Updated: Vegan activism and the effectiveness of the abolitionist approach

I saw my essay about Gary Francione, originally published in June 2014, getting some more hits recently. I’ve decided to move it to my new blog so it will have a more permanent home where people can leave comments.

Since the publication of this essay, I no longer refer to myself as an “abolitionist vegan.” Especially since getting involved with Direct Action Everywhere, I prefer the term “animal liberationist.” Some black vegans (and others) feel that the word “abolitionist” is appropriative, especially when used by those who have no interest in combatting anti-black oppression. My preference is to use a more positive word, liberation, to convey the same end goal: Ending the property status of non-human animals. However, I still support the mission of The Abolitionist Vegan Society, whose founder and executive director, Sarah K. Woodcock, has been outspoken against oppression of humans as well as non-humans.

Other updates: I requested and received a refund for the World Vegan Summit after Bob Linden kicked out two speakers (both people of color): Sarah K. Woodcock of The Abolitionist Vegan Society and Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere. (I believe Will Tuttle was allowed to remain on the speaker list.) Wayne’s response to his removal was what prompted me to learn more about, and later get involved with, DxE. (ETA: I am no longer with DxE.)

Without further ado, here’s the original, unedited essay.

Vegan activism and the effectiveness of the abolitionist approach

by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Posted on June 30, 2014

This essay concerns animal rights activism; specifically, the behavior of Gary Francione, the law professor who developed the abolitionist approach to animal rights that I’ve been blogging about for the last few months. Anyone is welcome to comment, but I would appreciate it if the discussion stay focused on the specific issues in this post and not on whether veganism itself is a good idea.

This essay is long (which is why I’m hosting it on my web site rather than directly on LiveJournal), but I’m not going to start out with a summary, conclusion, or “tl;dr” because I believe it’s really important to read through the entire thing to understand the issues involved. The last thing I want to do is to turn people off of veganism or give the impression that vegans in general are extremists or crazy, though no doubt some will come away with that impression (if they haven’t already formed it) no matter what I say.

For the Facebook discussions referenced, I am including long quoted passages and links to screenshots in addition to links to the threads themselves. This is both for the benefit of people not on Facebook and also because of the very likely possibility that my comments will be deleted by Gary or one of his page moderators. The filename of each image contains the date and time (PDT) I captured the screenshot.

Contents

Background: Gary Francione and the Abolitionist Approach

I’d already been vegan for three years when I first learned about Gary Francione this year. I was going through a time of intense self-reflection, thinking about what was most important to me and where I wanted to go with my life and career. I realized that ahimsa – nonviolence – was my most important guiding principle; indeed, that’s why I named myself Pax Ahimsa. (For those who don’t know me, this is not merely a nickname; I’ve filed a formal change of name and gender petition, and have a court hearing to make it legal in a couple of weeks.) And being vegan was an integral part of reducing violence; I could not effectively advocate for peace while putting the products of suffering and death into my mouth three times a day.

So I started seeking out more vegan writers for inspiration. On Wikipedia I came across Gary Francione‘s page. At first, I thought his ideas sounded extreme. But the more of his work I read, the more he made sense: Veganism had to be the moral baseline. The book Eat Like You Care presented an especially effective, easy-to-follow argument, though I did think the numerous references to Michael Vick were excessive, even though I understood the point he was making; that Vick hosting dog fights for entertainment was, from an ethical perspective, no different from people eating animal products for pleasure. (Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but I’m not a fan of pro sports, especially football, and had managed to miss this whole controversy.)

So in April I joined Gary’s Facebook page and began actively participating in vegan advocacy from an abolitionist perspective. I also joined the page for (and got fliers from) the Abolitionist Vegan Society, which follows his principles, although both TAVS and Gary state clearly that they are not directly affiliated with each other, which I thought was somewhat odd at the time.

Background: Will Tuttle and the World Peace Diet

Gary is a regular guest on Go Vegan Radio with Bob Linden. I’d met Bob at Earth Day San Francisco, shortly after learning of the abolitionist approach, which Bob also endorsed. I began listening to podcasts of his show, and one of them featured Will Tuttle. I was intrigued by Will, and got a copy of his book, The World Peace Diet.

I was extremely impressed by this book. It made a really good argument that our exploitation of people – women, people of color, LGBT, and others – can all be traced back to our herding culture. This seemed to fit right in with one of the core principles of the abolitionist approach, that we must reject all exploitation, of humans as well as nonhumans; racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. were not to be tolerated in the animal rights movement.

The World Peace Diet solidly argued for veganism. Not welfare reform, not vegetarianism. Only veganism. This, again, seemed to fit in with the principles of Gary’s abolitionist approach. While reading it, I found out that Will was scheduled to speak at a weekly vegan dinner event hosted by the San Francisco Vegetarian Society. I enthusiastically signed my partner Ziggy and myself up to attend.

Background: The Kaporos campaign

While all this was going on, Gary was getting heat from other animal rights activists for opposing a campaign that opposed the use of live chickens in the Jewish ritual of Kaporos. Gary is opposed to all single-issue campaigns, but this specific campaign he claims is anti-Semitic, as it singles out a specific group of people, Jews, for doing something no different than what the vast majority of people partcipate in on a daily basis: The suffering and death of chickens.

Will Tuttle and the Kaporos campaign

So with that background, I finally come to the primary purpose of this essay. I was very moved by a passage in The World Peace Diet where Will described witnessing a cow on a dairy farm being shot in the head and helping butcher her for meat, because she was no longer producing enough milk. I posted about this on Gary’s page (link, screenshot) on June 18, the same day Will’s talk at the vegan dinner was scheduled. I had mentioned Will’s book a few times before on Gary’s page, and he had not commented. This time he did:

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Unfortunately, Will Tuttle was part of the email discussion thread involving the Kapporos campaign who did not seem to have any problem whatsoever with the clearly anti-Semitic nature of the campaign and who joined the chorus of those who were unhappy that I was critical of it. But then, I wasn’t surprised.

I expressed disappointment and thanked Gary for being steadfast in his views. I also noted that I am half-Jewish myself.

When I came back from the dinner, another forum member had made a long post in the thread in which she said she had attended a talk by Will, and he had not seemed to give a clear message that veganism was the moral baseline. She also said that his Facebook page was confusing and not well-moderated. I replied:

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Well I’m not saying I fully endorse Will Tuttle’s views – as with Gary Francione, I’d never heard of him until just a few months ago, so I’m still learning the details of the philosophies and approaches of different people. But FWIW, at tonight’s talk he sent a clear vegan message. He did not promote vegetarianism at all, only veganism. And this was at a dinner that was co-sponsored by the San Francisco Vegetarian Society and definitely had non-vegans (or pre-vegans, as he likes to call them) present.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Also FWIW there appear to be several different World Peace Diet pages. The one that you were on is probably the open group, which anyone can post to. There’s another one that’s set up like this page, that only admins can post to.

When I next visited the page the following morning, her post had been deleted, which made it appear that I was responding to Gary instead of her. He replied (screenshot):

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights First, I am somewhat saddened that you don’t find his failure to speak out against the Kapparos campaign as a “deal breaker.” That campaign is inherently anti-Semitic. How can we distinguish what Jews do with chickens and what *everyone else* does with chickens? And all Will could say was “it’s best I think to focus more on acknowledging and appreciating each other, rather than criticism that can be hurtful and discouraging.” You know what I call that? Complicity in a campaign that segregates Jews and promotes anti-Semitism. Curiously, he was silent when I was called a “bigot” and a “Stalinist” for criticizing the campaign. In any event, as someone who is sensitive to discrimination issues, I am somewhat bewildered as to your reaction here.

Second, look at the “official” World Peace Diet page. Look at the links, which include:

Mercy for Animals

Viva! USA

The AR National Conference

In Defense of Animals

FARM

UPC (the leader of the Kapparos campaign, by the way)

etc, etc.

Third, it’s curious but this morning, I received an email from someone who was reading this thread and was at a talk Tuttle gave and she said that he promoted going “vegetarian or vegan.” But I think the first two points are extremely troubling on their own.

The email Gary referred to sounded like the post I’d read that had been deleted. Regardless, I didn’t understand what he meant by “deal breaker”. What was I supposed to do, delete Will’s book from my Kindle app and retract my praise of it? Demand a refund of my registration for the World Vegan Summit if Bob Linden did not remove Will from the speaker list? The book was written years before this Kaporos campaign, and both the book and the talk I attended by Will sent a clear, uncompromising vegan message.

