29 June 2010

The XXL Racism Boycott

A shit storm is taking off over comments made by Mark Ames on his Facebook page, the settings for which have now been changed to private. Ames is the owner of XXL, one of the most popular Bear clubs in London.

The Pink Paper trumpeted an exclusive this morning: Club founder causes Facebook furore with Muslim boycott, which gives some background. There's also the inevitable Facebook protest page, which states: "Before you spend any money at one of the XXL clubs or parties, please be aware of the opinions of its owner... whilst he may not see his views as racist, anybody else with an iota of sense can work out that lumping Muslims and those fighting against allied forces in Afghanistan is backwards, silly and racist." It goes on to say: "Hit Mark Ames where it hurts: in his pocket," and "Stop going to XXL 'til he sees the error of his ways."

I've got more to say about XXL which is not about race but is about the club being a problematic space for fat people. Of the £50,000 raised by XXL Bear Pride in 2008 a percentage was donated to The British Heart Foundation. Ames told The Pink Paper in May of that year: "I, like many others, was unhappy about how HIV charity cash was being used, it didn't seem to be coming back to the people who need it or making a difference. So this year I am giving what we raise to charities that reflect my customers."

The British Heart Foundation are one of the biggest providers in the UK of weight loss publications for health professionals and the public, including children. They promote dieting through public information campaigns, advertising and the media. Their approach to fat and weight loss is one that has long been criticised by fat activists and proponents of Health At Every Size.

Given that XXL is a place where fat and big men are desired, it is perplexing that Ames thinks the BHF reflects his customers' best interests. By going to XXL, punters enjoy a space that celebrates fat queer sexuality but they also fund a charity that cannot recognise such a thing, let alone support it. The BHF is not a small, struggling queer initiative that could really use the cash, its total income was £170 million in 2007, according to CaritasData. They have no specific gay health programmes or information targeted towards LGBT people. I can't see how they benefit the Bears at all.

This blog has been quiet over the past few weeks because I've been busy interviewing fat activists for my research study. One of the things that has come up again and again is how fat is intrinsically tied to other social justice movements, how fat activism emerged from civil rights movements in the US in the 1960s, especially anti-racism. It is my belief that a truly liberating social space cannot exist where some forms of oppression are addressed whilst others are tolerated. So although XXL is seen as a fat positive space, somewhere that big and fat guys and their admirers can get together, a rebuttal of some kinds of oppressive lookism within gay men's culture, a party that supports racism is not fat positive, and neither is one that trades on self-hatred.

I think there's a mistaken belief that fat lib is a liberal movement. However, fat people are a diverse group, one that unfortunately includes racists. Other fat activists, most notably Tara Shuai, have talked about tacit racism within fat activism, yet depressingly few (white) fat activists discuss this stuff. I hope the outrage surrounding Ames' comments kick-starts some dialogue. Either way, it'll be interesting to see if protests against XXL trade on fatphobia, and/or if XXL punters decide to support racism, would they be willing to make such a compromise in order to keep the party going?

PS. This just in: Bears Against Bigotry - yay!

18 June 2010

Do You Wanna Funk? Fat, queer archives, and Sylvester

The other day I had the good fortune to spend some time looking at some of the holdings at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. I had some common-or-garden research to do, which was interesting and rewarding in its own way, but I also took the opportunity to have a look at some of the other material that this incredible and unique archive looks after. One of the collections is a group of boxes containing some of the stage costumes owned and worn by Sylvester.

You may not know who Sylvester was, in which case look him/her up on Wikipedia, or read Joshua Gamson's biography. The extremely simplified version is that Sylvester made some of the most sublime records to dance to in the world, was Black and what we might call genderqueer today, and died way before her time of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. This is someone you should know about, a person who provided the soundtrack to a generation of queers, may of whom also died in that first devastating wave of AIDS.

I've heard Sylvester called fat, and this has often intrigued me. His body size is not always apparent in photographs, and sometimes he looks chubbier than others. People's bodies change, and hers would likely have changed dramatically too as she faced her final illness.

So I had a break and asked the archivists to pull out Sylvester's costumes for me to paw and prod. I love a flamboyant, overly-sequinned outfit on any day of the week, and I was also interested in their size and shape. I wondered if these might be costumes worn by a fat person, and from that, if Sylvester might be a historical rad fatty whose life people might turn to for clues in how to live today.

I looked at four boxes of clothes containing a couple of sequinned jackets; a pink sequinned trouser suit, a white, glittery dress in the style of a wedding dress; a layered peach ensemble, with silky pyjama trousers, a sequinned apron, and heavy sequinned jacket; and a gigantically pouffy black sequinned batwing jacket/dress, with hanging ties, and matching space-age style skullcap hat covered with feathers and other embellishments.

I wore white archival cotton gloves and the archivists help me take the garments out of the boxes and inspect them. I didn't ask to try them on, though I wanted to, I knew that would be a no-no. Everything was carefully wrapped in tissue, I handled the outfits gingerly.

