Praying to be skinny and straight

An expert explains what evangelical weight-loss and ex-gay movements say about America -- and us

By Hannah Tepper
Published January 31, 2012 1:10AM (EST)
              (iStockphoto LincolnRogers)
(iStockphoto LincolnRogers)

Fatness and gayness have a few things in common: They are both highly charged social issues that can anger people in ways few other things can. To many people, they both represent a sinful inability to control urges – in the case of fat folks, to eat food, and in the case of gay people, to have sex. In evangelical circles, however, fatness and gayness are not just stigmatized, they are actively fought.

In her eloquent new book, "Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America," Lynne Gerber examines the ways these two separate issues interact in that most morally stringent segment of American culture. A University of California, Berkeley, scholar in residence whose work emphasizes intersections of sexuality, bodies and health in contemporary Christianity, Gerber spent more than three years documenting evangelical weight loss and ex-gay culture, primarily in two evangelical ministries, First Place, a weight loss group, and Exodus, an ex-gay ministry with aims to train gays into straightness. Along the way, Gerber unpacks the historical influence of evangelicalism on American society, while providing a thoughtful look at real people struggling to change.

Salon spoke with Gerber over the phone about her new book, out this week from University of Chicago Press. She was kind enough to share her opinion on everything from how fatness and gayness are valuable points of comparison, the often heartbreaking measures “ex-gays” take to curb same-sex urges, and how evangelicalism is a little bit queer sometimes.

In the book, you focus on two specific evangelical ministries: Exodus, a moderate ex-gay group organized around helping members overcome homosexuality, and First Place, a weight-loss ministry. Why were these important groups to compare and contrast?

I have often been interested in the intersection of fatness and homosexuality. They are both places where there is a lot of social energy, and social hatred toward people who represent fatness and gayness. If you think about what fatness and gayness represent, they are similar. One is a sort of excess; the idea that fat people have this excessive desire for food, and gay people are depicted as having this excessive sexual tendency. Excess is directly linked to social efforts to control those excesses, to get fat people down to size and gay people into the “correct” sexual orientation.

In ex-gay ministries, they have a somewhat psychoanalytic explanation for how homosexuality develops in childhood. What is their theory exactly?

They draw on some pretty psychoanalytic ideas to explain their theory. Basically the theory is that homosexuality is not a problem of sexual attraction to people of the same sex, it’s a problem of gender identification. So if I am a homosexual man, the issue is not so much that I want to sleep with other men, it’s that I don’t see myself as adequately masculine enough. The idea is that people are attracted to what they feel that they are not. So if I am a hypothetical gay man, that means that I think of myself as more female (because they frame it with only two genders). Their idea is that to shift sexual orientation one needs to shift one’s gender identity. A hypothetical gay male needs to start feeling more grounded in his masculinity in order to find his attraction toward women. They say that a homosexual person’s “gender deficiency” is the result of a breakage in the relationship between the same-sex parent during childhood. It’s interesting because this can be anything from abuse to perceived abuse to perceived neglect. It can be anything from the most intentional egregious violation on the part of the same-sex parent to the most unintentional slight that the child experienced.

In the book you explain that Exodus has to maintain this delicate balance; to make gay people feel accepted while at the same time attempting to fundamentally change who they are. How do they manage this?

What they want to do with these “strugglers” is give them a place. They really don’t want people with same-sex desire to leave the church, because their thinking is that once they leave the church, they go into the gay culture and they’re lost forever. They want to give them a place that feels like a home within the church. On the other hand, they believe that homosexuality is a sin, and they have to emphasize that homosexuality is a sin if they want their institutional allies. Ex-gay ministries have this paradoxical effect where people who are struggling with same-sex desires can be out about those desires, there is a place where they can talk about it without getting kicked out, there’s a place where they can acknowledge it, but they have to acknowledge it as “ex-gay.” So that’s the price.

There’s a chapter in the book that I found really compelling about the differences between change in theory and change in practice within the ministries.

In the book I argue that in evangelical culture there is a deep impulse to make a conscious initial choice about one’s faith. To choose God, recognize oneself as a sinner, and make a choice to become a disciple of Christ is a very strong value in evangelical culture. The notion is that this decision becomes a real place where all kinds of transformations can happen: The sinner becomes saved, the drunk becomes sober, and the gay becomes straight. Then the choice has to keep being made over and over again. In First Choice, the initial choice to lose weight brings this endless opportunity for choice where every time I eat I ask myself, is my eating in alignment with God’s will? Once you have been in either ministry for a long time and don’t become straight or lose weight, it shifts to this notion that change is a process. There is this balance between the initial, simple choice and this ongoing pathos to get further and closer to the goal. I think that is also a common polarity in therapeutic culture. There is a similar back and forth between making the first decision, and making a lifestyle change that is going to take a very long time.

In the beginning of the book, you talk about how evangelical Christianity is defined by paradox: the desire to identify with but also to distinguish itself from American culture.