The links Gary mentioned on Will’s page include “welfarist” organizations that co-signed a letter from Peter Singer to the CEO of Whole Foods Market, which Gary posts on his page on a very frequent basis, as evidence that these organizations are partners with animal exploitation industries. Anyone having links to any of those organizations on their Facebook profile or web page is seen by Gary as suspect, at best.

But more importantly, I was troubled that Gary was now posting direct quotes from a private e-mail exchange on his public Facebook page. So I said so:

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights – I said I agreed with you on the anti-semitic nature of the Kapparos campaign and I still do. But I’m frankly uncomfortable discussing Tuttle’s views on that campaign here on this public forum if those views come from a private e-mail conversation with him and others that I was not party to. And I don’t know what talk the person who e-mailed you this morning went to, I only know what I heard in his talk that I personally attended last night.

If he has links to welfarist organizations on his web page then I’m not going to defend that. I only brought Tuttle up in this thread to share a passage from his book, which I still believe is staunchly vegan and a solid read. But this is your page and I’m not going to promote someone you disagree with here.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen FYI – My above comment saying that I did not necessarily fully endorse Tuttle’s views, and my comment about the different World Peace Diet pages on Facebook, were in response to a comment which has since been deleted.

Gary responded that the partipants in the e-mail thread had no claim of privacy, and that the Kaporos campaign was “completely shocking”:

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Actually, it was an unsolicited email that was sent by Karen Davis attacking me and Bob Linden and that was copied to various people, including three I don’t even know. I would not consider it private and if you have doubt that I have quoted Tuttle inaccurately, I would be more than happy to share his email with you as he wrote it knowing that it was going to others, including people who are complete strangers to me. In any event, nevermind. It’s okay. I have no interest in persuading anyone of anything on this matter. One either sees the Kapparos campaign as completely shocking or not. And in the absence of a condemnation, I am not sure what difference the email makes, unless you think I’ve misquoted him.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights – I don’t doubt that you quoted Tuttle accurately. I was just uncomfortable discussing the specific contents of the e-mail exchange here if it had not been intended for public dissemination.

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: As I said, when people send unsolicited emails that attack me and copy them to people whom I do not even know, and there are responses in the thread, I don’t care who intended what. There is *no* legitimate claim of privacy in that context. But as I said, I think this is all rather clear.

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: P.S. Indeed, after stating to this email group that I did not want them to bother me further and to exclude me from their circle jerk, I continued to get messages. Claim of privacy? I really think not.

I was totally bewildered how the above reasons could justify posting specific quotes from an e-mail to the public Facebook page of a public figure followed by (at the time of this exchange) nearly 60,000 people. But then, unlike Gary, I’m not a lawyer. 😛 I also failed to find either Will’s (in)actions or the Kaporos campaign itself “completely shocking”. Misguided, yes. Unfairly targeting a specific ethnic group, yes. But “completely shocking”? I would reserve such language for much more explicit and direct acts of exploitation.

At this point I was really starting to doubt the efficacy of Gary’s activism. Not the abolitionist approach itself, but his tone and the way he and his mods micro-managed the Facebook page. I’d read numerous complaints about his style elseweb, but always thought he was being unfairly criticized when he was just firmly sticking to what he believed in. I understood that he managed his Facebook page aggressively to make it a “safe space” for abolitionists, but comments were being deleted and people being banned (resulting in all of their comments disappearing) at an increasing rate, even when questions were asked respectfully.

Even innocent things like a reader noting that the layout of words on a graphic were hard to read (screenshots: 1, 2, 3) were mocked, with Gary or his mods ironically stating that people would “complain about everything”, while simultaneously complaining that other animal rights people could not handle any criticism.

For deletions and bans, the usual reason given (if any reasons were given at all) was that the poster violated the page’s terms of use (screenshot). Notably:

If you want to express disagreement with something that Professor Francione says, or some aspect of his work, please give substantive reasons and express yourself in a civil way. Be civil in all comments.

Unfortunately, as I will show, this rule does not seem to apply to Gary, nor to his moderators.

Discussion in The World Peace Diet forum

I told myself I should step away from the page for awhile, but I was so used to visiting it on a regular basis that I could not help myself. I hoped that Gary sincerely meant it when he said “In any event, nevermind. It’s okay. I have no interest in persuading anyone of anything on this matter,” but had a feeling this was not the case.

I had meanwhile joined the World Peace Diet Facebook group, along with a number of other vegan Facebook groups in order to try to connect with more vegans, and not just be in an echo chamber of those following Gary’s approach. In his group, Will posted about an event where frogs were being stabbed to death. I took the opportunity to promote veganism in the thread. At some point I mentioned Gary Francione. Another forum member posted the following (screenshot):

Anim Argumen I dont trust Francione’s motives–although he talks about his alleged support of animal rights issues he has consistently agreed with industry rhetoric–i.e. people who oppose fur have a hatred of women, people who oppose animal sacrifice by jewish groups are anti-semetic, we can trust industry to make compassionate change without protest or legislative change, animal rights people must be perfect–he seeks to distract, divide and demoralize. he even agrees with nathan Winograd, an agent for center for Consumer Freedom which is pro vivisection and meat industry. Just because someone makes some claims he is supportive of animal rights goals and then agrees with industry and attacks advocates doesnt make him sincere. Industry is incredibly ruthless-they will do anything to maintain and increase profits and they want advocates to be attacking each other.

I strongly contested the claim that Gary was an industry stooge. However his attitude comes across, I have seen nothing that remotely hints that he is being paid off by any animal exploitation industry. I said so in the forum. We went back and forth several times and I continued to defend Gary and his views, as you can see in the link and screenshots (1, 2, 3).

Fallout from The World Peace Diet discussion

I wanted Gary to know that someone was making these accusations about him, although I knew this was not the first time. That the accuser was posting in Will’s forum was not relevant to me, though I did hesitate to post the link based on my previous exchange with Gary concerning Will. I decided to post about it (link, screenshot). Gary responded by putting the focus and blame squarely on Tuttle for allowing the comments to remain in his forum:

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: I looked at the page of the person you are referring to. That person is a supporter of PETA, MFA, and Peter Singer. That person is also apparently unable to offer any substantive reasons for her/his position. Having nothing of substance to say, s/he defames me. No surprise. What is a surprise is that Tuttle is allowing it on his page. But then, as you know, Tuttle is the person who, in the face of an overtly anti-Semitic campaign, claimed that we should not criticize such campaigns. So I suppose it should not be a surprise.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen I agreed with you on the Kaporos campaign, as you know. But to be fair, I don’t think Tuttle manages his Facebook group nearly as frequently as you and your mods do here, so I wouldn’t assume that he has read all of the posts in this particular thread yet. It’s entirely possible that he has and that he sides with the other poster instead of me, but I cannot assume that.

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: If I had something like that up on this page for 15 minutes, I would have people writing blog essays about me. In any event, I don’t know how you know how often he monitors the page and the defamation was posted eight hours ago. But yes, let’s be fair to Tuttle. Maybe he’ll take it down or at least make clear to the poster that he does not want that sort of thing on his page.

No, I don’t “know” how often Will monitors his page, which is why I used the word “think”. But honestly, I’ve never participated in an online forum so tightly micro-managed as Gary’s, and I’ve been on the web for 20 years. He has at least three mods working around the clock for him, and two of them were actively participating in the thread that I’m now discussing.

I tried to change the subject back to focus on SICs, but the criticism of Will kept piling up in this thread. And now the forum member who originally posted the long comment about Will’s supposed promotion of vegetarianism and other failings, said that she was the one who deleted her own comment, and she reposted it in this thread. Gary and his mods reacted very strongly to this. One of them called Will a “*gutless* sellout” (emphasis in original) and another flat-out said “He is not a good person.” They also used the term “petaphile”, a pun which I, the victim of a pedophile, don’t find particularly amusing. (Screenshots: 1, 2, 3, 4). Selected quotes from the thread (Vincent and Marianna are both moderators of Gary’s page as of this writing):

Marianna Gonzalez [quoting Gary] <I am getting a might tired of those who claim to embrace nonviolence but are really, really selective about it.> Indeed. What blows my mind is that Tuttle is willing to defend a campaign that is **clearly** anti-Semitic — and therefore promotes **violence** against a particular group — by trying to hush the objections to this form of violence under the pseudo-nonviolent pretense of “let’s all get along and not criticize.” To use the pretense of nonviolence to defend violence is actually quite evil. He may not realize this.

