All posts by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Animal rights, not vegan rights

[Image: Buster, a steer with curly dark brown hair, stands in a field surrounded by smiling human friends.]

Update, July 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). My points about animal rights still remain.

Direct Action Everywhere, the animal liberation group I’m currently involved with, has come under fire for (amongst other things) not promoting veganism. This charge is misleading. As my friend and DxE co-founder Wayne Hsiung explains, we do not condone the use of non-human animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. However, the mainstream conception of veganism puts the focus on humans and our desires and vanity, not on the primary victims of animal agriculture.

Harvey at Preetirang Sanctuary[Image: The face of Harvey, a calf with brown and white hair. A human with long blonde hair is holding his chin and looking into his eyes.]

The original definition of “vegan,” a word coined by Donald Watson and his wife Dorothy, encompassed more than a plant-based diet; it was an ethical objection to violence. Unfortunately, that meaning has been almost entirely lost, and veganism is now largely seen as merely a dietary choice for privileged people. I respect those activists who are trying to reclaim the word, and simultaneously speak out against human oppression, such as Sarah K. Woodcock of The Abolitionist Vegan Society and Corey Wrenn of Vegan Feminist Network and The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. However, I have chosen to focus instead on the phrase “animal liberation,” while fighting for the same goal as the abolitionists: Ending the property status of non-human animals. I believe DxE’s increasing press coverage has shown it is possible to spread this message effectively without using or emphasizing the word “vegan.”

Kush at Preetirang Sanctuary
[Image: The face of Kush, a goat with brown and white hair.]

We activists are allies to our fellow animals, and we should be amplifying their voices, not just promoting the nondairy cheeses and faux flesh products that many see as somehow intrinsic to a vegan diet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these products (in my opinion), but companies like Whole Foods and Chipotle market them to keep vegans quiet about the bodies, eggs, and milk of murdered animals that they market to humans with healthy incomes. Instead of promoting their humane-washing, activists might consider volunteering with organizations like Food Not Bombs and the Food Empowerment Project, to make plant-based meals more accessible to people who are poor, homeless, or living in food deserts.

Shiva at Preetirang Sanctuary
[Image: The face of Shiva, a steer with curly white hair.]

Regardless, our fellow animals should the focus in animal liberation messaging. Human activists should not be held up as the heroes of the movement. That would be like featuring white allies in promotional materials for #BlackLivesMatter, or cis allies in promotional materials for trans rights. Not that this hasn’t been done before…

Mahalakshmi at Preetirang Sanctuary
[Image: Mahalakshmi, a cow with brown hair, stands in a field chewing hay.]

The photos in this post were taken last November at PreetiRang Sanctuary. (Originally published on Facebook, I have now made the full set available on Flickr as well.) At PreetiRang, I had the pleasure of meeting Buster, the sixteen-year-old steer pictured at the top of this post. He would never have lived that long in the dairy industry, where he was destined to be killed mere weeks or months after being torn from his mother’s side. Buster died last week, sadly, but he was surrounded by loving human and non-human friends. Every animal rights activist should make it a priority to visit a sanctuary if they can, to connect personally with the faces we fight for.

Disclosure and erasure

[Image: A person stands on a street in a parade, holding a large circular red sign reading “I’m Bi!” in white letters.]

The other day I was listening to a work by the late great Leonard Bernstein (Mass, for the record*), and I started perusing his Wikipedia page. I learned that there is debate over his sexual orientation. It’s pretty clear he wasn’t straight, but some, including his ex-wife and a friend, have said he was gay, while others claim he was bisexual.

As a Wikipedia editor on the LGBT Studies task force, I know the importance of self-identification for sexual orientation (as well as gender identity). For living people, the standards are clear: We do not label them as being anything other than straight unless there is documented evidence in reliable publications that they self-identify otherwise. For historical figures, it can be a bit more difficult.

Wikipedia currently categorizes Bernstein under bisexual men and bisexual musicians. I admit that this makes me happy as a former bisexual (I now identify as queer) who is very mindful of bi erasure. I’ve known a lot of bisexuals in opposite-sex marriages and long-term relationships who were presumed to be straight, myself included (before my transition), and some in same-sex relationships who were presumed to be gay. Some did not mind this, as they were not publicly out as bi, which is their right of course.

