Lynne Gerber: Homosexuality and Weight Loss in the Evangelical Context
“… I think homosexuality and fatness are two items that have definitely been infused with intense feelings of disgust, moral feelings of disgust. Religion plays a part in that. And these two cases, these two ministries offered these great, sort of structurally parallel opportunities to study how those things are similar or different.”
Lynne Gerber is the author of the insightful, surprising new book, Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America. The book is an astute examination of evangelical programs that have “attempted to contain the excesses associated with fatness and homosexuality.”
Lynne is an academic, independent scholar and writer whose current projects also include co-editing an anthology on religion and AIDS; an anthology on religion and fatness; as well as Surviving the Plague, a study of the response of one congregation, MCC San Francisco, to HIV/AIDS from the 1970s to the present. Lynne and I, who met at a fat women’s conference, have been close friends for many years. She dedicated Seeking the Straight and Narrow to me and Kent Brintnall, author of Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-In-Pain as Redemptive Figure.
I interviewed Lynne at a long red table with a view of the Russian River in Jenner,California–where we talked about the ‘sin’ of being fat and/or gay, how she conducted the research for her latest book, and the morality of health.
What’s the book about?
The book is about two evangelical ministries. One is called First Place, and it’s a popular Christian weight loss program. The second is Exodus International, and that is a network of ex-gay ministries around the country, and around the world, actually. And sort of the larger thing that it’s about is body size, sexuality and homosexuality and religion, and how religion works to tame desire and has an influence on how we think about bodies and which bodies are good and bad; moral, immoral; okay and needing to be disciplined.
How did you do your research?
I [did] qualitative research. Mostly I showed up to meetings and conferences. I was able in the First Place case to attend a Christian weight loss group for seven and a half months or something like that, and just go to a regular weekly meeting that was in a church in a community near where I live. In the ex-gay case, they wouldn’t let me do that. They wouldn’t let me go to a regular group, but both organizations had national conferences where you just pay your fee and you go on in, and so I went. I attended them, and then I did a lot of interviewing with people.
I interviewed – I can’t remember the exact numbers – at least thirty from each organization. And, then I read through a lot of their printed material. They each had newsletters and books and all kinds of stuff.
In communities of lesbians and other lgbt people I’ve been a part of, where people look at the culturally dominant positions about fatness in a critical way, I’ve often heard fatness and homosexuality spoken of together, but I’ve never seen anything close to such an extended examination of them in conversation with each other. What inspired you to bring these two things together?
Well, there’s a lot of different ways I could answer that question, from the personal to the academic and the intellectual. I would say on a personal level, you know, I’m a fat person myself, and my own sort of path to understanding what fatness meant led me straight into the hands of fat lesbians, who’ve been doing organizing around issues around fatness longer than anybody else I know, and have been carving out positions and ideas and sets of possibilities for fat women and fat lives that made my life seem possible. So that was a huge influence. I also consider myself a bit of a fag hag, and there is, you know, at least, a pop cultural or anecdotal phenomenon of fat girl/gay boy fag hag duo, and God knows there’s been plenty of those relationships in my life. [Laughter.] In academic terms, they would call it an elective affinity: a certain sense of commonality, that there’s a certain kind of synergy and some kind of similarity that make interesting things possible.
Intellectually, I mean, I was interested. I study religion. I’m interested in American religious life, and I’m interested in how morality is generated. How certain things are felt to be good or bad; disgusting or beautiful; an affront or a rapturous example of something. And I think homosexuality and fatness are two items that have definitely been infused with intense feelings of disgust, moral feelings of disgust. Religion plays a part in that. And these two cases, these two ministries offered these great, sort of structurally parallel opportunities to study how those things are similar or different.
So, how are those things similar or different?
[Pause.] Well… [Laughter.]
Is that too big a question?
It’s a long book. [Sustained laughter.]
Is there a moment or piece of conversation with any one person that you spoke with in this process that’s stayed with you?
Yeah, gosh. I mean, there’s lots of ‘em. There’s one man I interviewed who lived in New England, from an ex-gay ministry, who talked about how one of the ways he would deal with wrestling with his attractions was to lie on the floor at night instead of lying in his bed, and read the Bible on the cold floor in New England until he would fall asleep on the floor and then wake up and put himself into bed so he would not have to spend his evening fantasizing about a male romantic relationship.
I think of one of the larger women in the group I attended every week, told me about a church retreat she went to. They were doing one of these church icebreakers where you had to go up to a person and say something you were afraid of, you know, get to know you kind of thing. And a person walked up to her, and she was quite a large woman, and said, “My biggest fear in the world is to be overweight.” And just her utter stunned silence about that.
You write that both Exodus International and First Place seek to soften the blow of calling something a sin. Can you give examples of how they do that and why they do that?
Yeah, it’s different in each case. The Exodus case is interesting because Exodus is trying to, or at least what they say they’re trying to do, is, sort of, carve out a third position. They don’t want to be pro-gay Christian. They think that that’s wrong. And they do think homosexuality is a sin. But they don’t want to be old time fundamentalists who are condemning gays and lesbians left, right and center by saying, “Sinner, sinner, sinner, sinner, sinner, sinner.”