Vincent Guihan He is not a good person.

Vincent Guihan I’m predisposed toward disliking others, especially those who paper over conflict and call it peace. But letting some deeply confused, intellectually stunted clown defame you is pathetic. On the other hand, he is a petaphile.

Marianna Gonzalez Vincent Guihan: I don’t know whether he is a good person or not, but he’s certainly a *gutless* sell-out who is doing some pretty shitty things. I hope one day he reconsiders.

This was getting too much for me. This was way beyond criticism, and certainly not within the realm of “Be civil in all comments” as instructed in the page terms of use. “He is not a good person” could not be read as anything other than a character attack. I knew what I was about to say might get me banned from the page, but I said it anyway (screenshot):

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Re this entire Will Tuttle issue, I’m honestly sorry I ever mentioned him in this forum at all, because both times I did (once to share a passage from his book, once to share an exchange I had with someone else in his forum) I have felt like I was expected to immediately join the chorus of criticism against him for his failure to back Gary in condemning the Kaporos campaign. I said I agreed that the campaign was anti-semitic, and I said I wouldn’t promote Will’s work here. I even defended Gary against slanderous comments another person made against him in Will’s forum. And when I brought that up, I was told that Will is irresponsible for not deleting those comments from his forum, possibly even providing a platform for people to attack Gary, that his failure to condemn the Kaporos campaign is “quite evil” and that he is “not a good person”.

I don’t want to be in the middle of this. I’m just an average vegan guy. I don’t have a book, radio show, or conference. Hardly anyone cares what I think. I try to educate people about veganism as part of my food justice work, and I hope some people read my blogs and Facebook messages, but I’m not going to get further involved in this particular dispute. I’m going to take a break from this page for awhile. I hope I’m not banned because I have gotten a lot out of participating here and hope to come back in the future, but the tone of this discussion has gotten way too uncomfortable for me.

The response was a chorus of Gary, his mods, and another poster insisting that this was an issue of “fundamental justice”, and that I had to accept that this was simply fact. I was also assured by a mod that I would not be banned simply for disagreement. (Screenshots: 1, 2).

Marianna Gonzalez And unlike the SLANDER that Tuttle allowed on his page, we are not saying anything that is untrue. That’s not subject to debate.

Vincent Guihan Pax Ahimsa Gethen, “I hope I’m not banned ” No one is banned here for disagreement. Provocateuring, trolling, personal attacks, EXCESSIVE use of CAPITAL letters, among other reasons, but not disagreement.

Mod Marianna might want to note the bit about capital letters, along with ****excessive punctuation**** which she is fond of using. Regardless, I could not accept that a judgment of character was not subject to debate. This was not “truth” or “fact”. I posted the following, which I really intended to be my last post on the page as I expected once again that I’d probably be banned:

Pax Ahimsa Gethen This is the last I’m going to say on this issue, because I think it’s really important. I have been really patiently trying to defend this approach in the face of everyone, and I mean *everyone* I know personally, including other vegans, being against me on it. The *only* other person I have personally met who I thought was 100% behind Gary is Bob Linden, and since last I checked Will Tuttle is still on the speaker’s list for the World Vegan Summit, maybe even that is not an accurate statement. But I have no idea what Bob currently thinks about Will Tuttle (who I found out about via his radio show, via this page, for what it’s worth) and will not speak for him.

Marianna Gonzalez – <<And unlike the SLANDER that Tuttle allowed on his page, we are not saying anything that is untrue. That’s not subject to debate.>> – If we were only talking about *facts* I would not be so uncomfortable. This discussion has gone beyond facts and has started to verge on character attacks. You said above <<To use the pretense of nonviolence to defend violence is actually quite evil. >>. True, you did not say “Will Tuttle is quite evil” but you characterized his actions as such. I personally think this reaction is out of proportion to his actions. We can disagree, but this *is* subject to debate, it is not a simple matter of “truth”.

And Vincent Guihan straight-out said about Will <<He is not a good person.>> This is a statement of character. if it were said by another person about Gary it would clearly be labeled as an attack, not simply a criticism. It is not a matter of fact or truth.

This is why I’m bowing out. I’m not going to slander Gary or stop doing vegan education over this. But I feel the criticism of Will Tuttle on this page is way out of proportion with his words and actions, and I will not participate in it.

When I next came to the page, mods Vincent and Marianna had responded to portions of my comment, but my ability to comment had been removed, and all of my comments had been deleted. It appeared that, as I predicted, I had been banned. However, when I came back to the page, my commenting ability had been restored, as had all of my comments except for the last one. This is when I started taking screenshots. Unfortunately I don’t have a capture of the state of the page where all of my comments were missing, so I have no proof that this happened. You, the reader, will just have to take my word on it.

Mod Vincent responded to my comment that he had made a character judgment, not merely a criticism, as follows:

Vincent Guihan “This is a statement of character.” Indeed, it is the most serious condemnation I reserve for people.

Vincent later commented:

Vincent Guihan[…] I also think Margaret Thatcher, Fred Phelps and D. F. Malan were not good people. Sometimes, it’s about moral character.

For those not in the know, Fred Phelps was the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, the group that picketed funerals of gay people with “God Hates Fags” signs. I find lumping Will Tuttle in with someone like that to be disgraceful. At the very least, it is, as I posted, way out of proportion with his actual (in)actions, and stating that “it’s about moral character” contradicts Gary’s insistence on judging only actions, not people.

The transgender issue

Meanwhile, once my posting access and all but one of my comments were restored, Gary insinuated that I’d deleted the last comment myself, and misgendered me in the process. I corrected him. He later removed his original comment, but did not apologize for the misgendering (screenshot):

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Re Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights – <<Pax Ahimsa Gethen appears to have removed her last comment. Perhaps she concluded on her own that it was problematic. I hope so.>> I did not remove my last comment, so it must have been removed by one of the mods. (Reminder, I’m not a she/her; I prefer “they” but he/him is acceptable.)

Mod Marianna stated that she did not delete the post, and Mod Vincent “liked” that comment which, along with his quoted replies, indicated to me that he didn’t delete it (nor ban me) either. Gary implied that it disappeared due to a Facebook glitch and invited me to repost the comment, which I did as fortunately it was still in my copy and paste buffer; I frequently copy long passages of text just before posting online in case there’s a network interruption or other problem (though I later realized I might have changed a couple of small things since the last time I copied the text, the substance of the comment was the same).

As to the misgendering: I had informed Gary on more than one previous occasion (both in May, so just a few weeks ago) that I’m trans and that I prefer the pronoun “they”, and had explained why:

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights […] No, Brian, plants are not sentient. Pax Ahimsa Gethen said about you, ” I’ve met you, so I know you’re not an idiot.” I will take her word for that.

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights – Actually I’m not a “she” (though I was at the time I met Brian Beckwith Shredder so he might not know that either). I’m trans and prefer “singular they” but “he” is also OK.

Gary and I discussed this further in the thread, and again in another thread a couple of weeks later, where I included more examples of the widespread use of “singular they” and nonbinary gender in general. The most relevant excerpts from that thread for purposes of this discussion are here:

Pax Ahimsa Gethen I brought this up in an earlier thread, but since it came up here: As an agender person, I prefer “singular they” for myself, as do many in the trans community who do not identify as either a man or a woman.

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights […] If I am addressing you, I will use “they” to accommodate what you have identified as your sensibilities, even though it is not grammatical.

(Link and screenshots for Thread 1: link, screenshots: 1, 2, 3, 4. Thread 2 (note here also the refusal of Gary and Mod Marianna to accept criticism): link, screenshots: 1, 2.)

As a very frequent contributor to his page, I expected Gary to remember and respect this request. If he genuinely forgot, he should have apologized. Not excessively, just a simple “sorry for misgendering you” or even just “sorry” would have sufficed. It’s not as if he’d known me pre-transition; I’d never introduced myself to him as a woman or a “she”, and my Facebook profile does not say that I am female and has not said so for over a year; he was probably assuming that I’m female based on my physical appearance, as most people do at this stage in my transition.