But for myself, I felt I had to make a point that I was bi, or have my identity erased. This was even more challenging for monogamous bisexuals, who also did not like the assumption that bisexuals all sleep with “anything that moves.” While I and many of my bi friends are polyamorous, being poly is no more inherent to bisexuality than to monosexuality.

So when I was active in the bisexual community, I encouraged people who I thought were bi to come out as such. I didn’t think there was anything weird or shameful about being bi, since so many of my friends were. I thought it was just obvious that most people were somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale rather than completely hetero or homosexual, and that we should all embrace our bisexual potential instead of being forced to choose sides.

Since learning more about gender and sex in the course of my transition, I’ve realized the error of my ways. Sexuality is much more complicated than the Kinsey scale implies. I cannot and should not assume anyone’s sexual identity from their behavior or even stated preferences, nor should I pressure anyone to “come out” or identify with any particular label. How a person labels their sexual orientation is for them and them alone to determine. No one else.

I still feel that bi erasure is a big problem, however. I was literally yelling at the screen while watching the first season of Orange is the New Black, as it seemed obvious to me that the central character was bi, yet the writers refused to use the word. The woman whose memoir the series was based on, Piper Kerman, has clearly self-identified as bisexual, so the description of her as an “ex-lesbian” without acknowledging her bisexuality was infuriating to me. (Of course, the series is hardly a realistic depiction of prison life either, as many critics have noted.)

I’ll close by re-iterating that we shouldn’t just throw out all the labels. Labels are useful to help us understand our sexualities better, and find mutual support. But they must be self-chosen.

* Despite being an atheist, or perhaps because of it, I find myself drawn to musicals with Judeo-Christian religious themes. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are some of my favorites.

Sometimes you’re just a jelly donut

[Image: Frosted donuts in an open box.]

Today’s Everyday Feminism article by Sam Dylan Finch on coming out as non-binary reminded me of a story I wrote shortly after my own coming out, two years ago. It’s a political allegory that expresses my frustration at being non-binary in a binary world. I was hoping the story would get more attention so that someone might illustrate it; I released it under a free Creative Commons license for that purpose. I’m re-posting it here; hopefully it will now reach more people and at least be entertaining!

Sometimes you’re just a jelly donut: A nonbinary gender political allegory

by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Happy birthday! You just turned 18 years old, and are happily walking to the city hall of your small town to register to vote for the first time. You have have done a lot of research and thought a lot about your values and beliefs, and have decided that you want to join the Jelly Donut party, dedicated to providing free delicious jelly donuts for everyone to enjoy.

You arrive at the registration office and are greeted by an officer. They smile and say “Hello, citizen! I see you are here to register to vote. As you are wearing a red shirt, clearly you are in the Strawberry Shortcake party. Here is your registration form.”

You frown. “I’m wearing a red shirt because I like the color red,” you explain. “But I do not want to join the Strawberry Shortcake party. I want to join the Jelly Donut party.”

Now the elections official frowns. “Citizen, I’ve known your parents since you were in diapers. You were raised to be a Strawberry Shortcake. You haven’t shown any evidence of wanting to be in the Peach Cobbler party.”

“I said Jelly Donut, not Peach Cobbler,” you say with some exasperation. “I have nothing against either Strawberry Shortcake or Peach Cobbler, and it’s true I like the color red and have eaten plenty of strawberry shortcake in my time. But I have been reading about the Jelly Donut party and decided I really like what they have to say and want to identify myself as one of them, for the promotion and consumption of delicious jelly donuts.”

“Citizen,” the officer says sternly, “The Jelly Donut party is on the fringe, it is illegitimate. Registering with them would be throwing your vote away. In this town we do not offer a registration form for third parties. You must choose to be in either the Strawberry Shortcake or the Peach Cobbler party. Though for the life of me I cannot understand why you would want to be a Peach Cobbler when you are so clearly a Strawberry Shortcake.”

“Look,” you yell, now really angry, “I don’t care what you think I look like, I don’t want to be a Strawberry Shortcake OR a Peach Cobbler. If you won’t let me register as a Jelly Donut, then I don’t want to pick a political party at all. But I still want to register to vote. Can I just register as nonpartisan?”

