theory signaled.

How did the relationships of the individuals you studied affect how they were perceived and how they perceived themselves?

There’s real joy in the group, there’s mirth in Girth & Mirth. A lot of readers of my work focus on the trauma or social injury these big men feel for being pushed to the margins of the gay community, but it is important to note that that injury or trauma is what animates the community. It is what animates their joyful disregard of shame.

Did anything you discovered while researching shock you?

I guess I would say I was frankly disappointed by people’s disparaging remarks about fat people when they heard I was researching big gay men. By the way, I intentionally use the word “fat,” a simply descriptive term, rather than “obese” or “overweight” which are judgmental and carry negative connotations. Typically, people reconfigure fat as a disease or deviance, such as when doctors medicalize it as “obesity” or when people say someone is “overweight,” meaning she or he has deviated from some ideal measurement.

I was also shocked at how many folks couldn’t imagine or accept the possibility of being fat and happy and could only articulate the public health model of the “obesity epidemic.”

After my book was published, there were (and still are) academics who didn’t know much about my work or hadn’t read my book and assumed I must be fat – as if it were impossible for fat people to have thin allies – I think even the Girth & Mirthers themselves sometimes wondered how I could be interested in their lives.

Will you be following up on your research, and if so, how?

My project opened up many more questions than I was unable to answer in the first article and book. Though one book cannot be everything to everyone, I can do better. I am currently working on a co-authored paper tentatively titled, “Discursive Entanglements in Weight-Loss Surgery Narratives among a Midwestern Girth & Mirth Group.” This year, I also taught two undergraduate courses that have really reshaped my thinking: Queer Theory and Gay Male Experiences. At the time I wrote the book about Girth & Mirthers, I thought I had done a decent job of attending to multiple intersections of identity. After teaching these two classes, however, I experienced a significant paradigm shift.

I know my work to date navigates the complexities of size, sexual orientation, gender identity, and to some extent social class and (dis)ability. Next I would like to critically engage race/ethnicity and aging. For instance, I noted the limitation of the Midwestern club I studied, being mostly white, middle-aged men. So, I envision doing a meta-analysis of my own work with race/ethnicity at the forefront. I have more to say (and to learn) about the ways the men’s racial/ethnic identities co-construct their fat gayness or position them differently within the Girth & Mirth subculture.

I am also envisioning doing an ethnographic study of another group, Prime Timers, who are organized around old age in the same way Girth & Mirthers are organized around ample size. Like Girth & Mirthers, the Prime-Timers show compassion for underdogs in gay society, and work hard to draw out folks who may live in social isolation. But very little research has been done on this group, which tends to narrowly disrupt normative understandings of what it means to be gay and to be perceived as old at a relatively young age. Because of ageism, some gay men avoid telling their age, but let’s just say I hit the entry age for joining this group last year. Gay male culture holds up its masculine ideal to be the young, muscular man, more so than does heterosexual culture. Because of this, the gay culture defines “old” at a younger age than non‐gay culture does, making gay men sufferers of “accelerated aging,” and arbiters of their own oppression.

Another topic I would like to research is the thin gay men who are primarily attracted to fat men, known as “chasers”/fat admirers, and their place in Girth & Mirth communities. So I would like to go back to the drawing board and interview these men who also have a stigmatized identity because of their choice of sex-object and who need the group just as much as fat gay men do.

Given your experiences in conducting your research and writing your book, what lesson(s) would you pass on to scholars who are just getting started?

For me, as a male, seeking help with my work was inconsistent with the norms of hegemonic masculinity. It also had everything to do with worrying that people in the academy would smell fear and deem me “incompetent.” So, my advice would be that if you are considering a long-term research project with a book in mind, you have to let go of such fears and allow in senior scholars and folks with more experience writing books to help you, all the while fostering connections with your junior colleagues in the same boat. And this is difficult. The academy sets one up to expect a fulfilling job with ample time to write, but such entitled thinking in a world where one is lucky to even get a job is going to set you up for huge disappointments.

I also think that young scholars suffer from imposter syndrome. We want to give off the appearance in groups that we are competent, yet individually we feel like a fraud. Again, know that a lot of folks feel this way.

If you are going to research and write a book – know that it takes A LOT of time. Therefore, have some article-length teasers of your work in mind that will leave a trace of your productivity as you take the time to finesse the larger book.

Andrea Leverentz’s Full Interview

What motivated you to study female ex-prisoners?

I had been working with a colleague on a study of men returning from prison. So, when I needed a dissertation topic, partly, it was just a strategic decision to limit the number of things I was thinking about and working on. The choice to focus on women was also initially partly strategic, in that one of my advisors thought it would be easier for me to access and develop rapport with women, particularly as I was planning to recruit through a program/agency (i.e., some halfway houses for men limit or restrict women on the premises). On a more substantive or theoretical level, female prisoners and the reentry of formerly incarcerated women was an understudied population. Much of what we knew about reentry and desistance (especially at the time I was starting my project) was developed based on studies largely or entirely focused on men. Since we know there are important differences in the pathways to female offending, it makes sense that there are also important differences in their experiences with desistance.