Misgendering is not a trivial issue for a trans person. Depending on the circumstances, it can feel like either a pinprick or a punch in the face. But it is almost always painful, in a way that can be hard for a cisgender person to understand.

So Gary and his mods literally added insult to injury when instead of apologizing, they turned my transgender status into a “teaching moment” (screenshots: 1, 2):

Marianna Gonzalez If this campaign had targeted the transgender community as opposed to the Jewish people, I wonder whether Pax would be as forgiving of Tuttle and as uncomfortable for our criticism of him, and as wanting to “not get further involved” as they do currently.

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Bingo. I find so very often that when it comes to *their* issues, some are all over it if someone supports a discriminatory campaign or effort. Otherwise, it’s “judgments violate peace and nonviolence principles” time. I also find it to be the case that many people who are very sensitive to being criticized are all of a sudden totally tolerant when others are not only criticized but are outright slandered or attacked in ad hominem ways. There’s a real failure to understand or apply the principle of equal consideration.

If it’s not clear how offensive it is for a cis person to say this to a trans person, try substituting “black” for “transgender” in Marianna’s comment above. Not to mention the fact that, as previously mentioned, I’m half-Jewish, and made Gary aware of this in our earlier discussion about Will Tuttle. And of course, “Jewish” and “transgender” are not mutually exclusive classes of people.

I refused to address their question on Gary’s page as I had already decided I was done with him over the tone he took discussing Will Tuttle. The cissexist remarks are not the primary reason I’m posting this essay. But for the record, yes, I would feel the same way if the campaign at issue had been about opposing transgender people, rather than Jewish people, using animals in a ritual. I would still be against both the ritual and the campaign, but I would not feel that Will Tuttle had a “fundamental moral responsibility” to speak out against the campaign.

I mentioned to Ziggy how upset I was over this whole exchange; again, not primarily because of the cissexist remarks, but because the bubble had burst and I realized that this man I had really admired was turning out to be just as rude and controlling as many others on the web have accused him of being. Ziggy asked me to send him a link to the thread (he had also “liked” the page but wasn’t following this particular discussion at the time). I did so, but warned him that if he responded his comments would likely be deleted and he would be banned. Then I went to take a shower.

When I came out of the shower, Ziggy said that he’d read the thread, that Gary was a bully, that he had posted a comment saying so, and that he had “unliked” the page and would have no more to do with him. When I refreshed the page, Ziggy’s comment was not visible, so I figured that, as I predicted, he had been banned. But Gary and Mod Marianna had both responded to it (screenshot). Since Ziggy tagged me on his comment, I received the contents in an e-mail notification (screenshot):

Ziggy Tomcich Pax has been one of your greatest supporters and admirers, and has been talking about you and sharing your posts for months. Questioning Pax’s commitment based on their transgender or jewish status goes beyond criticism. It’s bullying and it needs to stop. You have really upset Pax over this. Ridiculing and slandering one of your greatest supporters on here is despicable.

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Ziggy Tomcich: You are under the mistaken belief that I care about your views on the issues of anti-Semitism and general moral responsibility. That belief was mistaken.

Marianna Gonzalez Ziggy what are you talking about ??? You are totally mispresenting what we have said. This is not about Pax!!!! I think your emotions are not allowing you to understand what we are saying, although Gary’s last comment spells out things crystal clearly.

The “last comment” Mod Marianna referred to was the following:

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Thanks for reposting. >>But I feel the criticism of Will Tuttle on this page is way out of proportion with his words and actions, and I will not participate in it.<<

Well, he won’t criticize a campaign that *you* agree is anti-Semitic but he’s fine with criticizing me for doing so.

It’s now clear that he’s just fine with people on his page slandering others and making statements that are clearly false and malicious.

He won’t criticize PETA’s sexism and misogyny or its killing of animals.

He promotes the idea that there’s a moral distinction between flesh and other animal foods.

And you think it’s “way out pf proportion” to criticize him, eh? Well, you can call that being tolerant. I call it shameful abrogation of moral responsibility.

I never once used the word “tolerant” or “tolerance” in this or the previous exchange about Will, for the record, and I disagree that Will “promotes the idea that there’s a moral distinction between flesh and other animal foods” based on my reading his book and hearing him talk. Even if I did agree with all of Gary’s points, I would still find the words used by Gary and his mods to criticize Will to be way out of proportion. Not the fact that they criticized him at all.

Soon after, Ziggy’s comment was restored, and Gary’s initial snarky response was deleted. He did not, however, delete a comment characterizing Ziggy’s remarks as “narcissistic whining and bullshit” (screenshot):

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Marianna Gonzalez: My last comment was about as clear as it could be and I am not interested in listening to any more narcissistic whining and bullshit (apology to bulls).

Gary, the mods, and the other poster who had criticized Will proceeded to continue explaining why Ziggy and I were both clearly in the wrong, and why it was perfectly legitimate for them to bring my transgender status into play.

Marianna Gonzalez < I am not interested in listening to any more narcissistic whining and bullshit> ***Narcissistic*** indeed. Really Pax, I think you really have to think about these issues more carefully and stop taking things personally. As I said, I don’t think you would be so forgiving of Tuttle if PETA or a given campaign targeted the transgender community, or slandered them in any way. Think about that. I am amazed that you and Ziggy are misrepresenting something so simple.

Gary then, using my non-preferred, though accepted, pronoun (no surprise since he considers “singular they” to be ungrammatical), claimed that he had no idea who Ziggy was, and that he “quite likes” me (screenshot):

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Marianna Gonzalez: Yes, I quite like Pax Ahimsa Gethen. I have no idea who Ziggy Tomcich is except for one comment that was ridiculous. I just disagree with Pax here on fundamental matters and I am sorry if he does not like it.

Marianna Gonzalez I *think* Ziggy is their partner as they have mentioned him on threads if I recall correctly.

Either of them could have spent ten seconds to click on either of our Facebook profiles and see that we’re in a relationship, which is publicly listed in the About section just under the masthead (screenshot). At least Mod Marianna used my preferred pronoun and made some attempt to recall something about me as a person. Gary, who claims to “quite like” me, wouldn’t even do that much.

I broke my promise and posted in the thread one final time before “un-liking” the page (screenshot):

Pax Ahimsa Gethen Ziggy is my partner of 13 years. I am half-Jewish and half-black, not that that matters. I am done with this page.

Getting the last word in of course, Gary still framed this is a “fundamental moral issue”, and implied that I accused him of bullying and slandering me when it was actually Ziggy who used those words (screenshot):

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights General note: On this page, we discuss fundamental moral issues. If you disagree with something, make your arguments as to why you don’t and be prepared to discuss your position. But please don’t accuse those with whom you disagree of “bullying” you or “slandering” simply because they disagree with you as that is *nothing* more than a form of ad hominem attack that is used when you have nothing substantive to say. Thanks.

Better abolitionist approaches

I thought carefully about how or whether to post this essay, primarily becasue, as stated in the intro, I don’t want it to turn people off from veganism. I don’t even want it to turn people off from the abolitionist approach, which I still feel is sound. I just don’t think Gary’s going to make much headway with his attitude.

I prefer the attitude expressed on the The Abolitionist Vegan Society web site and Facebook page. Gary is always quick to say that he is not a member of TAVS, though he says he “supports all grassroots efforts”. TAVS also acknowledges that Gary has no affiliation with them, although they support the principles of the abolitionist approach. Gary criticizes TAVS for selling merchandise such as pins and T-shirts. But they have no paid staff, and only sell merchandise to fund the printing of the educational materials which they send to advocates for free.

TAVS also regularly shares actual examples of the “nonviolent creative vegan education” that Gary is always saying is the best (or only) way to promote animal rights. They encourage their members to do vegan outreach in their community, take photos of their efforts, and send them to the page for posting and sharing with all. They express gratitude to their members for doing this.

I’ve rarely seen Gary express gratitude to anyone other than his own mods, translators, and people who give good reviews to his books. The main example I’ve seen that he is actually capable of humility is his keynote address at the 2009 JAINA convention. I thought that the Jain religion encouraged (if not demanded) practicing ahimsa in speech as well as action. But I have never seen Gary approach anywhere near this level of humility when interacting with people on Facebook.