“No,” says the officer, “You must choose. Everyone in this town is either a Shortcake or a Cobbler. We are a tolerant town and are split pretty evenly between the two, and many folks don’t insist that one choice is inherently better than the other. But you can’t be in-between or something else. If you insist that despite your appearance and upbringing you are really a Cobbler, not a Shortcake, then I can change your registration, but first you’ll have to put on a yellow shirt.”

“What?!?” you cry. “I have no problem with peach cobbler, in fact I get along quite well with Cobblers, but I really hate the color yellow. What does that color have to do with Peach Cobbler anyway? Even if I wanted to register as a Cobbler, couldn’t I do that and still wear red?”

“That would be highly unusual and improper,” says the officer. “You would have difficulty attending Cobbler meetings wearing red, and would always have to explain yourself. Why can’t you just accept that you are a Shortcake?”

“I’m not a Shortcake. I’m not a Cobbler,” you insist. “I’m a Jelly Donut. And I know there are others out there like me. Some are Chocolate Chip Cookies, some are Gingerbread, and yes, some do not belong to any party at all. But we should ALL have the right to vote, and wear what we please.”

“Then citizen,” sighs the officer, “This is not the town for you. I suggest you move somewhere where you think these fringe people and parties you speak of actually exist. Good luck.”

You stare at the officer, pull your shirt over your head and throw it to the floor, then walk out of the building.

We just need to pee

[Image: A restroom sign showing the stick figure of a person wearing a skirt and the word MEN underneath.]

This morning I jammed a one inch long needle into my thigh. I’ve done this every other week for over a year now, to inject the testosterone I need to stay healthy and sane. As many times as I’ve done this procedure, I still get nervous and my heart races, every time.

But that nervousness is nothing compared to how I often feel when entering a men’s restroom. I made the decision that when I began testosterone therapy last January, I would no longer use women’s restrooms. Since last July I’ve had identification that shows I’m legally male, but that’s not enough for conservatives and TERFs who would still bar me from men’s facilities on the grounds that I’m “biologically female.”

The bathroom police are calling for bounties on trans people for using restrooms that do not correspond with our birth-assigned sexes. In some cases they are actually resorting to chromosomes as the test of one’s “true” sex, which, as I’ve pointed out, is patently ridiculous and discriminatory, however they plan to verify this information.

While the primary targets of this bathroom policing are trans women and girls, trans men and boys are also hurt by these arbitrary policies. This high school student is being told he can’t use the boy’s restroom because he was “born female.” What exactly is the school administration afraid of? Do they really think the cis boys using the restroom are at risk from this child? Do they not recognize the harm of forcing him to use the girl’s room, where he does not belong, or a unisex restroom, where he suffers the stigma of being separated out from his peers?

A bathroom selfie campaign that went viral, #WeJustNeedToPee, showed the ridiculousness of forcing a bearded trans man to use a woman’s restroom. But the important thing is that there’s no particular way a trans man, woman, or nonbinary person should look to “confirm” their gender, and our outward presentation should not dictate which facilities we are allowed to use. Trans women in particular are often policed for looking “too femme” if they wear makeup, dresses, and heels, but if they wear a T-shirt and jeans like many cis women do, they often aren’t seen as womanly enough to be granted access to women’s spaces.

I was especially nervous using a public restroom yesterday because of the way I was dressed. It was over 80 degrees out, so I wore a light gray V-neck T-shirt with nothing underneath. It was a fairly loose shirt (and a “men’s” style), but my breasts were still visible underneath. I decided that I would rather put up with potential stares and misgendering than suffer from heatstroke.

As I approached the restroom, another person headed in, making eye contact with me before doing so. I pretended to check my phone while waiting for him to come out, hoping he wouldn’t take long. After he exited, I waited another minute and then went in, did my business and got out as fast as possible.

I don’t like having to think every day about what I’m wearing, where I’m going, how long I’ll be out, what kinds of people will be in the space, whether there will be a unisex restroom, and if not, whether the men’s room will have a stall with a functional door lock. I didn’t have to think about these things before my transition, and I shouldn’t have to now. I’m not in there to spy on anyone, I’m there to pee and get out. Neither my breasts, nor my vulva and vagina, nor my uterus and ovaries, nor my chromosomes are relevant when I’m in a restroom. The only body part that’s relevant is my bladder, and my need to empty it.

