Tag Archives: speciesism

Conflicted thoughts on Thanksgiving

[Image: An activist at a Stand with Standing Rock rally in San Francisco holds a sign reading “Protect the Sacred”.]

Today’s post on Medium, “Conflicted thoughts on Thanksgiving“, is about reconciling the celebration of the holiday with the continued oppression of marginalized humans and the killing of animals. Please follow me on Medium if you aren’t doing so already, thanks.

Bigoted vegans piss on Pride month

[Image: Pax pets Shiva, a steer at PreetiRang Sanctuary. Photo by Ziggy.]

This week, Mercy for Animals featured me in their article, 13 LGBTQ Vegans You Need to Follow. I had already found and shared the article to my Facebook page before MFA posted it on Facebook themselves. Very shortly afterward, the negative comments came flooding in.

We had your garden-variety bigotry:

[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Animal rights have nothing to do with the filth and immorality that is homosexuality, this ends my association with you.”]

"Sick people"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Vegans not have connection with sick people (LGBTQ etc.)”]

"Degeneracy"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Leftists glorify promiscuity, abortion, radical feminism, and welfare. Pair-bonded monogamy became edgy when leftists normalised degeneracy.”]

"Against the gay pride"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “I am totally for mercy for animals! But against the gay pride!”]

And we had your bigotry using  religion as a rationale :

"Be fruitful and multiply"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Ummm No I will decide who I follow- not this- agenda- very disappointed – I run a biblical page and share your info- will NOT share this- you need to propagate your species – the first positive command, be fruitful and multiply !”]

"Jesus Christ"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “No thank you. I follow Jesus Christ!”]

And we had the predictable questioning why marginalized humans should get any attention on a page devoted to animal rights:

"Gay agenda"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “You know, it’s really a shame when animal groups get political. The only ones that suffer are the animals. Because of this, I am now unfriending your face book page. This message has nothing to do with animals. Also, I don’t agree with the gay agenda.”]

"Lost focus"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Lost focus! This page should not raise politics, religion …! One should only comment on such a scandal if it involves animal welfare! This way there will be disagreements! The focus here are the animals! Try to use love and respect for animals to raise other flags is wrong it’s just the animals that will lose!”]

"Sexual preference"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Why does sexual preference always get mixed into everything these days? Doesn’t this takes away from the sole purpose of this facebook cause and mission? Im fine with what ever a person’s preference is but let’s put the focus back where it needs to be. Please, let’s work together to save the ones without a voice.”]

"Irrelevant"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Being gay or straight is irrelevant to having an interest in animal welfare.”]

"Ruined the main purpose"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “By this post you’ve just ruined the main purpose of the group, why so many people were following you. You better be fair now and rename the group to something like “LGBT VEGANS”, so all can understand what exactly they deal with.”]

"WTF"[Image: Screenshot of a comment reading “Wtf does this have to do with mercy for animals???”]

Note that roughly half of the comments above were made within 45 minutes of the article’s posting, overwhelming any positive feedback. The moderators later removed the worst of them.

This kind of pushback is sadly familiar to those of us who are working against human oppression in the animal rights community. I’ve already addressed many of the common excuses for this behavior, including the expected replies that the above commenters aren’t “real” vegans or aren’t typical of all animal rights activists or of activists from a particular organization. This bigotry and oppression exists, period, and it’s one reason I’ve significantly decreased my involvement in animal rights and vegan activism lately. Activists who would shame me, or others, for taking care of myself need to read this response as well.

My friend Aph Ko has faced similar backlash for her work to promote black vegans, which she talks about in her new book, Aphro-ism. Helping Aph out with Black Vegans Rock is about the extent of my vegan/AR work currently. I’ve prioritized transgender advocacy and documenting the resistance to the Trump administration. Speciesism is still very bothersome to me, but fighting it is not my primary focus right now.

Allies can help by amplifying the voices of vegans in the LGBT+ community; there are many more besides those in the MFA post. Note that I have not shared my interview that was linked in that post because of concerns that some others featured on that “Queer Vegans” site are not actually vegan. I’m not splitting hairs here; the researcher intentionally included ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians in her interviews, but the title and intro do not state this explicitly. (Update, June 19: The researcher, Leah Kirts, has edited her Queer Vegans site in response to my feedback.)

Regardless, people in the LGBT+ community need help whether they’re vegan or not. Pride month should be a time to recognize and celebrate sexual and gender diversity, not just with rainbow icons and profile frames on Facebook (which are fine), but with specific acts of allyship, and financial contributions for those who have the means. Many queer writers (including me) have links to PayPal accounts, Patreon pages, or other ways you can do more than just show appreciation, but actually help us survive. Helping marginalized humans does not take away from the animals; it helps make more allies for them in the fight against all oppression.

