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On a Thursday night at the Delancey, seven blocks south of Big Lug, a different form of fat expression is on display. At midnight, the dancefloor is packed. Drag queens, rail-thin Williamsburg hipsters, and downtown professionals are sweating to the Scissor Sisters' "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'."
Above them, on a low stage, Glenn Marla, one of the party's go-go dancers, strikes a poselips pouting, arms raised, legs akimboand stares across the crowd. Marla is a sight to behold: 300 pounds of curly-haired androgyny, slathered in pink glitter and makeup, and clad in a ripped T-shirt, fishnet stockings, and a pink, bouncing strap-on dildo. His considerable belly extends unashamedly over a rhinestone fanny-pack.
New York's self-proclaimed "Hottest Fat Queer Go-Go," Marla, who was born female, does fat-themed performances at venues around New York City. For a recent Hanukkah-themed show at the Cock, the 23-year-old lit a candle in his ass and cajoled the crowd into doing the hora.
Marla wasn't always this comfortable with his body. Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, he has battled an eating disorder since his early teens. Eventually, his weight reached 500 pounds. Auditioning for theater school in Manhattan, he knew his outsize size was on people's minds. "I was too fat, even, to play the fat girl," he says.
Daily life in New York posed other challenges. People on the street called him names. On the subway, mothers would point him out to their children and say, "If you don't stop eating, you're going to end up like that." He dreaded job interviews. "I wouldn't wish my experiences on anybody," he says.
Then, in 2003, he stumbled on a call for performers at Jiggle-O, a cabaret benefit for NOLOSE. At the benefit, after dancing to "I Am What I Am," by Gloria Gaynor, he stripped off his clothes and, for the first time, stood onstage completely naked. "It was like a second coming out," he says.
After his performance, a few of the audience members approached him. "They were like, 'Oh my God, you need to come to NOLOSE,'" he says, and, that summer, with financial help from the organizers, he attended his first-ever NOLOSE conference. A weekend gathering of fat queers, with workshops, social events, and vendors selling fat-themed products, the conference set him on the path to becoming a fat- activist. "It was life changing," he says.
Dot Nelson-Turnier founded the group that became NOLOSE specifically for fat queer women in 1999. The first conference, which took place in a New Jersey hotel, drew approximately 50 womenmany of them "supersize" or disabled by their size.
These days, the annual NOLOSE conference attracts nearly 150 queer women and trans men from across the country and the group's mailing list has 800 subscribers. Among the conference offerings are seminars on grassroots activism and workshops on belly love. "Loving your belly," says Marla, "is a hard thing for people."
For some, the NOLOSE conference offers a first-ever chance to feel sexy. "I was always more of a slob in school," confides Meire. "I was never hot." Now she's a regular attendee, with particularly fond memories of the pool party. "Every year everybody gets naked," she says.
Others are drawn by the politics. "I'd politicized just about any kind of identity, oppression or issue," says Zoe Meleo-Erwin, one of the group's board members. Then her ex-girlfriend encouraged her to attend a NOLOSE meeting. "It totally fucked up my mind," she says. Now she's one of five people planning the group's first West Coast conference.
While some members of the group are critical of the very idea of "health," claiming that it merely gives thin people an excuse to judge fat people, others argue that health and fat shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive. "There are fat unhealthy people and there are skinny unhealthy people," says Leah Strock, a former board member and a nurse practitioner in Manhattan, "but not every fat person is unhealthy."
Tonda L. Hughes, a professor at the College of Nursing and School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written extensively about lesbian health, thinks Strock has the right idea. "Some people can be overweight and healthy," she says, "but not everybody." It's important for the community to accept different body sizes, Hughes argues, but also to remember that for many people obesity carries real health risks, including diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac disease.
Some members of the queer community are also offended by comparisons between fatness and queerness. "That's like saying the gay rights movement makes adultery or doing drugs OK," argues Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of Outsports.com, a gay and lesbian sports website. Zeigler worries about rising health-care costs. "Everyone has a responsibility to everyone else to stay healthy," he says.
Many NOLOSE attendees, however, argue that queers have a responsibility to question the status quo. "I think that anybody who has faced discrimination should be a bit more sensitive to it," says Strock. She wants to encourage doctors to start taking fat people's medical issues more seriously, and stop tying all of their ailmentsfrom in-grown toenails to stomach painsto their weight. "Imagine you went to a medical appointment," she says, "and they blamed everything on the fact that you were gay."