If you want to help stop the bathroom policing, please speak out against it whenever you read or hear about these policies. Consider signing this pledge by the Transgender Law Center. Some other things you can do in your school or workplace:

  • Ensure that everyone can use men’s and women’s restrooms without being asked for identification or otherwise harassed.
  • If you have no unisex restrooms, lobby to create one. (But don’t force trans people to use it instead of gendered facilities.)
  • If you have single-occupancy restrooms that are gendered, lobby to make them unisex.

And for the love of whatever you believe in, please stop referring to “biological sex.”

Please help stop bathroom policing. We all just need to pee.

The Art of Survival

[Image: Four women in creative, colorful outfits sing and dance on a stage.]

This Sunday I attended The Art of Survival, a vegan arts, music, and food festival held in San Francisco. I found out about this event only a week ago, and thought it would be a great opportunity to photograph some bands in a non-violent setting. The organizer, Andreas Knüttel, is also a photographer; I’d met him previously at a Direct Action Everywhere gathering. I knew it would be my kind of party when his invitation asked attendees to please “not wear animal products i.e. leather, wool, fur and silk.

Coley 'n Mikki performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A man and a woman sing into microphones on a stage. The man plays guitar and wears blue-rimmed glasses and a black shirt. The woman wears a black hat and a black shirt with a large black and white design.]

Coley 'n Mikki performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A man and a woman smile at each other on a stage. The man plays guitar and wears blue-rimmed glasses, a black shirt, and blue jeans. The woman wears a black hat, a black shirt with a large black and white design, black skirt and leggings.]

The opening act, Acoustic Love with Coley ‘n Mikki (aka The Cole Tate Band), turned out to be my favorite set. This was a newlywed couple, and you could see their love for each other in their performance. I especially liked their cover of Come Together, a song I’ve enjoyed singing while playing on the bass (though my voice has dropped too much to sing the lead part well anymore, as I discovered!)

Oinga Boinga performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A woman with bright red hair, dramatic makeup, and a black outfit with sparkly trim plays bass on a stage.]

Oinga Boinga performing at The Art of Survival
[Image:Two women posing on a stage. One is wearing a black bodice, skirt, and tights, turquoise sleeves and eyepatch, and a very long braid. The other is looking at her, wearing a gray curly wig with pink rollers, black-rimmed eyeglasses, long black bushy beard, sparkly top, and black fishnet stockings with red garters.]

The next act, Oinga Boinga, was an all-female cover band of Oingo Boingo. I could not possibly do justice to describing their fabulous outfits in my extended image descriptions, though I made an effort for the sake of those using screen readers! In the above image and the one at the top of this post, they were doing a performance of Minnie the Moocher, a call-and-response classic.

The Moonsaults performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A woman with a colorful crop top and full sleeve tattoos sings into a microphone, one hand on her hip. A guitarist plays behind her.]

The Moonsaults performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A woman with a colorful crop top and full sleeve tattoos sings into a microphone. A guitarist plays behind her.]

Next up was The Moonsaults, in their debut performance. Their name apparently comes from a pro wrestling move.

Secret Cat performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A four-person band performs on a stage. A guitarist with bright red hair is singing into a microphone.]

Secret Cat performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A guitarist with bright red hair performs on a stage.]

Secret Cat was a very high-energy, very loud band. Really would have been great to get video of their stage antics.

Cello Joe performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A man with rectangular glasses sings into a microphone while playing the cello.]

Cello Joe performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A man with rectangular glasses sings into a microphone while playing the cello.]

Cello Joe, aka Joey Chang, was an artist I had already seen and enjoyed twice previously. He was lucky to be alive and well to perform at this event, as his house burned down last week and he and his girlfriend lost everything (he was able to grab his best cello). Their friends started a fundraiser to help them recover.

Earth Amplified performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: Two men wearing colorful shirts , one with long dreadlocks and one with a cap, sing on a stage.]

Earth Amplified performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A man wearing a cap and colorful shirt sings into a microphone.]

Earth Amplified performing at The Art of Survival
[Image: A man with long dreadlocks, lit by red stage light, sings into a microphone.]

Earth Amplified closed out the show, with plenty of audience participation. After shooting some last pictures, I finally cut loose and danced. It had been a long time.

It had been years since I’d shot an indoor concert, and it felt good to make use of my special skill at low-light concert photography again. I’ve made the full set of photos available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license for free sharing, with attribution. If you like my work, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon or leaving me a tip so I can continue to do free shoots like this.

