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Praying to Be Skinny and Straight: Why Evangelicals Are Concerned With Weight-loss and 'Ex-gay' Therapies

A new book reveals how evangelical culture equates gayness and fatness as both sinful inabilities to control urges.

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.

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