Reflections of a Body Outsider (Part 1)
Big Boy Pride. Big. Boy. Pride. The title alone cannot help but prompt a rash of questions, ones similar to other social identity affirmation events like Gay Pride or Black Pride. First, what exactly is a “big boy?” Who qualifies? What are they proud of exactly? And, what about it implies something queer or gay? For a first-timer like myself at what is euphemistically referred to by its patrons as BBP, merely agreeing to attend this event meant consenting to a certain set of assumptions about myself, ones largely viewed with ire and disdain by the broader culture. As if being Black, gay, from humble beginnings, of Chiraq, and respectively originating from mentally challenged and/or chemically dependent parents weren’t all enough without adding yet another layer, another “ding.” This marker some viewed as transformative, others transgressive, and more still as an indicator of sin (The sloth! The gluttony!) and a host of social pathologies (Oh, the laziness, the undisciplined!). To attend an event like this was to stick a middle finger in the air at all of this to say most simply: “I am.”
Accordingly, a handful of less rebellious, yet large friends turned down invitations to attend the Big Boy Pride festivities with the 10 or so strong coming from my Detroit contingency. Some were not quite ready to embrace the weight of those three words, pardon the pun. But, after several false starts into this double-dutch rope, I was ready to jump into this space with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, even if I wasn’t yet entirely 24/7 “proud” to be a “big boy,” wasn’t quite prepared for the vulnerable experience of taking off my shirt and having my tummy rubbed adoringly, wasn’t wholly comfortable in the new 4X spring wardrobe purchased to “slay the children” while secretly wondering if it was possible to slay anything in a 4x Polo but my pride. Yet, BBP, here I come, ready for whatever new ventures awaited me and those like me. And, by like me, I mean those with a complicated relationship and history with their body. Those whose spacious presence our intersectional communities sometimes embrace but largely reject so much that such an event and corresponding movement proved necessary at all.
When one arrives at a national event boasting hundreds from all over the country, there are bound to be pockets, sects, separations, if you will, under the clarion call banners demanding “unity.” Accordingly, there are subtle divides in the body utopia that is Big Boy Pride, most largely unspoken, lest it ruin the egalitarian mood of the event. Upon one’s arrival, one immediately sees that there are those who are unapologetic in their size, rocking an assortment of thongs, singlets, and other seductive, sometimes sheer gear overflowing with Diasporic shades of flesh. They do usually appear to lean more toward the femme side of our community, those who have long had many other fights to just be themselves. So, one suspects this pro-sex nakedness was more a walk in the park compared to much of their social identity stances over the years, though one can never know for sure. Then, there are the cool kids, big boy social media group darlings and event “juniors” and “seniors” who have been to multiple BBP events and are greeted from the start as something between celebrities and family. Of course, there are the wallflowers, ever watching, conservative, heavily clothed, revealing little in flesh and in their visibly guarded perspective of the going-ons of the event. The latter are often the folks who might have otherwise made snide, sidebar comments or jokes to distance themselves from “those kinds of gays” or, in this instance, “those kinds of big boys,” but for the banners declaring BBP a “No Shade Zone” that silenced all but their hooded, critical gaze. Lastly, there were those, generally sage by age or more liberated by the millennial conventions of youth, who have “a live and let live” attitude about it all, wagging fingers with an accompanying “yassss!” at the bold and the beautiful or just quietly nodding with approving smiles that elders give those who are claiming their joy earlier in life than perhaps they had. Collectively, they made quite the assortment of delectable chocolates, some bitter, some sweet.
Me? I was a little bit of all of these at once, depending on the time and day, as BBP can be as triggering as illuminating and extolling. Mostly, there were those I envied, those in-between. Largely, both masculine and feminine presenting men dressed in shorts and skin, basking in the glory of the Florida rays.
It was they who captivated me the most. Those who stood outside under the natural amber glow with the pool water glistening off of the brown skins of round tummies, clinging to protruding caramel love handles daring to be grabbed and moistening thick pectorals somewhere in-between the status of a chest and breasts awaiting touch.
I lacked the bravery and carefreeness displayed by hundreds of cubs, bears, chubs, superchubs, otters, and chaser brethren who confidently splashed, played, and luxuriated in the Orlando heat over the four official days of the Eighth Annual Big Boy Pride at the Parliament House pool. The privilege of standing bare-chested in the sun, in the sparkling chlorine water, or just outside in a public space before the caressing or judging eyes of others is something Black men of size seldom can take for granted, particularly not gay men of size, trained to be particularly attuned to the harsh judgement of the male gaze. And yet, here they gloriously were and having the time of their lives as they just allowed themselves to be, sometimes for the first time in their entire lives, without shame. Some with tears of joyous release and relief in their eyes at this rare moment gifted to themselves, partaking in just part of what it means to attend co-founders Jay King Holiday and Tony Brown’s Big Boy Pride since 2011, to have this freedom to just be bare and cool in and around the water. And, yet, just as many stood on the sidelines like me, covered and watching, having taken the step to be identified among those who’d attend BBP, but not quite ready to take that step into that next level of liberation and self-celebration as Oshun’s more abundant children.
Not that I wasn’t asked, which was when I was sometimes most triggered.
“Why do you still have that shirt on, handsome?”
“Yeah, let’s see all that body-ody-ody.”
“Nah, I’m good. That’s not my ministry,” was often my sheepish reply with an assuring laugh as I furiously wiped away the unrelenting sweat from my pouring brow.
Repeatedly, folks looked at me in my short-sleeved gym shirt and told me how uncomfortably hot I looked in it in the 90-degree heat and that I should take off that carefully chosen covers. Some out of concern, some with lust in their tone. None meaning any harm, and yet there I was in a school’s gym locker room again, unable to breezily take off my shirt like the other more narrow-chested boys. Even in utopia, there are demons in the mind.
L. Michael Gipson is a writer, educator, and 24-year advocate for a host of social justice causes, L. Michael Gipson, MS is the co-founder of the Beyond Identities Community Center for LGBTQ youth in Cleveland, the Black Alphabet Film Festival in Chicago, and the Black Bear Brotherhood in Detroit. Currently, Gipson is the Founder and Principal of Faithwalk, LLC and the Urban [W]rites project. A Red Dirt Press author, Gipson serves as Editor-at-Large at SoulTracks.com and Lead Writer and Co-Producer of the PBS docuseries Indie Soul Journeys.