Light the path to liberation

[Image: A large group of people wearing blue shirts and holding candles stands outside Macy’s at night. Two people are holding signs reading UNTIL EVERY ANIMAL IS FREE, and one person is speaking into a megaphone.]

Edit, July 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE)I still remain committed to ending the oppression of all animals, human and non-human.

Last night I attended and photographed my second Direct Action Everywhere event this month, Light the Path to Liberation. This action was part of a worldwide animal rights event, with participation from several dozen organizations and hundreds of individuals. Here in San Francisco, we marched to places where the bodies of animals are sold, lit candles, and spoke out against the violence.

At our rehearsal gathering before the action, I saw faces both familiar and new, including human and nonhuman friends.

DxE Light the Path rehearsal
[Image: Several people stand outdoors holding candles.]

DxE Light the Path rehearsal
[Image: A woman stands outdoors holding a candle. Two people stand behind her.]

Dog at DxE Light the Path rehearsal
[Image: A dog with brown and white fur looks into the camera.]

Our first stop was Whole Foods Market, as part of our ongoing campaign against their humane-washing. As with our previous action, I chose to stay outside the store, but nearly everyone else went inside for the disruption.

DxE Light the Path protest at Whole Foods Market
[Image: People holding candles and wearing blue Direct Action Everywhere T-shirts chant outdoors.]

Leafletters offered information and conversed with passersby about our mission.

DxE Light the Path protest at Whole Foods Market
[Image: A woman wearing a blue Direct Action Everywhere T-shirt offers a pamphlet to a passerby.]

Our next stop was Bluestem Brasserie, a high-end restaurant that was the target of a disruption that went viral, featuring my friend Kelly Atlas talking about her little girl, Snow. I again stayed outside, but the remaining activists filled the restaurant.

DxE Light the Path protest at Bluestem Brasserie
[Image: A large group of people wearing blue shirts and holding candles stand outside Bluestem Brasserie at night. Two people are holding signs reading UNTIL EVERY ANIMAL IS FREE, and one person is holding a megaphone.]

Finally, we stood outside Macy’s at Union Square. My friend Wayne Hsiung, one of DxE’s core organizers, gave a passionate speech about the recent passing of Mei Hua, a hen he helped rescue from a so-called “humane” farm.

DxE Light the Path protest at Macy's
[Image: DxE core organizer Wayne Hsiung speaks into a megaphone, in front of a crowd of people wearing blue shirts and holding candles.]

Friendship is what got me out to this protest, after not leaving my house for a week. Building strong communities is absolutely essential to the success of the animal rights movement. As I posted previously, when I began speaking out about animal rights I lost some friends, but I’ve gained many more. Philosophers like Gary Francione (who is debating Wayne Hsiung on Go Vegan Radio with Bob Linden today at 5 p.m. PDT) say that we don’t need groups, but I need a group. Even though I’m an introvert, and anti-social much of the time, knowing that I’m not alone in this struggle gives me the strength to continue.

My friends at DxE are not people who only care about non-human animals. They’ve helped with my volunteer community gardening, stood with me at a Black Lives Matter vigil, and walked beside me at the Trans March. They are not perfect, but they acknowledge and respond to criticism and make good-faith efforts to resolve differences.

I look forward to continuing to speak out for all oppressed animals – human and non-human – with my friends. I’ve made the full set of photos from last night’s action available on Flickr.

Pax with candle
[Image: Pax, the author, holds a saucer with a lit candle and looks directly into the camera.]

Women’s spaces are for women

[Image: Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox, standing outdoors and speaking into a microphone.]

Today’s Everyday Feminism article about the closing of the transmisogynistic MichFest has brought out TERF commenters in force. Some self-proclaimed feminists really don’t see a problem with equating “woman” to “assigned female at birth,” and excluding trans women from so called “women-born-women” spaces.

First of all, no one is born a woman (or a girl, or a boy/man). We are all born babies, and assigned a sex of female or male at birth based on arbitrary physical characteristics. They are arbitrary because no single sex characteristic, or group of characteristics, are shared by all females or males, and because intersex people exist.

Second, some cis women do not have menstrual cycles or other common aspects of female-assigned reproductive systems. So assuming that all “women-born-women” have any unique physical attributes to bond over is factually false.

