The social pressure facing gay men can overwhelm even the best of us—especially when that pressure comes from each other. Joining The Biggest Loser as its first openly gay contestant in 14 seasons, Jackson Carter knows all too well how demanding gay male culture can be as he struggled to fit into a world dictated by the right look and, above all, the right body. With the competition heating up (so far he's lost 62 pounds), we asked 21-year-old Jackson how the gay community has received his positive message about managing weight and his work with LGBT youth.
Out: What did it feel like coming onto the show as its first openly gay contestant?
Jackson Carter: It was never really my intention to be the first openly gay contestant. I really went in with the agenda of a big person, and then it just so happened that I was the first one who was willing to talk about being gay on the show. I’ve never really thought much about it, because I’ve always considered my sexuality a non-issue.
Has your sexuality affected how viewers respond to you?
Yes, definitely. People have really connected to me because of my sexuality, because I came out on the show. I think my story is very relatable to a lot of people. There’s a lot of stigma around being overweight when you’re a gay man. You may not feel completely accepted by the community. You don’t fit in with your straight friends, and you don’t fit in with your gay friends. It puts you in this weird limbo. It’s very hard to be overweight and gay, so I think I have really shown a lot of overweight LGBT people that if you’re not happy with yourself then you can change it. If you’re happy with where you’re at, then great. But I wasn’t happy with my body, and now I am.
What do you see in gay culture that makes it hard for gays to be comfortable with their bodies?
There seems to be a uniform. Every gay man is expected to have the washboard abs, the nice legs, the tight butt. I didn’t have any of that. It made me feel uncomfortable to go out to a club, or to go out and meet a guy. I’ve never felt good enough about myself to do any that. I’ve never been able to say this, but a lot of my hesitations within the community—with going out to the club or meeting guys—was mental. As soon as I got out of my own way, I started to really accept myself for who I was. I really started to make progress in that area.
Back home in Utah, you volunteer with the Ogden OUTreach Resource Center, working with LGBT youth. What lessons from the show have you brought to your work with teens?
Something that I brought back to my youth work was telling teens to just be happy with themselves—to be good enough for themselves and nothing else in the world will matter. That was a very hard lesson for me to learn. For so long, I strived, I was hungry for the acceptance of my peer group. No matter how much I wanted to get there, I never seemed able to achieve it. But on the show I learned that my best is my best. I did everything I could to do a project, to do something that, even though it has flaws, it’s mine. I have to be happy about that.
What really kept me going was knowing how much everyone at home had sacrificed for me to be there. I had to leave my job, I had to leave school, I had to give up my volunteer position at the center. I didn’t want to let those people down, and as I progressed, I realized that I didn’t want to let myself down. This is something I have struggled with my whole life. My weight has been an issue for me as long as I can remember. I finally felt like I was taking charge, like I was taking my life back from this demon who had had it for so long. I did not want to give it up again. It didn’t matter how many times I threw up, how many blisters I had, or how much every part of my body hurt, I eventually got to the point where I got up hungry to get another beating from the trainers.
Any particularly special moments when you powered through the pain?
You know, I wore my Ogden wristband, and if I ever got to a point in a workout when I thought that I couldn’t do it anymore, I would look at it and realize that I’m doing this for my kids. I can’t let another day go by. I’d look at that, and I’d get motivated again.
Watch "The Biggest Loser" Mondays at 8 p.m. EST.