Gary might take a cue from the advice of the International Vegan Association, a group he has enthusiastically endorsed (while once again stating that he is not affiliated with them or any other group). Their recent blog entry on public outreach work, which Gary has, unlike their other entries, not yet shared on his page as of this writing, advises the following:

Always be friendly, no matter what is said. In almost every case, a kind, calm, and friendly demeanor will stifle any hostility that will come your way.

This rule should apply online as well as offline, whether talking to vegans or non-vegans. Being friendly does not mean that you can’t be critical! When posting online, wording makes all the difference between genuine critical analysis and outright arrogance.

It would also help Gary’s claim that he is against all oppression if he would give more praise to the vegan advocacy work of people who are actually in oppressed groups. Dr. A. Breeze Harper is one who comes to mind. She clearly advocates veganism and criticizes sexism, racism, and other “isms” in animal rights groups, including PETA. I read the Sistah Vegan anthology she edited several years ago, and her blog entries really spoke to me as someone who was raised as a black woman, was also in a mixed-race marriage, and also identified with Buddhist values. I actually wrote to her recently asking if she was familiar with Gary since I hadn’t seen her post anything about him on her blog. (I also thought she would be a great speaker for the World Vegan Summit that Bob Linden is hosting.) I’m now embarrassed I ever asked, given Gary’s hubris on the issue of sexism (link, screenshot):

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights […] For almost 30 years, I have been pretty much alone trying to get people to see the human rights connection. I was the first out there rejecting sexism–5 years before Feminists for Animal Rights made a peep.

At least Gary doesn’t claim he’s “entirely” alone. So let’s see some more acknowledgment of other vegans who do get the human rights connection. Because they are out there. From Gary’s essays and especially from his Facebook page, you would think that not only no other animal rights organizations, but no other publicly-known animal rights advocates, period, can be trusted. He actually posted the following words (link, screenshot):

Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights […] Frankly, the Nazis should have subcontracted the Holocaust to “animal people.” They would have gotten a built-in cheering section in the bargain that would have silenced any criticism–and yammered on about peace and love and nonviolence in the process..

You don’t even have to be familiar with Godwin’s Law to see that invoking the Nazis is no way to convince people of the merits of your argument. Painting a mental picture of “animal people” cheering as six million Jews, along with millions of Gypsies, gays, and members of other oppressed groups, were shuttled off to the gas chambers for extermination is beyond “divisive”; this is a statement that actually merits the description of “completely shocking.” How can Gary possibly complain about being compared to Stalin and then turn right around and make statements like this? Is he sincerely interested in making a vegan world, or is he more out for revenge at this point?

I will give Gary the benefit of the doubt, and say that he is sincerely interested in making a vegan world. I just think he’s going about it the wrong way. And as such, I will no longer be directing people to his Facebook page, and will look for other materials to hand out when doing my vegan advocacy. In addition to TAVS and the IVA, I’ve found the materials from the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary to be very useful, especially for dispelling the notions that there’s nothing wrong with “free-range” or “humane” animal products, including backyard chickens.

I don’t believe that Gary is a cult leader as others have asserted. But I am glad to have gotten away from his Facebook page and the rhetoric therein. I hope others come forward to express the abolitionist approach in a more accessible and less hostile way.

 

Updates

Update: July 4, 2014

I posted this essay to a few groups on Facebook. In one of them, ARZone, Will Tuttle posted the full text of the e-mail he sent in the e-mail thread with Gary Francione and others regarding the Kaporos campaign. I present Will’s response here without commentary: link, screenshot.

Update: July 8, 2014

Gary Francione and The Abolitionist Vegan Society are now formally unaffiliated with each other.

Dancing on Waverly

[Image: Young people wearing matching multicolored outfits with very long sleeves dance on an outdoor stage.]

Yesterday I ventured to nearby Chinatown to take some photos at a free public performance, Dancing on Waverly. I found this event through the Fun Cheap SF list, which I used to peruse to find free public performances to shoot. I want to get back into that habit, as we have so much going on in San Francisco year-round.

Belly dancer at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: A belly dancer, wearing a black and silver top, orange and black skirts with black tassels, and many pieces of jewelry, dances on an outdoor stage.]

While this event was sponsored by the Chinese Culture Center, many forms of dance were featured. When I arrived, dancers from Fat Chance Belly Dance were performing and encouraging audience members to join them.

Dance performance at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: Two people wearing matching floral print tops and black pants perform a dance on an outdoor stage.]

However, I believe most of the dancers I watched were representing the Chinese Folk Dance Association. Many different styles were represented, with beautiful, colorful costumes.

Young people dancing at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: Young people in flowing costumes of different colors, with matching black, gold-trimmed vests, perform a dance on an outdoor stage.]

Young people dancing at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: Young people with matching blue and white costumes and floral headdresses perform a dance on an outdoor stage.]

Young people dancing at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: Young people with matching red floral tops and blue pants perform a dance on an outdoor stage.]

Some of the performers were very young, though a variety of ages were represented.

Children dancing at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: Young children with matching pink costumes, blue floral aprons, and red fans, dance on an outdoor stage.]

Dancers at Dancing on Waverly
[Image: Dancers wear matching flowing white and pink dresses with green trim, hold tambourines and smile while dancing on an outdoor stage.]

I’m glad I braved the Saturday afternoon crowds to attend this performance, despite being jostled by many fellow photographers and onlookers. I’ve made the full gallery available on Flickr. Support from readers like you will enable me to do more shoots like this, so please consider sponsoring me on Patreon or leaving me a tip. (Thanks to my supporters, I’m already halfway to getting new business cards!)

Beards and bullying

Harnaam Kaur is a woman with a beard.

Alex Drummond is a woman with a beard.

What do they have in common, besides having copious facial hair?

  • They are both women.
  • They both live in the UK.
  • They have both been bullied.
  • They both deserve to have their gender identities respected.

Facial hair seems to be the last bastion of “manhood.” In many places, cis women can wear pants or neckties, have short hair, abstain from makeup or jewelry, or present in any number of other “masculine” or “androgynous” ways, and still be accepted as women without question. But dare to grow a beard, and suddenly you’ve crossed that line, because everyone knows that only men have beards.

Except that isn’t true, and has never been. As I posted yesterday, cis women with PCOS can grow full beards; Harnaam Kaur is one example. She kept her beard because shaving and hair removal treatments damaged her skin, and also because of her Sikh religion, which forbids cutting or shaving hair. She’s endured quite a bit of bullying for this.

Even female-assigned people without this condition often grow some facial hair. You just don’t usually see this, as women are socialized to remove all traces of it. I found this out in my 30s, when I began to grow some sparse hair on my upper lip and chin.  I’d been diagnosed with PCOS when I was younger, but after losing weight, all other symptoms of that condition disappeared. The chin hairs didn’t appear until years later. I shaved them as it looked odd to have hair growing from just one part of my face.

After a year and half on testosterone, I have a lot more facial hair but I still shave regularly, as it’s coming in very unevenly (much to my impatience). I do actually want to grow a beard and mustache, not because I love facial hair (I can take it or leave it) but because it will hopefully cut down on the number of times I’m called “ma’am” or “miss”.

However, I wouldn’t grow a beard if I hated facial hair. The pressure to conform to gendered expectations regarding appearance really bothers me, which is why I felt happy reading Alex Drummond’s story of why she decided to keep her beard and not opt for hormones or surgery. From the sound of her story she actually got bullied more before her transition, when she was living as a man. She is now living authentically, and doesn’t need to subject her body to procedures she does not want in order to “confirm” her gender.

It’s not just women (trans and cis) who are pressured to have a naked face; nonbinary people are too. Some people think being agender means having no visible sex characteristics, including breasts and facial hair, or even body hair. For some people, especially many who identify as neutrois, that might be true. But as I’ve discussed in my entries about being agender, male, and transsexual, it’s not true for me.

My sex is not neutral, it’s male. I personally don’t want to look like Peter Pan or a prepubescent child.  I started on testosterone therapy ready to accept whatever physical changes came with my second puberty. This so far has included growing additional body and facial hair, as well as developing male pattern baldness (my hairline is already receding). I’m fine with all of this.