March for Science San Francisco

[Image: March for Science San Francisco attendees hold up a large banner for the event.]

On Saturday, I attended the March for Science San Francisco, one of many March for Science rallies held on Earth Day throughout the world. Unlike some recent political protests I’ve attended, this event appeared to be very well-funded, with a professional sound system for once. Between the multiple speaker arrays, giant video screen, coordinated T-shirts, and laminated passes for the speakers and volunteers, it almost felt more like an industry trade show or rock concert than a rally.

Crowd at Justin Herman Plaza[Image: The crowd at the March for Science rally fills Justin Herman Plaza.]

Crowded plaza[Image: The crowd moves through Justin Herman Plaza for the start of the march.]

The pre-march rally was held at Justin Herman Plaza, which was already filled with people when I arrived half an hour before the 11 a.m. start time. By the end of the rally, the plaza was so packed that it took me 45 minutes to get from the far side of the stage out to Market Street for the actual march.

Kishore Hari and Adam Savage[Image: Rally emcee Kishore Hari shares a moment backstage with Adam Savage.]

Dr. Leticia Márquez-Magaña[Image: Dr. Leticia Márquez-Magaña speaks at the rally.]

Baratunde Thurston at March for Science[Image: Baratunde Thurston speaks at the rally.]

Science has no borders[Image: Two children hold a sign reading “Science has no borders”.]

The lineup of speakers was diverse, and support for immigrants was a recurring theme. ASL interpretation was provided, and a pre-recorded talk by a scientist paralyzed with ALS, Eric Valor, was shown . While I appreciated that scientists were in the spotlight, the speaker I was personally most excited to see was Adam Savage from Mythbusters, who billed himself as an inventor, not a scientist. I also enjoyed the talk by comedian and futurist Baratunde Thurston, who was a last-minute addition.

March for Science rally signs[Image: Rally attendees sit and stand on the steps, holding various signs and banners.]

While advertised as non-partisan, many considered this to be another anti-Trump rally, and brought signs accordingly. Speakers did not call out the current administration exclusively, however. Many emphasized the need for funding and for assertions based on evidence rather than opinion, needs which transcend political parties. The rallying cry, as seen on several signs, was “What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”

I’ll be the first to admit that science is not a strong area of aptitude or interest for me. Science and math were the subjects I had the most difficulty with in middle and high school, though I still took Advanced Placement courses (in order to look good on my college applications) and managed to get passing grades. I’ve done computer programming, but have little formal computer science training, and struggled greatly in this area even when employed as a full-time web developer.

Resist[Image: A rally attendee wears a jacket with the badges of various science and nature organizations, and the word RESIST.]

So my motivation for going to this rally was mostly to continue my documentation of the resistance. Resistance to willful ignorance is part of this effort, and ignorance comes from people of all political persuasions. While science and religion are not necessarily incompatible, science is absolutely not itself a religion, a claim I’ve heard made not only by fundamentalists, but also some very left-wing, “new age” people. (It’s ironic that just the night before the rally I’d attended a sing-along benefit showing of Jesus Christ Superstar, a movie I’ve always greatly enjoyed despite being an atheist.)

Regardless, ethics also plays a large role, especially from my stance as a vegan animal rights activist. I can’t simply ignore vivisection and animal testing, no matter how much these practices might benefit humans. Though I do look for products that are not tested on animals, my reliance on some medications and medical procedures is beyond my reasonable ability to control at this time.

Ethics applies to the hot-button issue of GMOs as well, concerns about which one of the rally speakers dismissed in the same breath as vaccines causing autism. While I agree that the latter has been thoroughly debunked, I am still not convinced GMOs are a great idea. This is not primarily because of concerns about the safety of the humans consuming them, but concerns about capitalism and patenting. I also believe that ending animal agriculture, not engineering more higher-yield or pest-resistant crops, is the ultimate solution to world hunger. But again, I am not a scientist.

Marching with cat[Image: A woman with long braided hair and glasses walks while holding a cat with jaguar-like markings.]

During the short time I was on the march, I encountered someone marching while holding a cat, an unusual sight. We spoke briefly, and she commented that the cat would not exist without science, because domestic cats have been specially bred. This raised another animal rights issue, but I didn’t want to get into that discussion at the time, so I just snapped photos, thanked her and moved on.

Folk singers at March for Science[Image: Musicians sing and play instruments alongside the march route.]

Shortly afterward, I saw some people on the sidewalk playing live music, so I headed over and joined in the singing. By the time we finished the song, the end of the march had caught up to us, and I was peopled-out, so I headed home. Science-related activities continued for the rest of the afternoon at Civic Center.

