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“Fatness and obesity in Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans (LBT) women are a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – self-inflicted abuse on the body in order to shun any unwanted sexual attention or emotional interest from people,” said Dr Pinar Ilkkaracan of Turkey, at the 5th CSBR Sexuality Institute at Alexandria, Egypt, which I attended in September of last year.
I am no exception to the LBT women Pinar was referring to. I am turning 37 this year, which makes me “older” than most of my other LBT and straight friends. Unfortunately, there is no culture-specific information to reinforce Pinar’s theory concerning the subtle forms of discrimination and sexual violence that fat and obese queer women experience in their daily lives.
Fatphobia-induced sexism, xenophobia and homophobia go back a long way. “Homosexuality” and “obesity” were both equated as “diseases” by the medical community in the 19th century. Oddly enough, the medical establishment at that time had pathologized same-sex sexual attraction and larger bodies to offer cures for these newly discovered diseases. Those who deviated from social norms were assured that, with the help of medical science, homosexuals and the obese could become “normal,” that is, heterosexual and thin.
Gay rights and fat rights advocates challenged these notions in the latter half of the 20th century in the West. The movements were aimed at de-pathologizing what medicine called “homosexuality” and “obesity,” by asserting that different sexual orientations and body sizes were both inevitable and largely unalterable, and that being gay or fat was not a disease.
The repercussions of pathologizing are visible even today. The Atlantic Wire offers a great analysis on the “fat lesbian” study initiated by the US government very recently. The Obama administration is spending $1.5 million just to find out why lesbians are fat. Why there isn’t a study called “why straight men are fat”? or “why are gay men and butch women desirable?” or why “fat gays and fat lesbians are more likely to get venereal diseases and scabies and their health insurance sucks?” or “why lesbians and gays are more prone to PTSD and hypertension than straight men and women”? Why not?
Sexist exploitation of fat queer people is intrinsically linked with bigotries – based on class and social privilege – which includes homophobic and racist slurs, misogyny, ablest attitudes including sympathy sex, xenophobia, and attacks on religious beliefs that are often accompanied by negative silent treatment in order to disparage the person’s sense of self-worth and belonging.
The bullying and intimidation tactics are many. “Aunty, Uncle, you’re never going to find anyone to spend your life with” or “lose weight and people will find you very hot” or “you need to have sex, so-and-so person is horny, read between the lines.” Or the privileged ones would approach you themselves and ask politely, “can I please touch your boobs? or “show me your boobs” or “can I get a hug?” or “there is an exciting job opening, upon the condition that you sleep with me (because so-and-so beauty with brains wouldn’t go to bed with me).” There’s always “why are you still single? You should definitely go to a gym or swim or workout,” or “How can you date a woman from another religion? That is so disgusting,” or “At some schools in the US, gay and lesbian teachers have their own staff rooms, we don’t have that here, deal with it” – these are some of the commonest forms of emotional abuse experienced by fat gays and lesbians, especially from men, and in some instances it is from people within the LGBT community.
The tragedy is that there is no sense of accountability on the long-term emotional and psychological impact of those actions, especially for a person who’s grown up in a conservative environment where child sexual abuse and incest are commonplace and one has taken years to muster up the courage to speak up against these injustices. A research article at Everyday Feminism re-affirms that most privileged people don’t even realize the impact of their bigoted actions. No matter how pure or good in their intentions they may claim to be, they are essentially hurting and causing irreparable damage. She asserts that intention is only an excuse for the privileged to easily wash their hands off of guilt and responsibility. “It [only] takes the person who said or did the hurtful thing out of the center and places the person who was hurt in the center. It ensures that the conversation is about how “what they did” hurts other people and further marginalizes or oppresses people. And it’s important for people to understand the difference.”
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, racism and classist attitudes are not formally recognized as trauma factors for PTSD in the DSM-IV. Therefore, understandably, most mental health & medical professionals fail to take into account the major factors including old age, unexpected loss of loved ones, gender and social class, especially with middle-aged females from a lower socio-economic bracket that are most susceptible to developing PTSD.
Upon return from Egypt, I had the opportunity to speak to Zakia Haider, a middle-aged woman, literature graduate and gold medalist from a conservative religious family in Northern Pakistan, about her experiences. I had met Zakia at a clinic of a psychiatrist we both were seeing four years ago. Her story illustrates the impact of these interlocking forms of oppression on individuals’ lives.