What was the most difficult part of conducting your research?

One of the most difficult issues for me was just keeping track of people. My goal was to interview everyone four times, and many of the women moved over the course of the year. Even when they were willing to continue talking with me, making sure I knew how to reach them wasn't their biggest priority. It's an even bigger challenge when they are struggling, as they may be less likely to keep in touch and reluctant to talk about it, and this is an important story for me to capture.

It can also be hard to hear the women's stories, and hear about their struggles, and to feel unable to help them. Many of the women had endured horrible things and many were struggling in the present. I could listen to them, and hopefully help others understand something of their lives, but I didn't have a lot of practical assistance to offer them. That's a challenge, and hard to not sometimes feel like you’re taking advantage of people and their stories and experiences. It also raises the stakes of hoping that my work makes an impact, to help them and/or people in similar situations.

What are some of the elements of social stigma facing the group you studied?

One of the big elements of social stigma that the women I studied faced was being perceived as "bad women" and "bad mothers." There are expectations that women face, and that they have for themselves, that most men don't face to the same degree. For them to develop a drug addiction, live a "street" life, go to prison -- these were all unexpected things for women to do, especially when they also had children at home. Of course, as we know, having a criminal record also makes it particularly difficult to find employment and stable housing, and to advance in jobs when they are hired. Many of the women also felt out of place in “normal” situations, like college classes or work. They wanted to do these things and they strove for “normality,” but also felt uncomfortable, because of both real and perceived stigma and, in some cases, a lack of shared experiences. 

What are some of the ways that the people you studied redefined themselves?

Not surprisingly, becoming good mothers and good daughters was extremely important to them. They wanted to strengthen their relationships with family members, and to demonstrate to them that they were doing the right thing. They also wanted to be good workers, with a meaningful career. They wanted to get a sense of value and meaning out of their work, and they wanted to be economically self-sufficient, for themselves and for their families. They talked a lot about wanting to be “normal” and to figure out what that meant. 

What most surprised you about the way the subjects of your research reshaped their identities?

It surprised me how much they embraced an individual level explanation for their own experiences. In spite of often coming from very disadvantaged circumstances and experiencing tremendous trauma, most of the women accepted a narrative of personal responsibility and believed (or hoped) that if they worked hard enough and tried hard enough they would reach their goals. On the one hand, this maybe shouldn't have been such a surprise to me, given that this is a very common narrative in the United States. It's also empowering on some level to focus on the things that one can control. But I still expected them to be more conscious of, or to verbalize more, the structural barriers they faced.

How did the relationships of the individuals you studied affect how they were perceived and how they perceived themselves?

It is hard for them to face mistrust and hurt from their family, either from their past or from current setbacks. This is very understandable from the perspectives of the family members, as they have also been affected and hurt by the drug use, addictions, and incarcerations of many of the women. But it was hard for them to face that. Some of the women were afraid or reluctant to ask for help, because they felt ashamed that they were having problems and they didn't want their loved ones to know, especially after they had tried to do the right thing. In terms of romantic relationships, there were similar dynamics of wariness and mistrust and of trying to develop new dynamics within relationships. Some of them opted out of romantic relationships, at least committed relationships, because of this wariness and because of past dynamics.

Did anything you discovered while researching shock you?

I don't know if "shock" is the right word to describe this, but one thing that was immediately apparent is how much more people are than the offenses for which they were convicted. We often talk about "offenders" or "murderers" or "drug addicts" as if this is what people are. These are things they have done (usually), but they are much, much more than that, and offenses and criminal histories themselves often tell you little about the person behind them. When I ask people what the most important thing that people know about them is, it is very common for them to say “I’m a good person” or “I’m not [XX] charge.”

Will you be following up on your research, and if so, how?

In terms of following up with these women, I don't have any immediate plans to do so. I did reach out to everyone I had addresses for, to offer them a copy of the book (as I promised to do when we were doing the interviews). I've only heard from a few, so far, and I have a lot of outdated addresses. I hope to find more.

I am currently working on another study of men and women returning from the Suffolk County House of Corrections, which is a facility in Massachusetts that houses people serving sentences of 2.5 years or less per charge. A vast majority of people sentenced to serve time in Massachusetts does so at the county level, and it's an interesting facility in part because it's so local. The primary focus of this study is to look at how returning prisoners experience place and neighborhood and how they navigate space. In addition to the interviews, we are doing participant observation in three communities to try to also put this into context of varying receiving communities. This grew out of the previous project, but is an entirely new group of people and location. 

Given your experiences in conducting your research and writing your book, what lesson(s) would you pass on to scholars who are just getting started?

One lesson is that you will probably make mistakes, and probably (if you're anything like me) a lot of them. And that's ok. Do the best you can, and plan, but most mistakes are things you can recover from, with perseverance and maybe a little humility. If you're planning an ethnographic or interview-based study, do your best to really listen and watch what's happening, and be open to letting things evolve in a different direction than you expected. The beauty of doing qualitative/inductive research is that you can learn things you never thought to ask when you began, so you want to do what you can so that you don't miss those moments because you're looking for what you expected to find.