My full set of photos from the rally is available on Flickr. I’ve also uploaded the photos to Wikimedia Commons, alongside those from other contributors. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of my photos, thanks!

Stardew Valley: Fun and food for thought

[Image: Screenshot of Pax’s Stardew Valley farm in fall of year 4, featuring a giant pumpkin.]

I mentioned in a recent post that I had been thoroughly engrossed in the game Stardew Valley. After five weeks and five virtual years in the valley, I put my current save file on hold, as I felt 201 hours of gameplay was a bit too much escapism. In some respects though, this experience has helped me reconnect with other real-life human beings, as forming relationships—both platonic and romantic—is a core feature of the game.

Stardew Valley greenhouse[Image: A screenshot of Pax’s greenhouse in Stardew Valley, year 5, featuring starfruit and ancient fruit.]

Farming crops is the feature that drew me to Stardew Valley, however. I had previously enjoyed playing Farmville, for reasons I explained in my post about my most popular Flickr photos, and I’ve done lots of gardening in The Sims as well. I’ve tried my hand at real-life gardening, but after three years of volunteer work I concluded that I have neither aptitude for nor enjoyment of this hobby, sadly.

Stardew Valley cellar[Image: Screenshot of Pax’s wine cellar.]

In this game, after struggling through learning the mechanics (which were quite different from other games I played), I turned to amassing a virtual fortune by making wine and jelly from the two highest-grossing crops, starfruit and ancient fruit. Having a shed full of kegs and a cellar full of casks is pretty amusing for a teetotaler like myself, but unlike animal products, I have no moral objection to alcohol.

Stardew Valley chicken coop[Image: Screenshot of Pax’s Stardew Valley coop, with Quackers, Snackers, Bella, Midnight, and Galla.]

Raising animals is a featured part of Stardew Valley. Like most activities in this open-ended game, raising animals is optional, but one most players indulge in to acquire animal products such as eggs and milk, for cooking and for achieving collection goals. The sole developer, Eric Barone (also known by his handle “ConcernedApe”), is a vegetarian, and decided not to allow slaughtering of farmed animals in the game, offering this explanation in an interview with Vulture:

Beta testers had asked Barone to include a feature that enabled users to butcher their animals and harvest the meat, and he listened to them at first, but in the end he couldn’t bring himself to include the mechanic. “I didn’t want to have that sort of violence. You give the animals names, pet them, and a little heart goes above their head and stuff, and then you butcher them?” he said. “It just felt wrong. It didn’t jibe with the feeling I was going for with the game, so I cut that, and I don’t regret it.”

Stardew Valley newborn pig[Image: A screenshot of Pax’s barn in Stardew Valley, featuring information about newborn pig Sorpresa. (So-named because she was a surprise birth; I thought I had disabled pregnancy on her parents.)]

As a vegan playing a version of myself in this save file, I did not prepare or consume any dishes containing animal products. Even though it’s just a game, since becoming an activist (for human as well as animal rights), my pacifism has influenced my virtual activities. I did decide to share my farm with some animals as if i were running a sanctuary. In a real vegan animal sanctuary, however, the chickens’ eggs would be fed back to them, and the goats and cows would not produce milk unless they were pregnant.

More importantly, on real farms, even free-range and backyard operations, the overwhelming majority of male chicks are killed shortly after hatching, and the overwhelming majority of egg- and milk-producing animals are killed once they are “spent”. Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary has more detailed information on the “Humane Myth” which leads many (if not most) US-Americans to believe that idyllic settings like Stardew Valley, where farmed animals can live out their natural lifespans in comfort and happiness, could actually exist. I’m not blaming Barone for reinforcing these myths, I just want more people to be aware of them.

Although farmed animals are not slaughtered in the valley, fishing is another key feature of the game. To me, fishing is merely aquatic hunting; fishes are sentient like land animals, and octopuses, one of the sea animals that can be caught, are particularly intelligent. I avoided fishing completely in the game until I realized that I might not be able to finish one of the key goals (repairing and re-opening the Community Center) without it. I ended up turning all of the fish that I didn’t need for that purpose into fertilizer, which is in line with how most crops, even those consumed by vegans, are grown. (Veganic farming is a viable option, but not widely practiced at this time.)

Combat is another feature of the game, which is difficult to avoid if one is to make any progress in the mines, a rich source of gems and ores for crafting and upgrading equipment. I justified fighting with the rationalization that the enemies in the mines are hostile imaginary monsters, unlike the fishes who are just peacefully going about their lives when they are yanked out of the water. If and when I start a new game, I will likely choose the farm map that comes with a small mining area, so I can start that activity immediately without so much killing.