Zakia was hired (after incessant interrogation about her marriage and education plans) by an executive corporate firm on probation, with a good pay-scale in the big city of Lahore. However, from day one she was criticized and cornered for wearing “beggar-like” clothes, “obesity,” and “character judgements” based on her lifestyle – having no boyfriend or fiancé or spouse or children, and living away from her family.
That was not all. Her human rights activism work, which she had not cared to remove from her résumé, also came under fire, and her every move was scrutinized. “I went crazy with all the rude surveillance and finger-pointing,” she says. “I couldn’t tell the difference between man and woman anymore. They all looked alike, like an exploitative capitalist-elitist system where I only saw myself as a slave. I started taking heavy diet pills without prescription to lose weight, and lying about marriage plans with imaginary fiancé living and studying in a foreign developed country,” recalls Zakia, who now works from home.
“I issued a formal letter of apology mentioning I cannot violate confidentiality of the work I do with human rights organizations and cannot disclose any information pertaining to them. They obviously didn’t like that either. I suppose, they were suspicious of my biological sex now,” Zakia laughs, and goes on: “Six months later, I am asked to resign from my job based on impossible reasons – bad note-taking skills, poor attire at work, using the phone during meetings and not using the coaster for my tea-cup,” she says at the brink of tears, “It is crazy, I hardly get any phone calls or make any phone calls, I just had the habit of looking at the mobile phone like I would look at any electronic device. I had told them during my interview that I’m dyslexic. I don’t understand why they had hired me in the first place. They could’ve at least told me my note-taking was bad, from the very beginning,” she says.
For Zakia, it didn’t end there. The day after she had lost her job, she was approached by a man she had forced herself to date few years back, for a job in another city. “That man had raped me, and I had made my parents witness to what he had done, and requested him never to contact me again. I could not press charges because there is no law to press charges against lesbian rape. Four years later, he is contacting me as if nothing had ever happened,” Zakia yells. Proceeding with caution, Zakia brought the issue up, referring to the man’s attempts to emotionally exploit her joblessness, and his invasion of her privacy, but his colleagues and a Western NGO backed his so-called “clean character.” The very next day after lodging a complaint against him, she was sent a legal notice on defamation charges against someone she barely knew, who was also blogging negative opinions about her and her queer identity without her knowledge. “I couldn’t handle the pressure, and didn’t have money to fight for my case. The best I could do was sell feminist calendars with supportive people that I’d made in memory of my late friend, Nehdia Sameen, to pay back the elitists who were supporting me for ‘charity’ reasons. After that, I went quiet, and simply gave up on the case. There was nothing left to fight for, really, and I took refuge in my family who needed me at the time,” she concludes.
Anyone who violates a person’s consent and their right to privacy, respect and dignity should be held accountable for his or her actions – that is the most basic step to alleviate rape culture, and oppression politics. The irony of Zakia’s story is that not even once did she express regret or ill feelings towards people who had been exploiting her, and no resolve in taking drastic action against them. She is well aware of her class privilege, and learnt the hard way to understand how people actually perceive her. She was made to see herself as a gender outcast, masculine and fat, instead of a brave and intelligent woman from a conservative middle class family trying to change the world in her own small ways.
Owing to homophobia and transphobia against women like Zakia, heterosexist men feel no hesitation or shame in replicating the code of ethics on sexist commentary and bigoted attitudes towards fat queer women, no matter where it comes from. This calls for greater responsibility on part of the LGBT community, and humanity, to set itself apart from sexism, rape culture and bigotry towards its own kind.
To address the issues of bigotry, women and men like Zakia are benefitting from new queer positive emerging educational initiatives like Drag It to the Top and Dayar-e-Yaar (Friend’s Place) on Facebook and Twitter, from conscientious brown Muslim feminists who are working towards creating spaces for queer solidarity and intersectional queer feminist anti-oppression politics. These groups are actively engaged in deconstructing gender binaries and fashion myths to help people confront capitalism, racism, sexism and rape culture within our societies and the world at large. Therefore, as far as my food, livelihood, books, chocolate and consent are concerned, anyone who tries to mess with them is definitely getting a legal notice from me, and from Zakia.