Two nonbinary people I admire who wear varying amounts of facial hair are Tyler Ford (agender), who I wrote about in my article on agender fashion, and Jacob Tobia (genderqueer), who I found in the New York Times Transgender Today gallery, where I was also published. Tyler wrote about navigating the streets of New York as a queer agender person of color, deciding based on their schedule for the day whether or not they should shave, what they should wear, and which gendered restroom was safest for them to use. Jacob spoke about self-acceptance as a genderqueer person wearing both a beard and lipstick:

While I celebrate those who are able to live their authentic selves, I recognize that privilege comes into play. Harnaam Kaur and Tyler Ford, people of color, likely suffer more bullying and harassment for their presentation than Alex Drummond or Jacob Tobia. We cannot ignore the intersections of race, class, and gender. It is simply not safe in many places for everyone to “just be themselves.”

I hope that as more people transcend the artificial boundaries of gender expression, more of us will be able to live safe, happy, authentic lives.

Don’t know much biology

[Image: A honeybee perches on a red flowering plant with waxy leaves.]

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book…

When it comes to talking about people’s bodies, there are certain words and phrases I would like to see stricken from the dialogue. When we say that someone is “biologically,” “physically,” “anatomically,” or “genetically” male or female, or that they are male or female “bodied”, we are reducing their identity to physical attributes that have little to no bearing on how most people live in 21st century human society.

Reducing a person to their reproductive organs under the guise of “biological reality” conveniently overlooks the reality that many cis people do not reproduce. Whether through choice, chance, or infertility, a cis woman who does not become pregnant is still a woman. A cis man who does not impregnate anyone is still a man. Even the most reactionary, anti-birth-control person would not likely question this. So why is it relevant, to anyone other than a doctor or potential partner, whether a person has a uterus and ovaries or testicles?

The same goes for penises and vulvas (the latter is what most laypeople are actually referring to when they say “vagina”). Under most everyday conditions, these body parts are well-hidden. Many trans women and nonbinary people who have penises are terrified of anyone seeing that part of their body in a women’s restroom or locker room. They are at far more risk of violence in those situations than the cis women who conservatives and TERFs falsely claim trans women are preying on. There have been no studies proving otherwise. And the same goes for trans men and nonbinary people with vulvas, as I can attest to from the fear I still feel whenever entering a men’s restroom, a year and a half into my physical transition.

Describing someone as “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” based on secondary sex characteristics is even more problematic. As I discussed in an earlier post, people of all sexes have breasts unless they’ve had them surgically removed; breasts, areolae, and nipples vary greatly in size, shape, and position for everyone. People of all sexes grow varying amounts of body and facial hair. Cis women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can grow full beards. Gender policing based on visible physical characteristics like this hurts cis people as well as trans people, as any masculine-presenting cis woman who’s been harassed for entering a women’s restroom can attest. This policing is also a good part of why “trans panic” is still a legal defense for murder in 49 out of 50 US states.

Chromosomes are the last resort of those who acknowledge all of the above, yet are still desperate to force us into the binary boxes we were assigned at birth. XX = female and XY = male, they say; that’s a reality you can’t change even with genital surgery. The irony is that many of the people insisting on this “genetic reality” don’t know much about biology themselves. Plenty of variations on chromosomes exist; to say otherwise is to contribute to intersex erasure. (And intersex people are also harmed by cissexist legislation, even if they are ipso gender rather than trans.) Some have questioned whether we should even refer to “sex chromosomes” at all.

But ultimately, chromosomes are completely and utterly irrelevant when it comes to everyday social interactions. I can guarantee you that the overwhelming majority of people reading this entry do not know what their own “sex chromosomes” are, nor do they know those of any of their friends. People do not routinely submit to genetic tests, whether for the purposes of birth sex assignment or for determining which gendered facilities they can enter. Even for elite athletes at the Olympic level, genetic testing has been a poor predictor of advantage, as outlined in this essay (note: contains cissexist language). So why on Earth do many insist on labeling people as “XX female” or “XY male”?

Following my own advice of using “I” statements, I will not tell a trans, cis, or intersex person how to refer to their own body. If a trans woman wishes to refer to herself as “male-bodied” or “biologically male,” that is her right. But I really wish people would stop forcing these labels on others. On the rare occasion that it is useful or necessary to speak of something other than a person’s self-identified gender – and cis people self-identify as well, they just aren’t questioned for it – the preferred phrase is “assigned fe/male at birth”.

One trans activist who has been doing a great job of deconstructing the sex binary is Sophie Labelle, illustrator of the Assigned Male web comic.  While the central character in her comic is a trans girl, she also features trans male, nonbinary, and intersex characters. Sophie is one of the artists I’m supporting on Patreon. She has lots of great, gender-affirming art in her shop, including coloring books for children. Highly recommended for people of all ages and genders!

If we could all be accepting of everyone’s gender identities and expressions, and not insist on reducing each other to body parts…. what a wonderful world this would be.

Telling our own stories

[Image: Screenshot of the Transgender Today section of the New York Times, featuring images of and quotes from many people, with the headline Transgender Lives: Your Stories.]

A couple of months ago, I learned that the New York Times had created a space for trans people to tell our own stories through text, images, and video. This month I decided to share my own story. Being limited to 400 words, I wrote and rewrote, agonizing over every syllable; there was so much more I wanted to say that wouldn’t fit. I even debated how or whether to list my occupation, eventually settling on “Photographer”, as I don’t (yet) consider myself to be a professional writer. I uploaded a photo my partner Ziggy took of me wearing the Kat Blaque T-shirt and matching mug, then submitted and hoped for the best.

Yesterday, the New York Times published my story! I was elated. Not a single word was altered.

As trans people, it’s crucial that we be given the opportunity to share our own stories. The mainstream media often gets everything wrong: Deadnaming us, ignoring or mocking our pronouns, sensationalizing our bodies. Occasionally a mainstream source will get a story about binary trans people mostly right, but do we really want cis comedians like John Oliver to define the trans experience?

The media celebrates those of us who fit into one of the acceptable trans narratives: The trans woman who knew she was a girl from the age of five; the trans man who felt “trapped” in a woman’s body. Many trans people do have these experiences, but many more of us do not, and we are every bit as legitimate in our genders (or lack thereof).

Nonbinary people especially suffer from poor representation in the media. There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about nonbinary people, even within the trans community. Explaining and defending our own identities can be exhausting, and this is only compounded by well-meaning allies sharing faulty information that they’ve picked up online. We often ask cis people to educate themselves about us by searching the Internet, so that we’re not constantly forced to be educators. But if the first stories that pop up reinforce the classic trans narrative, that’s not really helping our cause.

I’ve found this especially frustrating as a Wikipedia editor on the LGBT studies task force, as published articles about nonbinary people in reliable sources are sorely lacking. We need greater coverage in the mainstream media, and we need to hold reporters to a higher standard of accuracy.

I am grateful to the New York Times for providing a prominent space for trans people to tell our own stories, in our own words. I hope that more major publications follow suit.

 

White vegans need to check their privileges

[Image: Poster reading “Black Lives Matter: A Vegan Praxis”. Features a silhouette of a person with their hands up in the air. Their torso is the head of a bull with a bullseye between the eyes. Poster design: Alise Eastgate of Eastrand Studios.]

I’ve been talking about veganism a lot less lately because I’m frankly embarrassed to be associated with many of the prominent vegans in the “animal whites movement.” We have foodie vegans singing the praises of expensive juice cleanses, nondairy cheeses, and gourmet vegan restaurants. We have activists like Gary Yourofsky and the Non-Humans First movement saying that oppressed humans can speak for themselves, and nonhumans have it worst than anyone else on the planet, so all efforts need to focus on them, and no tactics are off-limits. And we have white vegans co-opting the BlackLivesMatter hashtag to focus attention on nonhuman animals, and calling black people racist and/or speciesist when we complain about this.

Black vegan chef Bryant Terry summed up the situation thusly in this Facebook status:

Bryan Terry quote on BlackLivesMatter

[Image: Bryant Terry Facebook status: If you have shared innumerable posts about how humans can be more compassionate towards animals and you have not said one peep about police terrorizing and killing little black girls and boys, a terrorist killing 9 black people in a church this month, 6 black churches being burned to the ground in the past week, and the myriad ways that anti-black racism manifests, I encourage you to think long and hard about how you might expand your “compassion” and fight for justice for all living beings.]

Blacks and other people of color don’t have the privilege to ignore racism, whether inside or outside of the animal rights movement. I can’t blame black people for caring more about the bodies of their loved ones being violated and killed by police and terrorists than the bodies of nonhuman animals being violated and killed by farmers and slaughterhouse workers. And given the mainstream media’s slant on the events highlighted in Terry’s quote above, it is laughable to say that we have a voice, while nonhuman animals do not. We have the ability to speak, but our voices are ignored and silenced.