Getting back to human relationships: This game is surprisingly deep in that regard. Dialogue with the villagers explores themes including alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide. I remember one moment in the game where I was elated that I acquired a needed item for the community center and was rushing to deposit it, when I suddenly got a cutscene with a character who was had passed out drunk and was seriously contemplating jumping off the edge of a cliff. This was a good wake-up call and reminder that the developer intended players to focus on issues beyond earning money and completing game milestones.

Stardew Valley - Elliott[Image: A screenshot of dialogue from Elliott, Pax’s spouse in Stardew Valley.]

Stardew Valley is home to a dozen eligible bachelor/ettes, all of whom are open to same-sex as well as opposite-sex relationships (there are no non-binary characters, unsurprisingly). Elliott, a long-haired artistic type, was my natural choice for marriage, as he reminded me of my real-life spouse Ziggy (though Ziggy doesn’t use so much flowery language). They even both play the piano, though sadly Elliott did not bring his along when he moved into my farmhouse. Romance and marriage, like most other game activities, are not required for advancement, and neither is having children, which I didn’t see a point to as they don’t grow beyond the toddler stage. (Same-sex couples can adopt.)

Stardew Valley farm in winter[Image: A screenshot of Pax’s Stardew Valley farm on the final day of winter, year 5.]

Overall, I’m very happy with the Stardew Valley experience. It’s an incredibly detailed world, and particularly impressive considering one man, Eric Barone, created all of the art, music, dialogue, and every other aspect of the game. The animal farming and fishing aspects raise important ethical questions, but I would still not hesitate to recommend this game to others, including vegans. While I am now, slowly, attempting to spend more time outside of my apartment, socializing with others (I just rejoined the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco after a three-year absence), I’m sure I will return to Stardew Valley for further adventures.

ETA: You can now see more detailed information on my farm here.

Season of mourning

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, is supposed to be a day of gratitude and happiness. While I have much to be grateful for, I feel nothing but sorrow and grief.

I grieve for the first Americans, whose genocide is the true origin of the Thanksgiving holiday, as you can see in Kat Blaque’s video (transcript available).

I feel sorrow for the water protectors at Standing Rock, who are being attacked and maimed by the police.

I feel sorrow for my fellow queer and trans people who are scared for their safety, and may be sitting down face-to-face with relatives who voted for a man who will put their lives in further danger. I feel sorrow for my fellow people of color (of all genders) and for women (of all races) who will be in the same situation.

I grieve for my fellow animals, whose bodies, eggs, and milk will be feasted upon in even larger amounts than usual on this day. I feel sorrow for vegans who will be mocked by non-vegan friends and family members for their beliefs, but vegans are not an oppressed class of people.

While boycotting the traditional Thanksgiving meal (even if it is a vegan-friendly one) is a symbolic gesture, oppressed people also need support with money and activism. The Stand with Standing Rock site has information on how to donate money and supplies, write letters to elected officials, and take other actions to help the indigenous people.

While I often feel hopeless, I know we are not powerless to change history for the better. Those who are able to confront oppressors without compromising their own health and safety can and should do so. Some publications have given advice on how to talk with Trump-voting family members on this holiday, but it is important not to center white feelings when doing so.

Pax with Ricky the rooster[Image: Pax holds Ricky, a rooster living at PreetiRang Sanctuary. Photo by Ziggy.]

The winter holiday season has always been a difficult time for me. I took some comfort in visiting an animal sanctuary, PreetiRang, on a beautiful fall day this week. Connecting with the residents there helps me realize how interconnected we all are, and how protecting the most vulnerable among us is a valuable lesson in empathy and non-violence.

I may not live to see a day when humans evolve beyond our culture of killing, but I hold out hope that we can overcome our oppressors and begin to make a more livable society.

Jill Stein rally: Observations and opinions

[Image: Jill Stein postcards and Stein/Baraka buttons on a table.]

*Note/reminder*: I am registered with no political party, and have not endorsed any presidential candidates in this year’s election. I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton (nor Donald Trump), and that’s not up for debate.

On Saturday night, I attended a rally for Jill Stein at the Berkeley City Club. While I voted for Stein in 2012 (and for Green candidates Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader before her), I left the Green Party when I updated my voter registration after my legal name (and gender) change in 2014. I am currently an independent (not to be confused with the ultra-conservative American Independent Party).

Despite my friend and fellow black vegan Dr. A. Breeze Harper running for vice-president with the Humane Party, I have been strongly leaning toward voting for Stein, partly because the Greens have ballot access in almost every state, and winning 5% of the popular vote would qualify the party for federal matching funds. So I attended the rally not as a supporter, but an observer, hoping to listen and talk with people about why I should support Stein, or any presidential candidate when I have lost virtually all hope in the U.S. government (and humanity in general).