So, while, in order to maintain their evangelical cred, they have to be clear that they believe homosexual sex to be a sin, there’s all kinds of ways that they talk about what being a sin or not a sin means that sort of softens the impact of it. They’ll say, for example, “Homosexuality is a sin. So is gossip. So is idleness. Who amongst us cannot be accused of such a thing? So, sure, homosexuality is a sin, but we’re not the people who are saying, ‘You are the most abominable of all sinners.’ We’re saying, ‘You are in a spectrum of sinners that every honest Christian should count themselves.’” So they’re trying to have a little bit of a different position, right? Or they’ll say, “Sure, homosexuality is a sin, but it’s only the acts that are a sin. So it’s not the attraction, it’s not the desire, it’s not the longing. That stuff isn’t a sin.”
Now, whether or not that’s a helpful distinction to anybody actually struggling with that is another question, but what it does in terms of language is, it really limits what people actually have to be accountable for, and it allows them to actually, in a certain kind of weird way, challenge conservative Christians when they are condemning gay people for how they look, how they act, how they speak, what they want, you know, those kinds of things. It give them some kind of ground to do that. Now, whether they do that faithfully, or whether they do that consistently, or whether they do that in a long term way, that’s another question, but they are trying to carve out a different position.
And what about First Place?
InFirst Place, the way that they soften sin, it’s a different thing. They’re very on the fence about whether or not they consider fatness a sin. Or what they consider sinful in whatever it is that they are addressing. So, on the one hand, there’s a lot of judgment about fatness. There’s a lot of moral concern about the fat body itself, what it’s supposed to represent, and what people think a fat body means about how people eat. And whether or not that means of eating that they assume that fat people have is, in fact, a sin. Lots of concern about that. But they often stop short of saying, “Fatness is a sin. You can tell that somebody’s sinning because they’re fat.” And so they’ll say these things that are sort of hedging their bets. Like one First Place leader I spoke to said, “It’s a moral problem with a spiritual solution,” or something like that.
And the reason that a number of them gave, or, they didn’t give a reason because I didn’t ask them explicitly, but one of the things they often talked about was that they knew plenty of good Christians who were fat. So they didn’t feel comfortable, necessarily, excluding fat people from the community of Christianity in a way that a lot of Christians are not uncomfortable excluding gays from the community of Christianity just by virtue of their sexuality.
Hmm. Yeah. Well, you identify “sin” as one of the major moral frameworks that both programs use. What’s the other?
So, do you see implications in that for the larger culture?
Yeah, well, I mean, I think the discourse of health has become highly moralized in a huge range of areas. I think that health becomes a way to talk about morality, and becomes a way that is seemingly neutral and seemingly scientific, and seemingly something we can all, all reasonable people can agree upon, but, in fact, it has a huge set of moral judgments. And a huge set of moral questions attached to it. And, whether or not that stuff actually forwards people’s health is a question worthy of debate. There’s a lot of conversation about that.
You write about a positive role that ex-gay ministries play for people struggling with same-sex desire within evangelical churches, although not for self-accepting lgbt Christians. What do you mean by that?
Well, I think that one of the things that was surprising for me to realize was the kind of space, the weird paradoxical space that an ex-gay ministry provides, particularly for people who live in extremely conservative communities. And the thing that’s most interesting about it is that being part of an ex-gay ministry is a weird way to come out in the evangelical world.
It’s a way to acknowledge one’s homosexuality and provides a place to talk about it, give name to something that in some communities is completely unnamable and completely unspeakable. In a subculturally validated place that, in comparison to where some of the people that I interviewed were coming from, it was like moving to the Castro. [Laughs.] I mean, it just hugely, it was an important way station in their path, a lot of them, toward accepting their homosexuality. It was a place where they could talk about it for the first time. And not feel like that they had to get kicked out of church, or they had to give up everything, or they had to lose their families. And I saw how meaningful that was in some of the people I spoke to’s lives. It was not trivial. It’s not to be trivialized.
Did you see a similar role for the weight loss program?
One of the things that was interesting in the First Place group that I saw was, the people that I studied did not lose a lot of weight. They grappled with the fact that they did not lose a lot of weight. They didn’t like getting weighed in every week. In their conversation, they came to an interesting place. One of the interesting debates they had was whether or not in the next session they would keep bringing the scale to the session and weigh people or not. Now, in national, official First Place material, this is actually quite a controversial thing. They feel very strongly that you must bring the scale. You must weigh people every week. That must be the bottom line for accountability. And I don’t think that that’s a positive thing. But in the little group that I was in, because of their struggle with the scale, because they were struggling to, you know, do better, foodwise and healthwise, but they weren’t losing any weight, the leaders were like, why put ourselves through that? Well, that’s an interesting, different position for this small, little group to be taking that is a different way of thinking about: do we have to measure whether this is successful by the number on the scale or not? Is it what I would wish for myself and my beloved fat friends? No, it’s not how I live, but I think it’s a very different position than [where] a lot of those people started.
I’m thinking, yeah, but it sounds so much like Weight Watchers. So…
It is, but, you know, Weight Watchers is part of what gave rise to NAAFA . I mean, the act of fat women getting together in a circle and talking about stuff, even in that weight loss context, it was the context for people to shift their thinking. They trace some of the history…
Really? Because I think of more, like, the women’s movement. That’s where I see the change coming.
Yeah, but just the fact of gathering and the fact of talking. It’s a change in how people are discussing their experience. Again, it’s not what I would want. It’s not how I live. It’s not how I choose to address the issue of my fatness. But. Again, based upon the structure of the program, they’re clear: scale. End of sentence. Eat this way, lose weight. But, within the parameters of that, some people shift parts of their thinking.