There is a famous argument in academic circles that evangelical culture is a subculture. A subculture works by trying to distinguish itself from the mainstream culture. It does a lot of symbolic and discursive work in order to make that difference. What is interesting in evangelical culture is where they choose to accentuate difference. Clearly homosexuality is a place where they have really chosen that point of distinction.

And they are really proud of that.

They see it as a bold line in the sand that can’t be crossed. The extent to which evangelicalism has been willing to make their identity almost conterminous with their opposition to homosexuality is remarkable.

How does the weight loss ministry, First Place, differ?

Evangelicalism is very much part and parcel with the mainstream weight loss culture. I don’t know that they would consider it an intentional effort, but I think it’s a real reflection of how very deep the overlaps are. For example, Dr. Oz, the weight loss guru, just started working with Rick Warren, a pastor from one of the biggest evangelical churches in the country. They have a new weight loss plan called the Daniel Plan. Evangelicals have a proprietary sense -- this deep identification with American culture. There is a notion that they do things just like the rest of Americans, just with more piety. First Place is like secular weight loss programs except the Bible is involved. It gives opportunities for Christians to explore a range of American culture within a Christian context.

Are both fatness and gayness considered sins?

Exodus, as part of its definition, believes homosexual sex, defined as genital acts between people of the same sex, is a sin. First Place is more vague about sin. They call weight a “fleshly problem with a spiritual solution.” They want to fall short of calling it a sin. In First Place, they are also not exactly sure what the sin even is. Is it being fat? Is it in excessive eating? In Exodus, they really limit the sin and say that only genital acts are sins because they want to make a breathable space for people who have same sex attraction to feel welcome.

And in the book you have some heartbreaking accounts about the extents to which some of these people would go in order to fight their urges and try to have this God-oriented agency.

The one that really sticks in my mind is this man I interviewed, an ex-gay man from a very cold state in New England. He wanted to stop fantasizing about men before he went to bed at night, so he would lie in bed and if he found himself veering into this realm of fantasy, he would get out of bed without a blanket and lie on the cold floor of his apartment and read the Bible until he fell asleep. That was his choice to do. That’s not a practice that Exodus necessarily endorses, but it definitely goes to show the extreme choices that people made in order to curb their desires.

What happens when people in these groups end up failing, either with weight loss or with their “struggle” to become heterosexual?

The goal post for success can be very porous. There’s a lot that counts for success. For example, at First Place, members have nine commitments that include things like following a certain eating plan, getting exercise, doing Bible study, showing up at meetings, encouraging others in between sessions, etc. If people aren’t necessarily losing weight, it becomes easy to call upon one of these other standards as success. In the case of the ex-gay ministry, they overtly say that the opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality, it’s holiness. Well, holiness may in fact be easier to achieve than heterosexuality for a lot of people in the ministry. When people actually fail, when they actually transgress, when a man goes and has sex with another man, for example, there is the opportunity to repent through confession. They tell the group what they did, they are adequately remorseful, and they return to the group’s good graces and submit themselves to the group’s discipline once again.

In the conclusion you note something really fascinating, which is that in American culture we tend to construct an opposing duality around the secular and the religious.

I have a good example of this. In terms of this secular/religious question, there is a common-sense understanding that American culture has become increasingly secular. Well, I would argue that certain forms of religious sensibilities have become secularized. They’ve become so common-sense that they are unmarked in American culture, or their underlying religious concerns have become obfuscated. The image that kept coming back to me is one that I saw at First Place. The first thing that folks do in the meetings is a weigh in, and at First Place, before you get on the scale you have to recite your Bible verse for the week. You go in, step on the scale, recite your Bible verse, and the group leader records whether or not you lost weight and whether or not you got your Bible verse right. It’s like the idea of putting your flag on the moon. Is it religion giving its deference to what is actually the moral authority in this culture, weight, or is it just making clear the compatibility between Christian ideals and the weight loss dogma?

Which do you think it is?

I tend to go back and forth, but I do think practices like that reveal the deep religious sensibilities underneath programs like weight loss and things that are addressed in scientific and health-related language. In some ways I think First Place just returns the explicit religious marks to something that seems to be secular, but actually has very deep moral concerns undergirding it.

At the end of the book, you make a really nice observation that evangelicalism can actually be really progressive and queer in certain unexpected ways.

One of the interesting things about the ex-gay ministries is, in a certain sense, how queer they are. I went to Exodus International’s 30th anniversary conference. Jerry Falwell was there to address Exodus, and he is quite controversial because of what he’s said in the past about gay people. The act that preceded Jerry Falwell was a skit from a Christian theater troupe about a former drag queen trying to join a church Bible study. At one point in the skit, the former drag queen talks about how he used to fantasize about a handsome hero taking him away. Eventually he realizes that Jesus is his real hero, and another character says, “That makes it sound like Jesus is your lover! That’s biblical!” So in front of Jerry Falwell, an ex-gay ministry said that it’s biblical for a man to call Jesus his lover! There is a certain kind of playfulness and queerness that is possible in their world to a degree that’s really surprising to me. And Jerry Falwell didn’t get up and leave.

Hannah Tepper

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