As I arrived at the venue, two people outside were trying to get the attention of those entering, and offering them copies of the Workers Vanguard. I spoke with one of them, asking if, as a socialist, she supported Stein and the Green Party. She said no. I mentioned that I had met some Socialist Alternative people who supported Bernie Sanders, and were now supporting Stein. She said that those weren’t real socialists, and that the Green Party is capitalist (among other things). She asked if I would buy her newspaper for fifty cents, and I happened to have two quarters in my pocket so I agreed. (I got the two most recent quarterly editions for that price.)

I spoke with her about being a pacifist. She asked what I thought about the Civil War. This took me aback, and I responded “Well, it was certainly necessary to end slavery.” By this I didn’t necessarily mean that we had to go to war to do so, though she understandably took it that way. When I explained how important pacifism is to me, she seemed less interested in talking with me; when I offered her my business card, she shoved it in her back pocket without looking at it, and went back to hawking newspapers.

Socialist Alternative at Jill Stein rally[Image: Two people staff a table with a banner reading “Socialist Alternative – Struggle – Solidarity – Socialism”.]

I entered the venue, staked out a seat and took some preliminary photos. I was then approached by a Socialist Alternative representative, offering their newspaper “to convince your friends to vote for Stein”. I explained to him that I was an independent, and told him about the conversation I’d just had outside. He said that those socialists weren’t being practical, and that we had to gain the support of the workers before we “marched on Washington”. I pressed him about their prior support of Sanders, since he was running as a Democrat; he said that they were actually very critical of him, but he had mobilized lots of people, including many independents, and they were harnessing that energy. He mentioned that he and another socialist would be speaking at the rally, and promised that they would “bash the Democrats”. I said that I didn’t want to “bash” anyone necessarily, I just wanted to get shit done.

A.J. Hill at Jill Stein rally[Image: A.J. Hill smiles while introducing speakers on stage.]

So as the rally started, I felt more confused and cynical about politics than ever. The crowd was mostly white, which wasn’t much of a surprise, but more than half of the speakers were people of color.  One of the speakers and event co-organizers, A.J. Hill, is a black vegan and activist with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE); though I left DxE last year, I was glad to hear animal rights mentioned at a Green event.

David Cobb at Jill Stein rally[Image: David Cobb speaks on stage.]

One of the main speakers at the rally was 2004 Green presidential candidate David Cobb, who is now Jill Stein’s campaign manager. (I didn’t vote for Cobb that year, opting to go with Nader instead, who was supported by many other Greens.) Cobb spoke at great length, emphasizing how he was a “mostly-straight” white man but understood the need to be anti-racist and anti-sexist. He said that people of color don’t want “white guilt”, they want action. He told a story about a black woman lovingly but angrily calling him a “cracker” for questioning the organizing tactics of women/of color in the movement.

While Cobb got lots of applause, and I’m sure he meant well, the length of his speech really turned me off. Good allies cede space to marginalized people to speak for themselves. After 45 minutes, I was more than ready for him to get off the stage. The next speaker, who was part Native American (but white-passing to my eyes, at least), also spoke too long; an organizer was repeatedly trying to get his attention and pointing to his watch.

YahNé Ndgo at Jill Stein rally[Image: YahNé Ndgo speaks into a microphone on stage.]

The main person I came to the rally to see was YahNé Ndgo, who I watched give a powerful speech at this year’s Green Party Convention. A “Bernie or Bust”er, she switched to the Green Party after the Democratic National Convention, and has been campaigning for Stein nationwide. I took lots of photos as she’s such a dynamic speaker. I got a chance to chat with YahNé briefly after the rally, and told her I came specifically to see her; she gave me a hug.

Kor Element at Jill Stein convention[Image: Kor Element sings into a microphone on stage.]

Up-and-coming artist Kor Element gave a talk and an energetic hip-hop performance, with plenty of audience participation. Another former Bernie supporter, he wrote a song specifically for Stein’s campaign.

Ajamu Baraka at Jill Stein campaign[Image: Ajamu Baraka speaks into a microphone on stage.]

At 9 p.m., three hours into the rally (and now at the originally scheduled end time), Green vice-presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka finally took the stage. Baraka announced that Jill Stein was recovering from pneumonia, and could not attend. I already knew this, but only because I had been told by the Marxist outside; I knew that Stein had a recent bout of pneumonia, but there was no mention on the web site or either of the Facebook pages for this event (one of which was titled “Jill Stein Visits Berkeley!”) that she would not be at this rally. I certainly agreed that she needed more rest, and I can understand why her absence wasn’t announced at the beginning of the rally as then some people might not have stuck around, but it still seemed disingenuous.