Third, having “lived experience” as a coercively-assigned member of a gender does not define one’s gender. I’ve read many stories from trans women who were terribly bullied before transition, constantly being told they weren’t “manly enough,” and suffering for not being able to live authentically. They may have appeared to be men to the outside observer, but they were still women (or girls), and did not have male privilege. Trans women are absolutely as oppressed by sexism as cis women are, whether or not they have physically or socially transitioned.

Cis women who exclude trans women from their events while welcoming trans men are reinforcing biological essentialism, and trans men as well as women should be speaking out about this. Trans men are men, and men do not belong in women’s-only spaces. Women organizing spaces for only “people with uteruses” or some other such exclusionary category should  make it clear that’s what they’re doing.

Trans men who identify as women when it’s convenient to do so are trying to have it both ways. (I’m speaking here of binary trans men who are living as men full-time, not bigender or genderfluid people who were assigned female.) If a trans man needs access to a woman’s clinic for medical purposes that’s one thing, but to participate in a group that treats trans men as if they were “men-lite,” or, worse, a group that excludes trans women on the grounds that they aren’t real women, is to my mind inexcusable. Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, an intersex trans professor who is married to a trans woman, wrote about this in an article about trans men at women’s colleges.

Speaking for myself as an agender trans male, despite (or more accurately because of) having lived as a girl/woman for over 40 years, I have no interest in being in women’s-only spaces, whether they include trans women or not. My discomfort in being in such spaces was a good part of the clue that I was trans. Even before my transition, I generally avoided gender-segregated events, but found myself happiest when interacting with bisexual or gay men. I wouldn’t want to be in a men’s-only space that was geared toward straight men, but I’d still prefer that to a women’s-only space if those were my only choices. I’m male for legal and medical purposes, and I don’t belong in a space designated for females.

Having a uterus and ovaries doesn’t make me feel any bond of “sisterhood” with other AFAB people. I truly detested having a menstrual cycle, and never had the slightest interest in getting pregnant. It’s now been a full year since my last period, and I am very happy to consign that part of my life to history, permanently, as long as I’m able to get uninterrupted access to testosterone. If I felt the need to talk about my female-assigned reproductive system in a group setting, it would be with other transmasculine folks, not women.

But that’s just me. My point is that you can’t assume a common bond with people based on their anatomy – whether at birth or post-puberty – or their “lived experience.” Trans-exclusionary feminism is hurtful to all women, cis and trans, and trans men should not be perpetuating this biological essentialism.

Depression, suicide, and white supremacy

[Image: Ground-level side view of a bus shelter casting a red reflection on the sidewalk.]

I’m having a lot of trouble coping this week, as the weight of oppression and violence in the world is really dragging me down. Living with the knowledge that having brown skin in the USA puts a target on your back, independent of any other factors, is a sobering reality for a biracial person who was raised with respectability politics.

The mainstream media upholds white supremacy to the extent that black folks are called “racist” and “pulling the race card” for even addressing these subjects. Black academics like A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan Project worry that they’ll get killed in a sundown town while traveling to promote their work.

Meanwhile ten trans women of color have been killed in 2015. I don’t want to say “so far in 2015,” but it seems inevitable that there will be more.  I shared the news of the latest, India Clarke, on my Facebook wall two days ago. Only person has “liked” or commented on that post thus far.

The black victim of white supremacy who is, understandably, getting the most attention from my Facebook friends right now is Sandra Bland. Found dead in her cell after being arrested at a routine traffic stop, her story raised all kinds of alarm bells when the police claimed she died by suicide.

I have no trouble believing that the suicide story is a cover-up, but I want to share another perspective that highlights some problematic aspects of the “she would never commit suicide” narrative. This short article by Danielle Stevens cautions that we should not assume we know someone’s mental health state, nor reinforce the “strong black woman” stereotype, nor stigmatize those who attempt or die by suicide. She also emphasizes that the state is responsible for Sandra Bland’s death, regardless of whether it was suicide or not.

I use the phrase “die by suicide” rather than “commit suicide” on the advice of this resource guide, which is geared toward LGBT communities but generally applicable to discussion of this difficult topic. I’m no stranger to suicidal ideation, and I did make one near-attempt several years ago, so the dialogue regarding this topic is of concern to me personally. (Yes, I am in therapy, and no, I’m not seeking sympathy or advice.)