Fortunately, more of us are speaking out on racism in the animal rights community.  [Edit, October 2016: I had embedded here a video by black vegan Rachel Richards, founder of the “Check Your Activism” channel on YouTube, but the video and the channel itself seem to have been deleted.]

I linked to the sites of some other activists who get it in my blog entry on activism with DxE. One I want to highlight today is Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper of Sistah Vegan Project. I read her Sistah Vegan anthology several years ago, before my transition to male. I was excited to see an entire book of essays by black female vegans. I also felt a kinship to Dr. Harper as a practitioner of Buddhism; while I don’t currently identify with Buddhism as a religion, the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence, is central to my ethics (which is why I chose Ahimsa as my middle name). Her blog is filled with excellent, thought-provoking essays on racism, sexism, food justice, and many other issues, in addition to (and in conjunction with) veganism.

Dr. Harper organized an online conference, “The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter“,  which I attended earlier this year. It was an excellent, interactive series of talks, covering racism, sexism, cissexism, and many other issues that are usually ignored by the mainstream vegan and animal rights movements. Recordings of the conference are available for purchase, and a book will be forthcoming.

I’ve contributed to the Sistah Vegan Project’s fundraising campaign on GoFundMe, which has been running for over two years now and has raised just over $10,000 to date. In contrast, when the popular high-end vegan restaurant, Millennium, announced that they had to leave their San Francisco location and started a Kickstarter campaign to fund their move to Oakland, they raised over $100,000 in less than a month. This is, to put it bluntly, fucked up.

I’ve seen this racism and classism in the the trans community as well. From the linked article:

…in a popular queer group a white trans man posted his fundraiser for top surgery and raised roughly half his funds within a day. He also garnered a lot of support from members of the group. A trans woman of color posted her fundraiser for living expenses because she was fired from her job due to discrimination and she was asked to promptly remove the post because it violated “community policy”.

After reading the above, I gave money to the Free CeCe documentary campaign, to elevate the voices of black trans women. Even with the backing and promotion of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, that project is not yet fully funded.

If animal liberation is to succeed, the movement must address the concerns of oppressed humans as well as nonhumans. The BlackLivesMatter movement must not be co-opted or ignored by  white vegans. Black voices, vegan or non-vegan, need to be heard.

 

Follow your bliss?

[Image: Jonathan Mann plays guitar and sings into a microphone.]

Back when I was first contemplating transitioning, I attended a couple of peer support groups for transmasculine and genderqueer people at the Pacific Center in Berkeley. One group discussion rule that I really liked was: Use “I” statements. That is, don’t give other people advice, just say what has worked for you.

I am spectacularly unqualified to give personal advice on most issues. I am also quite cynical by nature. Hence the question mark in the title of this post. “Follow your bliss”* is advice I hear given to artists a lot. Do what you love, and the money will follow. But will it really?

Being a financially successful independent artist, writer, or musician takes a huge amount of work, along with a fair amount of luck. Most need another source of income, either from another job or a family member. I envy those who can work a full-time or part-time job and still have the energy to do creative work on the side.

Partly due to worsening clinical depression, I found it impossible to do many hired photography gigs while still working a day job. I was fortunate to have family support for my living expenses and health insurance while I tried to get my career off the ground. Ultimately I realized I could not make a living as a photographer. But at least I didn’t go bankrupt trying, and as I still have spousal support I can try to pull in a little income through crowdfunding, as detailed in my previous post.

Lately I’ve also begun to realize that most of the people I’ve seen give advice to “work for love, not for money” are able-bodied cis white men. These privileges can be so invisible that most people don’t even realize they have them. It’s a lot easier to rely on the good will of others, to say “the universe will provide”, when you are self-confident, full of energy, and your appearance doesn’t ring any alarm bells.

One white cis male artist who does recognize his privileges is Jonathan Mann, the first person I supported on Patreon. He’s frequently written songs and essays about social justice issues. His dream is to make a living entirely from user contributions, but for now he has to write corporate songs to make ends meet. I admire Jonathan, who I saw in person several times when he was living in the SF Bay Area; the photo at the top of this post is from his performance at Macworld Expo in 2011, where we first met. I also had the fun of collaborating with Jonathan and dozens of other people in a video last year:

Later this week I’ll write about some of the other artists and writers I’m supporting, on Patreon and other crowdfunding sites.

* Follow Your Bliss is also the title of one of my favorite songs, by the B-52’s.

Trying a new funding model

[Image: Montage of three people singing and playing instruments with the funcrunchphoto.com logo superimposed.]

Brief summary: If you like my writing and/or photography work, please consider supporting me with a monthly pledge on Patreon or leaving me a one-time tip.

Back in the year 2000 I acquired my first digital camera. I began taking photos of anything and everything. By 2008, I had gotten enough praise for my photos that I decided to launch an official photography business, Funcrunch Photo, the following year.

Unfortunately, I was a terrible salesperson. And as any artist will tell you, making a living from art is 90% sales and marketing. While as an event photography specialist I considered myself more of a photojournalist than an artist, trying to convince people to pay for my work when more and more people were content with amateur snapshots was becoming increasingly difficult.

I also felt I had no control over my work once it was posted online; Facebook and many other social networks stripped metadata, some people cut out or cloned out my watermarks, and some gave me pushback even when I simply asked for attribution for my work. While in the USA, a photographer owns the copyright to their work the moment the shutter is pressed, trying to explain that just made me look greedy in an age where many expect anything digital to be freely available to all, without restriction.

So in August 2012 I stopped taking on new gigs, choosing to focus on volunteer work in food justice instead, as my partner Ziggy was earning enough to cover our living expenses. I continued to license my existing work and do occasional shoots, hoping to bring in enough income to at least cover my business expenses, but I became more disillusioned with the state of the photography industry. My output dropped precipitously; my Lightroom catalog for the year 2011 contains over 25000 images, while for the year 2013 there are fewer than 4000.

Still, I could not bring myself to shut Funcrunch Photo down completely, and I was beginning to miss shooting events. I still wasn’t accepting hired gigs, but I began taking photos at animal liberation actions and other events, and posting them online in full resolution, without watermarks. I also started contributing more high-resolution photos to Wikimedia, such as the ones I took at the Trans March, as more free photos are needed in this area. Especially as my food justice volunteering wasn’t working out (more on that in a future entry), I felt that I should use my photography talents, in addition to my writing talents, to advance social justice causes if I could.

Meanwhile I was noticing that more and more artists were using crowdfunding to support their projects. I was supporting several such people on Patreon, and decided that might be a way to cover my photography expenses. I hate advertising, and liked the idea of having users support my overall work directly, in writing as well as photography.

So I’ve set up a page on Patreon for that purpose. For those who don’t want to commit to a monthly pledge, I’ve also set up PayPal buttons so you can leave a one-time tip.

While my photography work going forward will be released under a Creative Commons license for free noncommercial use (with attribution), I’m treating my older galleries a bit differently. I’ve made all low-res images free for download, cut the price of high-res image licenses in half, and eliminated print options on all but my art prints.

I hope this new funding model will help me fit in better with the evolving expectations of the digital age.

Are we male yet?

[Image: Pax , the author, runs on a trail, grinning and making a “V” sign with their fingers. They are wearing a “no meat athlete” shirt and race bib. Photo by comerphotos.com]

Today marks one year since a San Francisco judge granted my court order to change my name and gender. (Although I’m agender, my sex is male, so I wanted that legally recognized.) I’ve had nearly all of my various identification documents updated now, with the notable exception of my birth certificate, as my home state of Pennsylvania currently requires surgery for that.

And surgery is something I am not willing to have at this time. When I first contemplated transitioning, I felt that I wanted a hysterectomy and oophorectomy. But after I went on testosterone and my monthly periods finally ceased, I eventually decided I didn’t want to undergo the risk and expense of surgery. As long as I’m not bleeding, I’m not actively thinking about those internal organs.

I would still prefer to have a cis-typical penis instead of a vulva and vagina, but that kind of surgery is really problematic and expensive. Testosterone therapy has helped there too, as my clitoris has grown to the size that I now think of it as a penis, albeit a very small one. I no longer feel the need to get a prosthetic, which is another thing I thought for sure I’d want before going on T. (I did wear a packer at home for awhile, but don’t currently feel the need to do so.)