Regardless, I was personally more interested in Baraka than Stein, and was delighted to see him since he wasn’t originally scheduled to speak. I got to chat with him very briefly afterward (after waiting for many people to pose with him for pictures), and thanked him for speaking truth to power. I also mentioned how I tried to find out about him on Wikipedia, and he said that when he looked at that page, he didn’t recognize what he saw. I wish we’d had time to chat more about that, but many people were still waiting to talk with him, and his helpers were trying to get him out of there.

On the way home, I read part of the Workers Vanguard newspaper. I agreed with some of it, but was turned off the dismissal of Green values in one article, saying (in part) that bike paths and vegetable gardens were for rich people in developed countries, not for workers that had to live near industry, and decrying a call to “save the Earth” at the expense of the people living on it. I understood where they were coming from, but to me animals are people, and the Earth is not separate from its living inhabitants, humans included.

In any case, I’m not going to make voting decisions based on one article, one rally, or a couple of conversations. I’m definitely going to the polls on November 8, if only to vote on ballot measures and local, non-partisan offices, as I did in the primaries. Californians, today is the last day to register, so even if you hate every single person who is running for office, please at least vote on propositions that affect those living in our communities.

My full set of photos from the rally is available on Flickr. Some of the photos are available on Wikimedia Commons as well. Please credit me (as Pax Ahimsa Gethen) if you use any of them, thanks!

Vegan definitions and retention

[Image: Pax pets Shiva, a steer at PreetiRang Sanctuary. Photo by Ziggy.]

When I talk with non-vegans about veganism, one of the first questions they often ask me is “How long have you been vegan?” This is a well-meaning question, and some folks can answer it readily. Some went vegan instantly, perhaps after seeing a documentary like Earthlings. They might even celebrate the date on a “veganniversary” every year. A few, like Olympic athlete and activist Seba Johnson, have been vegan since birth.

But this question is somewhat harder for me to answer, and troubles me for a few reasons. Nowadays I often begin my response with, “It depends on your definition of vegan.” With a single, regrettable exception, which I’ll explain shortly, I stopped eating all dairy products and eggs for good in February 2011, having already stopped eating animal flesh in January 1992. I’d been trying to “go vegan” for that entire time, and referred to myself as vegan during the times when I avoided eating animal flesh, eggs, and dairy.  But even after 2011, I continued to occasionally eat honey and wear some clothing containing wool, silk, or leather. I also occasionally visited zoos, and participated in animal exploitation in other ways.

In July 2014, when I read more about animal rights philosophy and decided to become an activist, I stopped using honey and other bee products, stopped wearing my remaining articles of animal-derived clothing, and made a commitment to stop visiting zoos and otherwise reduce my participation in animal exploitation as much as possible. I felt this was consistent with the Vegan Society definition of veganism:

Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

That “any other purpose” is a very broad area, however, and that’s where some vegans start getting into battles over purity. Some will insist that palm oil isn’t vegan because its production destroys the habitat of orangutans, for example. On the flip side, some others who call themselves vegan see no problem eating the dairy, eggs, or even flesh of so-called “humanely” raised animals, or they consider eating fishes or other aquatic animals to be consistent with veganism.

I will not advocate for vegetarianism, “reduceitarianism”, “humane” or “sustainable” animal products , or any other choice that suggests it is OK to treat animals as property. But I’m much more troubled by people putting cow’s milk in their coffee than by them sweetening their tea with honey. And I’m much more bothered by the consumption of eggs, even from backyard farms, than by the wearing of an old wool jacket or leather shoes that haven’t worn out yet.

It’s important to note that impact matters regardless of intent. I don’t condone even occasional consumption of animal products if doing so is avoidable. The one regrettable exception I mentioned was at a wedding reception in July 2012, when I knowingly and avoidably ate a cupcake and some candy that almost certainly contained dairy products, and possibly eggs as well. I had no excuse; I was just hungry and gave into temptation. My guilt or remorse is irrelevant to the cows whose bodies were violated for my momentary pleasure. That milk was meant for their children—like Shiva, pictured at the top of this post—not for me. I have not knowingly consumed any milk or eggs since that date.

But while I believe the body autonomy and personhood of our fellow animals should be the primary focus of veganism, we cannot completely discount or ignore the human stories of how and why each of us became vegan. It’s just oversimplification to state how long one has been vegan without giving any additional context. In the 24 years since I went vegetarian, I have had no financial, medical, or practical obstacles to going vegan. I’ve lived in the vegan-friendly San Francisco Bay Area for almost that entire time, and have had ready access to grocery stores and a full kitchen, adequate money and cooking skills. These are privileges that should not be taken for granted.

