John Lyttle

You can be as thin as an after-dinner mint or a real Muscle Mary, but a fat gay man breaks all the rules

Two unforgivable things a gay man shouldn't do: one, knowingly infect another human being with HIV, condemning them to a lingering death; and, two, get fat.

I have, of course, reversed the order of importance. Getting fat is the biggie. Pile on the pounds - I say pounds because gay men cannot grasp kilos, just as we fail to understand metric after years of thinking in inches - and you are automatically past your cellulite date, disqualified from running the sex race, and off the gay scene, happy hunting ground of the terminally taut. Unless you court the chubby chaser vote at Bulk in Earl's Court or any other club that self-consciously caters for the absolutely flabulous.

I know. I was a fat gay man. (That sentence makes me feel like I've just come out again.) Which is to say, I was a living contradiction in terms. You can be a skinny queen, so wafer thin that in your next life you'd be an after-dinner mint if only it didn't mean you'd actually contain calories; you can be a Muscle Mary with tits so inflated you're part bouncy castle; you can even flaunt - insert Psycho shower scene music here - a centre parting (though Peter Tatchell must be petitioned for permission), but being a fat gay man breaks all the unwritten rules. It's careless - as in couldn't care less - and carelessness disrupts the complex, high maintenance relationship gay men have with their bodies; a relationship we have now passed on to modern heterosexual man, as a meaningful glance at the many vanity publications passing as male "health" mags shows.

Let's get a love handle on this. Maybe gay men's obsession with Slim Fast (it's gorgeous with chips) and circuit training is a knee jerk - up, down, repeat - response to being told to despise their bodies because what they do with them is "unnatural". The feel-bad factor is defied by defining tanned torsos and golden calves all the more, creating, recreating and casually subverting a standard image of masculinity the world says we are not entitled to. If, as Quentin Crisp suggested, there is no "great dark man", then why not be your own great, dark man? Work out and be the dream you thought you'd never find - especially not in the mirror at the gym.

The gym might be punishment for some, but it's pleasure for many gay men. Just as ownership of a male body is unrepentant pleasure for gay men in a manner straight men are only now allowed to admit to, 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity isn't really about efficient function - increasing lung capacity, indeed - but about increasing pulling power, about permissible narcissism, about self, self, self. The off the peg self, for it's easy to treat the body as commodity, costume and butch drag. Which explains why various features can be focused on and fetishised as, well, fashion accessories: nipples last year, washboard bellies now, with the butt predicted to make a comeback. The body has become an open, yet unacknowledged, source of (admittedly shallow) gay pride; particularly the pseudo-adolescent, V-shaped torso, so ubiquitious as to be both badge and uniform.

Uniform is the word, is the word, is the word. Fat has no place in this gentlemen's club. They get fat, not us: we have extraordinary pressures to keep our shapes toned, our contours firm. Fat ruins the party line; not so much a cop-out as an opt-out, a refusal to buy into the economy of desire. Which, as excuses for being overweight go, sure beats "It's me glands".

I let (myself) go 10 years ago. In a stable relationship and after years of preening for strangers - of figuratively holding in my gut - I waved bye-bye to body fascism. Oh, keep talking, talking happy fat: gaining weight made me feel secure in a way neither thinness nor the Nautilus machine could. Hence, I suppose the appeal of "bears" (fuller figured older guys) and "mountain men" (Grizzly Adams lookalikes) to some younger gay men: security. Security in a culture that goes with the flow.

Now I'm in reverse - diet hard with a vengenace - though there are days when the weight loss (5st in 10 months) and major refurbishment seem a symptom of chaos, not certainty. Then there are days when I convince myself it's about those gay trademarks, reinvention and renewal. I do know it's about roles and representation - my body is now acceptably coded - and about bad timing. Bad timing because Aids has put the issue back into tissue, and I notice that the boys are becoming chunkier, more filled out, carrying little rolls around the middle, denying the wasted look, holding on to flesh rather than (night) sweating it off. Hopeful fat, not happy fat.

Which is a switch. Just as straight men confess to doing the gym thing because they love looking at their reflections and seeing hot little numbers, more and more gay men attend for health reasons: mental and physical, collective and individual. You could call it Pumping Irony.

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