Regardless, I, for one, am not joining the “If I Die In Police Custody” hashtag, because I honestly cannot predict what I would do in that situation. As a black trans person, I’m scared to death, almost literally, to go to any prison. I do not belong in a women’s prison, and I can’t imagine I’d survive in a men’s prison. I’d likely be a prime target for rape in either case, if I weren’t put into solitary confinement “for my own protection.” As I’ve posted previously, this legitimate fear of arrest has limited my activism.

Waking up to the true reality of white supremacy, while simultaneously battling against cissexism and speciesism, has been nothing short of shattering. I could turn off the Internet to stop reading the stories of yet another black person being murdered by the police, but it won’t change the situation. And my skin color does not give me the luxury of ignoring racism. This post by Mikael on “Awakening and getting off the Kool-Aid” sums it up:

…And yet, through it all, I still believed. I believed that the color of my skin was just that—a color. I believed that my accomplishments would stand on their own…

And then there comes that moment, so important in the lives of all POC. That moment when the illusion you have built up your entire life shatters. That moment when you realize all of the lies you have been told… even by your own friends and family. That moment when you see the ugly of racism and oppression staring you in the face, and you realize how painfully real they are in your life, and how they stretch out far beyond your immediate surroundings and encircle the world, hurting so many other people both like and unlike you.

That moment when, for me, I finally realized that no matter how hard I worked, I’ll forever and always just be another nigger in the eyes of the world.

And that is the moment, so important in the lives of all POC, when we finally awaken. That moment when we finally “get” these issues and finally get off the kool-aid of white supremacy.

Privilege is not an on/off switch

[Image: A collage of people holding signs, with a question mark in the middle and the Direct Action Everywhere logo at the bottom.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), as have several others pictured in the above collage. My points about privilege and ranking oppression still stand.

A lot of people misunderstand the concept of privilege. White people and cis men in particular get very defensive when called out on speaking from a place of privilege. “I’m not privileged,” they cry, “I’m not [rich/straight/Christian/American/etc.]”

Here’s the thing. Privilege is not an on/off, yes/no switch. Nor is it something you can assess with an overall rank, despite what well-intentioned but misleading quiz memes might tell you. Privilege consists of many components, including but not limited to: Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical and mental ability. Today’s article in Everyday Feminism addresses a lot of common misconceptions about this topic.

As a queer black trans atheist, I am a member of several oppressed groups. Despite this, I still enjoy many privileges. I am financially stable, college-educated, US-American, and English-speaking, for starters. I am also relatively able-bodied and slim.

But none of these privileges completely erase the disadvantages I have. My skin color makes me a greater target for police profiling and violence, independent of my class or education. Being a nonbinary trans person means that I experience social dysphoria on a daily basis, even though I have financial access to hormones that help with the physical dysphoria. Being queer means I face possible harassment and violence if I am affectionate with my male spouse in public, even though same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. And being an atheist means that I am in one of the most despised groups of all in this country, independent of anything else about me.

When it comes to privilege, I find it unhelpful to rank oppression. Many animal rights activists correctly point out that we all enjoy human privilege. But as I’ve argued in my post about veganism and white privilege, that in no way means that racism, sexism, or other human issues are trivial by comparison. Rather than telling women, people of color, and others in disadvantaged groups to stop “playing the victim” because they supposedly have it so much better than non-human animals, we should be recognizing and honoring their struggles alongside our fight to end speciesism.

We should all use what privileges we do have to amplify the voices of those who do not share our advantages. The montage at the top of this post shows some of my fellow animal liberationists from Direct Action Everywhere; I took these photos at our annual forum. As also seen in our most recent video (I can be seen briefly at approximately 3:13), we represent a wide variety of races, genders, and nationalities, in a movement that is dominated by cis white voices. We come together to speak for the non-human animals whose voices have been silenced. I will be joining my DxE friends in San Francisco this Saturday, as we light the path to liberation.

I cannot “live and let live”

[Image: Snow, a hen with white feathers, relaxes in the dirt.]

Edit, July 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). My point that it is necessary to openly challenge speciesism remains.

For years I was afraid to speak out about veganism. When going to restaurants, I made sure to let my non-vegan friends know that I was just fine with them ordering meals containing animal products. I happily shared vegan recipes and baked goods and talked about why I was vegan if people asked, but I rarely talked about animal rights. I didn’t even believe non-human animals should have rights; if anything, I bought into the humane welfare myth, saying that I was only opposed to “factory farming.”