While it is important to acknowledge—and do something about—social inequity, I do believe that the obstacles to veganism are often overstated, especially when it comes to health. Powerful agricultural lobbies have pressured the government to convince US-Americans that we will die or suffer poor health without eating at least some animal products. Cow’s milk is promoted as essential for strong bones, even though the majority of people on Earth cannot digest lactose after infancy. It’s no wonder some ask how long we’ve been vegan, when they’ve been brought up with the expectation that we’ll literally fall apart if we don’t  consume the bodies and secretions of our fellow animals.

The truth is, regardless of how “easy” it may or may not be to live vegan, many people find it extremely tempting to return to non-veganism, especially if they see it as merely a dietary choice. Some say that ex-vegans were never really vegan to begin with, but I don’t think that is an accurate or helpful statement. We need to find more ways to support, encourage, and retain vegans, while still making sure to emphasize the stories of our fellow animals. Once we achieve animal liberation, the word vegan and the concept of “veganniversaries” will be things of the past. But we’re a long way from getting there.

Welcoming gender diversity at Vegan Soul Wellness Fest

[Image: Pax speaks at a podium on a stage. Photo by Wayne Calhoon.]

Yesterday, I gave a keynote speech at the Vegan Soul Wellness Festival at Laney College in Oakland. As I blogged previously, this presentation was an updated and expanded version of the Welcoming Gender Diversity talk I gave at the Intersectional Justice Conference earlier this year. In this talk, I focused more on the intersections of race and gender, and promoted Black Vegans Rock. My presentation wasn’t filmed (to my knowledge), but the slides are available online.

Welcoming gender diversity[Image: A stage with an empty podium and screen showing the words “Welcoming gender diversity.”]

I was a bit intimidated when I entered the theater and saw hundreds of seats, as I hadn’t given a presentation of this nature to that large of an audience before. The festival was initially sold out (tickets were free but there were limits to venue capacity), but the day of the event it was re-opened to all. Unfortunately, only a couple dozen people watched me speak, but a number of attendees approached me afterward to thank me and ask for more information.

David Carter at Vegan Soul Wellness Fest[Image: David Carter speaks at a podium on a stage.]

The keynote speech of football player and vegan activist David Carter, aka The 300 Pound Vegan, followed mine, and had a much higher turnout. David and his wife Paige (who is also a photographer) spoke about vegan nutrition and systemic racism, among other topics.

Keith Tucker at Vegan Soul Wellness Fest[Image: Keith Tucker stands at a podium on a stage, in front of a screen containing the words “I went vegan”.]

Other speakers included lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project, Nassim Nobari of Seed the Commons, and Keith Tucker of Hip Hop is Green. A number of workshops and cooking demos (which I did not attend) were held simultaneously, and vendors served up tasty vegan food and other vegan-friendly products. I especially enjoyed a chocolate parfait from Sanctuary Bistro, which the owner assured me was not sourced from countries that enslave children on cocoa farms.

My full set of photos from the event is available on Flickr. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of them, thanks!

Cow-Con: Cowspiracy, sustainability, and activism

[Image: Overhead view of the main exhibitor area at the Cowspiracy conference, David Brower Center, Berkeley.]

Yesterday I attended Cow-Con, a conference devoted to sustainability and vegan activism, from the makers of the Cowspiracy documentary. The packed event featured concurrent talks running from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. without any formal break periods, followed by a panel discussion. I attended six of the the talks, and took some photos.

Kip Anderson at Cow-Con[Image: Kip Anderson speaks at the Cowspiracy conference.]

Keegan Kuhn at Cow-Con[Image: Keegan Kuhn speaks at the Cowspiracy conference.]

I’d first watched Cowspiracy at a screening in the fall of 2014, and enjoyed it so much that I went to a second screening and bought the DVD directly from the producers and directors, Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn. A new cut of the documentary, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, was later released on Netflix; I have not (yet) watched that version.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau at Cow-Con[Image: Colleen Patrick-Goudreau speaks at the Cowspiracy conference.]

Mark Hawthorne at Cow-Con[Image: Mark Hawthorne speaks at the Cowspiracy conference.]

While Cowspiracy focused primarily on the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture, I was pleased that most of the speakers I watched at the conference addressed the ethical aspects of veganism. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau talked about using compassion rather than aggression to be a more effective vegan activist. Mark Hawthorne gave a sobering picture of the dreadful harm inflicted upon animals raised for food, clothing, and entertainment. Marji Beach spoke movingly about the residents of Animal Place sanctuary.

Pax and lauren[Image: Pax stands with lauren Ornelas. Photo by Mark Hawthorne.]

