Jul. 30th, 2009

eirias: (gay)
If you, like me, follow the debates about gays and civil rights, you have probably heard the following argument:

Gay rights supporter: This is just like the civil rights struggle for blacks!
Member of the black community: No it isn't -- your identity is a behavior and one you can hide -- we can't stop being black!

I think both parties are right here, actually. I think the gay rights supporters are right in that the existing structures are obviously unjust and are maintained at least in part because people who got a good spot in the hierarchy don't like people trying to butt in line. This is where they are similar.

But I think the black community is right in that there is some fuzzy space between being a thing and doing a thing. The simplistic way it's often put, between unchanging identity (on the black hand) and a chosen lifestyle (on the gay hand), is misleading. "Being black" isn't just about skin color: like any community, there are ways-of-behaving that carry meaning for group membership, too. And conversely, "the gay lifestyle" isn't something most people choose at random out of a catalog, but falls out of inclinations that are themselves very difficult to change. (Witness the relatively low success rates of reparative therapy even among the extremely motivated.) Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that blackness is the neatest parallel to gayness.

So lately I have been pondering a different parallel: fatness. Here's what I think they have in common.

Both fatness and gayness result from a very deep biological urge that is calibrated to make you want something different from what is considered normative. In the case of gayness, you want to have sex with people of the same sex; in the case of fatness, you want more calories than you will actually burn. While it is popular to talk about self-control, I think most people who are not fat probably don't have to exercise much self-control to eat the amount that they do: their satiety mechanisms very likely kick in at an earlier point and make the idea of more food unappealing. I think this compares rather well with gay sex, a behavior most people avoid chiefly by not being very interested in it in the first place.

This leads well to the next point: moral panics. Both fatness and gayness have inspired an awful lot of tsk-tsking in their day, sometimes at fever-pitch. Sometimes it is couched in moral terms, sometimes in public health terms -- but in both cases I am pretty convinced it is not actually about health. Not that you don't see different health risks faced by (some) gay individuals and (some) fat individuals. It's just that that's not what the conversation is really about. Underneath the moralizing, it's really about class; and disgust; and sex. And I don't have a lot of patience for that.

Finally, the most important commonality here: Even if there were solid scientific consensus that These People Must Change And Here's Why, solid science doesn't have a hell of a lot to offer either group. Reparative therapy, as I note above, has pretty low success rates... but in my understanding, dieting is even worse, if getting to "normal" is the goal. Yeah, in the short term you can abstain from sex or follow a calorie-limiting diet, and maybe you'll be "less gay" in some sense, and you'll probably lose some weight. We know the behaviors to target, in other words. But we don't know how to change the thing beneath the behaviors, the thing that made you gay or fat in the first place, some mix of genes and experiences and the choice landscape you live in. And without changing that, after the intervention is over, you're likely to revert to doing what comes naturally. So in both cases, the question emerges: Even if you're convinced that change is a good thing here (and, I should note, I'm not), are such modest changes worth the cost of shaming people on purpose?

I'm sure there are also a lot of ways that the two things are not parallel. (Feel free to point them out to me.) Still, the next time I hear someone bemoaning Fat America, I'm going to listen through my new gay filter and see what the conversation sounds like. It might be instructive.

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eirias

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