Everything changed last year, as I talked about in my essay on abolitionist veganism. I no longer saw veganism as a diet, but as a moral stand against violence. I now saw animals as people, not property. I could no longer look at someone’s dismembered body on a plate with dispassion. Once learning that dairy and egg farming, even in backyards, involved just as much suffering and death as farming for flesh, I could no longer see vegetarian food as in any way more ethical than flesh foods.

So I stopped my “live and let live” attitude, because the 60 billion land animals and trillion sea animals slaughtered annually for food wanted to live just as much as I did. I set up a table at the Free Farm Stand, where I did volunteer work giving free locally-grown food to people in need, and I started telling people the facts. I handed out materials from The Abolitionist Vegan Society and the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary. I gave information on plant-based nutrition, plant-based clothing, and products not tested on animals. I made it clear that I was opposed to all exploitation, human and non-human. and that I was speaking from the perspective of someone who was part of multiple oppressed groups (being queer, black, and trans, and a survivor of sexual abuse).

I do think I made some inroads. Many people I spoke with, at the Farm Stand and elsewhere, thanked me for the information. Many said that they had no idea that male chicks were routinely killed in egg production, or that cows were forcibly impregnated year after year to produce milk.

But over time, I grew frustrated. I realized that many people who had no financial or physical barriers to going vegan were simply not going to do so, no matter what information I gave them. Speciesism was so entrenched in our society that the idea of seeing a chicken, cow, pig, or fish as a person, worthy of allowing to live for their own sake, was unthinkable to most people. If there wasn’t something in it for humans – weight loss, health benefits, etc. – they could shrug and continue exploiting animals for food, clothing, and entertainment, without fear of censure from a society that tells vegans to “live and let live.”

Ultimately, I decided that vegan education through leafletting and one-on-one conversations was not enough. This education was necessary, but not sufficient, for animal liberation. I knew that direct action was controversial, but I felt it was effective if nonviolent and done properly. Direct Action Everywhere appealed to me as they were founded and led by people of color, and targeted restaurants and stores who marketed the “humane myth” – such as Chipotle and Whole Foods Market – for their demonstrations.

At DxE actions, we are breaking the social taboo of interrupting people while they are eating and shopping, to make it clear that we are opposed to the casual everyday violence that our society calls “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “dinner.” We are amplifying the voices of people like Snow, the hen pictured at the top of this post. She is someone, not something.

My animal rights activism, and participation with DxE in particular, makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve lost friends over this. I’ve been avoiding social gatherings where the bodies, eggs, and milk of animals are eaten, even if there are “vegan options,” because I no longer want to be complicit in the mass slaughter. If people are offended by my consideration of non-human animals as people and by my calling the exploitation of these people violent, so be it. My very existence as a queer black trans person is offensive to many.

As I suffer from depression and dysphoria and sometimes find it difficult to leave the house for days at a time, I have not been able to participate in as many animal rights actions as I would like. (I’ve put my volunteer work at the farm stand on hold for the same reason.) At actions where police are likely to be called, I feel more at risk because of my skin color. As a result I stay mostly behind the camera. But I do try to speak out when I feel safe enough to do so, most recently near the end of our “We Are All Animals” action earlier this month.

Pax at DxE action[Image: Pax, the author, speaks out while holding a sign reading WE ARE ALL ANIMALS. Photo by Alicia Santurio]

I don’t expect every vegan to participate in direct action, whether or not they have the physical and mental capacity to do so. (Online activism is valid; criticizing people for being “armchair activists” is ableist.) Some may prioritize other worthy social justice issues, and join demonstrations against police violence or gentrification. I do not see these causes as being in conflict. All oppression is interconnected.

What’s more important to me is that vegans stop being embarrassed or afraid, as I was, to speak with their friends and acquaintances about the exploitation of our fellow animals. As demonstrations grow in size and the public sees more people taking animal rights seriously, more people will feel empowered to discuss these issues at the dinner table, rather than just smiling when someone eats another person’s body in front of them.

I seek to live in a world where non-human animals are no longer considered property. I cannot hope to achieve this goal solely by being a polite, inoffensive vegan sharing recipes and baked goods . On days when I cannot march on the streets, I will disrupt with the written word. If you agree, please join me.