But the main reason I attended this conference was to see my friend lauren Ornelas. I’ve written frequently about her great work with the Food Empowerment Project, and her activism not only for our fellow animals, but for humans marginalized by race, gender, class, and other factors. In her Cow-Con presentation, lauren talked about the F.E.P.’s work to help farm workers and to combat child labor and slavery in the chocolate industry. She also argued that because every animal values their own life, taking their bodies, babies, eggs, or milk from them is inherently unsustainable. (lauren and I will both be presenting at the Vegan Soul Wellness Fest this Saturday in Oakland.)

lauren was one of only a couple of people of color speaking at this conference. Since getting woke, I’ve become a lot more sensitive to racial dynamics in both online and offline spaces, especially in the “animal whites movement“. Cow-Con felt like a white-centered event to me, not just in optics (as we must be wary of purely cosmetic diversity) but in tone as well.

One example: In the opening talk by Cowspiracy star and co-producer/director Kip Anderson, he stated that just being vegan isn’t being an activist. He said that Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not vegan, has done more a lot more to help animals than vegans who just sit home on the couch and do nothing.

This activist-shaming rubbed me the wrong way, especially coming from one able-bodied, cisgender white man in reference to another such man who is also an A-list celebrity. I explained in “Dear marginalized vegans” why it is harmful to pressure vegans into “doing something” for the animals without recognizing the challenges they might face in their daily lives.

I’m not saying that Kip is racist; though some argue that all white folks are racist, all men are sexist, all humans are speciesist, etc., that’s not my point here. I just want activists to acknowledge their privileges and not shame other vegans. Simply committing to unwavering veganism, and not being apologetic about it, is advocacy as far as I’m concerned; whether “advocacy” qualifies as “activism” is a matter of semantics, and ultimately a divisive debate.

As I’m still dealing with depression and dysphoria and staying home most of the time, I was overwhelmed by the crowds at this conference, and left before the final panel discussion (which consisted of four white men). Regardless, I’m glad to have spent a few hours in an all-vegan space, and glad the event was sold-out and had many attendees from outside of the already vegan-friendly San Francisco Bay Area.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures (there were at least two official photographers present anyway), but I’ve posted my full set of photos to Flickr. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of them, thanks!

Black Vegans Rock and effective activism

[Image: Black Vegans Rock poster, designed by EastRand Studios.]

As I mentioned in a recent entry, I’ve been managing the Instagram page for Black Vegans Rock for the last month. Since Aph Ko launched the BVR web site in January, I’ve enjoyed reading the diverse stories and experiences of black vegans from all over the world. To date, we’ve featured over 130 individuals from all walks of life: Students, doctors, musicians, scholars, athletes, chefs, and more.

Working with Aph on Black Vegans Rock (I’m on the advisory board) has changed my thoughts about animal rights activism. I see a common theme in many of the stories we feature: The individual adopts a vegan diet initially for health reasons, and then later comes to appreciate the inherent worth of our fellow animals for their own sake. Not all follow this path, of course; some go vegan for ethical reasons from the start. But many black folks do adopt a vegan diet to address health problems.

While a vegan diet is definitely not a cure-all and no one should be  shamed for illness, I believe we do need to acknowledge and address health issues in a non-oppressive way as part of our activism. Dairy products, for example, are particularly damaging to the health of black folks, the vast majority of whom are lactose intolerant. This is one of the many reasons why I will not promote vegetarian, “flexitarian”, or “reducetarian” diets. We only feature vegans on Black Vegans Rock.

Proper education about nutrition is so important and so lacking in a society dominated by advertising and lobbying groups from the animal slaughter industries. I recently watched a TV show that featured black vegan weightlifter Kendrick Farris, the only male weightlifter representing the USA in the 2016 Olympics. He and the interviewer went to a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, and the interviewer, having apparently never been to a salad bar, said “So this is like ‘Build-A-Bear’ with vegetables!” After the segment, the host marveled that Farris could get enough protein without eating “beef and chicken”, also saying “You learn something new every day.”

Most of the episodes of this show about the Olympics have featured restaurants that serve copious amounts of animal flesh. Of course, there’s been no mention of the decimation of the Brazilian rainforest by animal agriculture, nor of the 1000+ activists killed in that country over the issue.* Veganism as decolonialism is another approach relevant to blacks and other people of color, and has also been a part of the story of several of those featured on Black Vegans Rock.

Discussing the health or environmental benefits of veganism does not preclude talking about ethics, or engaging in demonstrations or (in some cases) direct action. Many different types of non-oppressive activism have a rightful place in the animal rights movement. But no vegan should feel pressured or shamed into compromising their health or safety “for the animals”.

My own philosophy remains that animals are people, not property, and I approach animal rights activism primarily from that perspective. But Black Vegans Rock has helped me understand that other approaches still have a lot of value, particularly when it comes to marginalized communities.

* See the Cowspiracy facts page for more information.