I didn't expect to be so moved by the experience of looking at someone long dead's stage outfits. I think it was something to do with the contrast between the larger-than-life colour and pizzazz of the sequins and glitter which contrasts so greatly with the awful reality of Sylvester's passing, not to mention the deaths of countless others like him. I was moved that these costumes had been preserved lovingly, and grateful for the work of the archive in remembering and making accessible the life and work of this person. There are others in the archive who were not so famous, whose lives are also commemorated, which is beautiful to me, evidence of everyday revolutions happening over and over again (and there are artefacts from more famous people too, there's a pair of Harvey Milk's jeans in a box there somewhere). It reminded me that activism is often about very small interventions which may seem like a drop in the ocean at times. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. But archives show that these small actions – the queer wearing of an insanely glittery outfit, for example – have wider significance over time, especially if they are part of a consistent body of work. I love the way that the archive creates a dialogue between the past and the future. So I felt moved by Sylvester's costumes, and the research materials I've been working on, they encourage me to continue my own work and to encourage others to do theirs.

Oh yes, and some of the outfits were roomy and large, big enough for me, though others were smaller, the pyjama trousers in particular had a small waist. Sylvester was pretty tall, so I'm imagining someone who was of relative normative size, but bigger than most.

I want to end this by saying that last night I went to the great Michelle Tea's reading series at the San Francisco Public Library. Entitled 'Old School: Writers Unearth and Re-imagine the Lives and Legacies of Queers Gone By,' writers presented work inspired by the GLBT Historical Society's holdings. Robin Coste Lewis presented a magnificent piece about many things, but also about Sylvester. She talked about people whose histories are not commemorated, including the slaves who were her ancestors, and included passages about Sylvester's archival legacy, which is shockingly patchy to say the least. But the costumes remain, and they speak. Mighty real (of course I had to say that).

Gamson, Joshua (2005) The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The 70s in San Francisco. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

GLBT Historical Society

Radar Productions

16 June 2010

Goodbye Luscious

My partner woke me to some terrible news this morning: our friend Luscious has died suddenly. Luscious, also known as Elizabeth Baxter in the real world, and Frito Lay in the Chubster world, lived in Toronto and was a part of a community of badass and highly rad fat queers living there and elsewhere. I knew her through Nolose and she was close friends with some of my friends. She's part of my community too.

I don't see Luscious very often because we live a long way away from each other but I just saw her last week. Last Friday I was pestering her to cook for me when I next go to Toronto. She was hiring a car to go and see the Californian coast, she'd never been there before. It's so weird having recent memories of her that are so full of life. Earlier memories of Luscious include seeing her make out with two high femmes in a hot tub simultaneously and effortlessly!

It's appalling and unbelievable that Luscious is dead, we all need funny, sexy, sweet, generous people like her in our lives. She is irreplaceable.

I don't have much else to say at the moment other than to suggest we all send our best love to her people, who are hurting very badly right now and are in deep shock.

01 June 2010

What is queer fat activism?

Elisa Manici asked me these two really hard questions in an off-the-cuff way. This is what I said off the top of my head. Comments please!

If you should define fat queer activism in few words, what would you say?


A lot of fat activism is done by very straight people whose idea of social change is based on their very straight values and experiences. Queer people, who also happen to be fat, bring a different sensibility to their activism. Queer does not necessarily mean the same as gay or lesbian, or bi or trans. Instead I think of it as a series of values and ideas such as anti-assimilationism, autonomy and anarchism, punk, DIY culture, transgression, fluid identities. I think there's often a postmodern element to it too, it's quite chaotic, not united against a common enemy, or working towards a common goal, and it's rooted in popular culture. I'd define queer fat activism as doing stuff – any kind of stuff – that supports those perspectives.

When was fat queer activism born?

Please bear in mind that these dates and events reflect my own position as an English-speaking queer fat activist living in London. Don't take my word as 'the truth,' it is one of many truths. It could be that there are other events and organisations that pre-date these. If you know of any, please get in touch, I'd love to know about them.

The Fat Underground weren't the first fat activist organisation, but I think they were the first to marry fat liberation with radical politics drawn from their members' involvement with civil rights and personal development ideologies, as well as feminism and early gay liberation activism in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. I believe that there were a number of lesbians involved in the Fat Underground.

The Fat Dykes Statement, produced at the Fat Women's Conference in London, March 1989, is also an early example of the intersecting points between lesbian feminism and fat liberation.

Both the Fat Underground and the Fat Dykes Statement pre-date the emergence of 'queer' and queer theory. Perhaps it's FaT GiRL, the zine 'For Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want Them' that's the point where queer fat activism was really born. The zine was published collectively in the Bay Area from 1994-97 and was unapologetically queer. Nomy Lamm's zine, i'm so fucking beautiful, was also very queer and also starting to appear around this time.

Two good references:

LeBesco, K. (2004) Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Snider, S. (2009) 'Fat Girls and Size Queens: Alternative Publications and the Visualizing of Fat and Queer Eroto-politics in Contemporary American Culture', in: Rothblum, E. & Solovay, S. (eds.) The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press, 223-230.