One of the more disturbing things about my transition is that while my physical dysphoria has decreased significantly thanks to the hormones, my social dysphoria has actually increased. Part of this is due to my breasts. Unlike the vast majority of trans men and nonbinary female-assigned people I’ve encountered, I do not bind and am not seeking top surgery.

I neither love nor hate my breasts, but I do hate the feeling of constriction. After I lost a significant amount of weight a couple years back, I stopped wearing bras, even for running, and it felt great. I felt a little bounce at the beginning of each run, then didn’t notice them anymore.

But I’m sure other people do, as you can see in the featured photo at the top of this post (which this blog theme conveniently cropped to focus on my chest). This was at last September’s Beat the Blerch half-marathon, near Seattle. I was wearing a tank top under that thin shirt, but it was cool out, and I have rather prominent nipples regardless.

So every time I go for a run, I’m convinced that everyone is staring at my chest. This, plus my continued resentment that I can’t run topless without facing additional stares and harassment on top of the misgendering, has resulted in me running less and less frequently since my transition. I ran today for only the second time in a month, and only because I got up early enough to get out by 7 a.m., when there were few people about.

My therapist, who has been listening to me complain about not being able to run topless (safely) since well before my transition, finally said that I can either change the world, or I can change myself. At that point, I was starting to consider top surgery. But I simply do not want to surgically remove parts of my body that I don’t have a problem with.

Having breasts does not make me female or “female-bodied”. Cis men have breasts too, unless they’ve had them surgically removed. Cis men can get breast cancer. Cis men can suffer from gynecomastia, which causes breast enlargement independent of body weight. In fact, some of the most popular binders for trans men were designed for cis men with this condition.

The only difference between my chest and that of a typical cis man’s is the size, shape, and position of my breasts, nipples, and areolae. The “free the nipple” and “top freedom” movements point this out, though they are geared toward cis women, not transmasculine people. The problem with how I’ve seen these important movements marketed is that most of the people pictured are thin, light-skinned, and small-breasted, with small areolae and nipples. Look at this widely-circulated photo for example, which I believe originated on the Instagram page of Cara Delevingne (though it’s not clear if she’s the one in the photo):

"Male" and "female" breast comparison
[Image: The torsos of two people with words written on them labeling breast tissue, areolae, and nipples.]

Notice in the above photo that both chests are hairless, both have fairly small nipples and areolae, and the person on the right has their arm lifted which makes their breast appear even smaller. A lot of breasts, belonging to both assigned-male and assigned-female people, look nothing like the above. See this gallery of self-submitted, non-sexualized breast photos for example (geared toward cis women; contains cissexist language). Top freedom means freedom for everyone with visible breasts, regardless of their assigned sex or appearance.

Ironically, in many cities, including here in San Francisco, it is legal for women to go topless in public, but few do so. In New York City there’s a co-ed topless book club (some of their photos contain full nudity). I’ve mused about arranging a topless fun run, but the permitting process and security would probably be a nightmare.

So, do I change the world or do I change myself? If I didn’t want to change the world, I wouldn’t have become an animal rights activist, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten involved with DxE (Edit, Sep 2016: I left DxE a year ago). I’d just be content to be vegan. But this kind of activism – top freedom – has more risk to me personally, and is probably not as important from a global perspective, though it’s something I care about deeply. Regardless, the idea that I should cut off parts of my body that I’m not personally dysphoric about is really unacceptable to me at this stage.

For the time being, I think I’ll  just stick to running in the early hours when I’ll encounter fewer people, but I’ll keep my shirt on. For now. Stay tuned…

Transgender vs transsexual

[Image: Side-by-side self-portraits of Pax, the author, wearing a black tank top, holding a camera and looking in the mirror.]

This summer marks several milestones in my transition. Last week, July 3, I passed a year and a half on testosterone; a photo comparing my current appearance with that on the day of my first injection is above.  Tomorrow, July 10, is the one year anniversary of getting my court order for legal change of name and sex. And next month, August 23, marks my second anniversary of publicly going by the name Pax Ahimsa Gethen and identifying as gender-neutral (later amended to agender).

In the course of my transition, I’ve been reading a lot about gender terminology, and tweaking my self-description to better match my identity. One of the most influential authors for me was Matt Kailey, a gay trans man who sadly died last year at the age of 59. Matt, like me, did not realize that he was trans until middle age. He was exclusively attracted to men, and (unlike me) had a very feminine presentation pre-transition. Matt had a great advice column, Tranifesto, and in it he helped me decide how and when to reveal my new name.

In Matt’s book Just Add Hormones: An Insider’s Guide to the Transsexual Experience, he explains that transsexual people “change their physical bodies to match their gender identity.” In the FAQ on his web site, he explains that not all transsexuals identify as transgender; transgender refers to anyone who deviates from binary gender norms, whereas some transsexuals simply identify as binary men and women post-transition, and don’t want to be known as trans.

I’ve since read a number of comments suggesting that we should get rid of the term “transsexual” altogether, as it is stigmatizing, outdated, and presents a medical-centered view of gender. In contrast, I’ve read people who are sometimes known as “truscum” or “transmedicalists” saying that only people who wish to physically transition from one binary sex to another are trans; they want nothing to do with the expanding “umbrella” of transgender, which may include people who do not experience physical dysphoria at all.

My opinion, which is still evolving as I’m always learning, is that anyone who does not identify with the gender corresponding with the sex they were assigned at birth can identify as transgender.* This can include nonbinary-identified people, although some such people identify as neither trans nor cis. This can also include people who do not experience dysphoria, physical or otherwise. (This article by Sam Dylan Finch helps dispel misconceptions about dysphoria and identity.)

Ultimately, it’s not up to me to decide who is or isn’t transgender. I can understand the pain and frustration of trans people with binary identities and significant dysphoria who just want to be recognized as the “opposite” sex, and don’t want to be lumped in with people who have a much different experience of gender. That’s where I feel it makes sense to have a separate “transsexual” label, but again, it’s not up to me to decide who can claim that term.

While I mostly agree with Matt Kailey that most transsexuals “change their physical bodies to match their gender identity,” many are not able to access hormones and/or surgery, for financial, health, or other reasons. Also, I have a different conception of gender identity than most people I’ve read on the subject. When I say I’m a transsexual male, that’s what most would call my gender identity, but I actually see that as my sex identity.

The distinction between gender identity and sex identity is made in the article Gender in 12 Dimensions.  I don’t agree with some of the assertions in this article; I no longer see masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a spectrum, and changing gender appearance is certainly not as easy as putting on a dress or a tie (especially here in San Francisco). But this article provided a more useful way for me to think about sex and gender than what was generally presented in the mainstream media. In particular, being transsexual is defined as “having a sex identity that does not match your sex appearance,” which suits me; I am male, but I currently have physical characteristics that make me appear to be female.

So if I am a transsexual male, how can I also be agender? I’ve seen few other people who have a distinct sex and gender identity in the way I describe. Marilyn Roxie is one; their sex is male and their gender is genderqueer. (Their site is one of the most useful I’ve found on nonbinary identities.) Identity is separate from gender expression, however. As I talked about in my article on agender fashion, having a nonbinary gender does not presume having a neutral or androgynous presentation.

I have sometimes wondered if I should just drop one or the other of my identifying terms, to make things less confusing. If I’m male, why can’t I just be a gender-nonconforming man? Or if I’m agender, why can’t I just be that and not also insist on a binary sex identity?

The answer is that defining myself as an agender transsexual male just feels right to me. I realize that many people will always think that I’m a special snowflake, and many others will ask why we need labels at all. To the first group, I say that each one of us is unique, and no one can define anyone else’s identity. To the second group, I say that is coming from a place of privilege, similar to the (mostly-white) people who say “I don’t see color.” Labels for gender identity (and sexual orientation, as I wrote about yesterday) are useful to help us understand ourselves better, and to find other people who are like us for mutual support.

I expect that my understanding of gender, sex, and my own identity will continue to evolve, as I’m always learning. What’s most important is recognizing that each of us should have the right to define our own genders, and express ourselves in the way that we see fit.

* But see also this article on intersex identity by intersex trans professor Cary Gabriel Costello, who makes the distinction between “cisgender” and “ipso gender” for intersex people.

 

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