Tag Archives: veganism

Making connections at Whidbey

[Image: A large group of people of color stand together outside the Whidbey Institute. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.]

This weekend, Ziggy and I attended the Intersectional Justice Conference at the Whidbey Institute in Washington State. As I’ve written here previously, I was invited to be one of the speakers, and my presentation was on “Welcoming gender diversity: Trans, non-binary, and intersex inclusion in activist spaces.” I also led a workshop on gender identity and related issues. The event was a rewarding, challenging, and overall positive experience.

Striving with Systems at IJC[Image: Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, Aph Ko, and Justin Van Kleeck stand together in a hallway at the Whidbey Institute.]

The above photo features three of the participants I was most excited to meet in person: Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, Aph Ko, and Justin Van Kleeck, all contributors to the intersectional blog Striving with Systems. Christopher-Sebastian was my initial point of contact for this conference, and we both wept tears of joy on first meeting. Aph I have to thank for inviting me to the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock (which she founded and maintains), and we were thrilled to be housed together for the event. Justin has continually inspired me with his dedicated sanctuary work at Triangle Chance for All, as well as his writings on veganism and anti-oppression.

pattrice jones[Image: pattrice jones speaks at the Intersectional Justice Conference.]

Another inspirational sanctuary worker and activist who attended the conference was pattrice jones of VINE, an LGBTQ-run sanctuary. Christopher-Sebastian had begun the conference by reading an “Activist Bill of Rights” he created, which started out with “Fuck respectability.” pattrice took that instruction seriously, and at the beginning of her presentation she called out our host venue for housing chickens on the premises under unacceptable conditions. Other attendees throughout the conference called for the prisoners to be released to a sanctuary, and I am hopeful that the Whidbey Institute will agree to do so.

Black love and healing[Image: Aph Ko and Christopher-Sebastian McJetters comfort Dr. Amie Breeze Harper during her presentation at the Intersectional Justice Conference.]

The need to confront and dismantle white supremacy was a recurring and important theme of this conference. Aph Ko and Dr. Amie Breeze Harper both included images of lynchings in their presentations, to illustrate the very real and ongoing impact of racism, both in the animal rights community and the USA in general. The subject was so painful that both broke down in tears during their respective talks, and were comforted by each other, as well as by Christopher-Sebastian.

This moment pictured above illustrates to me the fundamental purpose and value of this event. Anti-oppression work is messy and uncomfortable and downright painful—and absolutely necessary.

The large number of people of color participating in this conference—as featured speakers and facilitators as well as attendees—was a welcome change from the mostly-white faces generally seen at vegan and animal rights events. A number of people featured on the Black Vegans Rock blog attended, including myself, Aph, Breeze, Christopher-Sebastian, Seba Johnson, JoVanna Johnson-Cooke, Brenda Sanders, Keith Tucker, and Unique Vance.

WoC at Whidbey[Image: A group of women of color stand together outside the Whidbey Institute.]

Carol Adams[Image: Carol J. Adams speaks at the Intersectional Justice Conference.]

Women—white and of color—were well-represented in featured roles as well. One of the featured speakers was Carol J. Adams, whose books on feminism and animal rights, including The Sexual Politics of Meat, are well-known and respected in the field. Her multimedia presentation was a fascinating and disturbing tour of the patriarchal and often blatantly sexist nature of animal product marketing. (Carol updated her presentation at the last minute to include a video of the Whidbey chickens, whom she also called to be released.) I was honored that Carol attended and actively participated in my breakout session on gender diversity.

Marnie and Dylan[Image: Marnie Jackson-Jones sits with her arms around her daughter.]

Marnie Jackson-Jones, who extended the official invitation for me to speak at this conference, did a heroic job as a facilitator. One of her young daughters attended many of the sessions with her, and was delightful.

This conference, while somewhat exhausting physically and emotionally, exceeded my expectations. I am hopeful that future iterations of this event can be improved in several areas, with more careful vetting of sponsors and venue to minimize speciesism, and more accommodations such as ASL interpretation. (I was very happy that the organizers implemented my suggestion to make restrooms gender-neutral for the duration of the event.) Regardless, these shortcomings did not diminish the impact of the anti-oppression work that was accomplished and the connections that were made this weekend.

While I was not the official photographer, Ziggy and I did take a number of photos, which are available on Flickr. If you use any of them, please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen unless otherwise stated in the photo description (most of the photos that I’m in were taken by Ziggy Tomcich). The slides and notes from my presentation are also online, and I’ll post links to the videos of the speakers as soon as they are made available.

Social justice mages head to Washington

[Image: Banner reading “Interspecies & Intersectional Justice – Animal Rights, Human Rights, Just Society, Healthy Planet.” Animal footprints – non-human and human – adorn the sides of the banner.]

Tomorrow Ziggy and I are heading to Whidbey Island in Washington State for the Intersectional Justice Conference that I’ve been writing about. I’m excited about this event, and especially looking forward to meeting Aph Ko and Christopher-Sebastian McJetters*, whose work I’ve linked to frequently.

As much as I’m looking forward to this weekend, regular readers of my blog know that my mind is heavy lately, and the current political climate does nothing to assuage it. Mainstream news channels are covering “Terror in Brussels” 24/7, a level of concern not expressed for the victims of recent attacks in Istanbul, Ankara, and the Ivory Coast. Republican presidential candidates are calling for closing our borders and patrolling Muslim neighborhoods.

The same sort of conservatives who are predisposed to Islamophobia are introducing bill after bill to dehumanize trans people. After efforts in South Dakota and Tennessee** were thwarted, North Carolina joined the list of states attempting to force people to use restrooms matching their “biological sex” (wasting a great deal of taxpayer money in the process). Meanwhile, Ziggy and I will be arriving at the airport two hours before our scheduled (domestic) flight tomorrow, because the TSA treats trans people as potential terrorists.

Islamophobia, racism, sexism, and cissexism are all prevalent in animal rights and vegan messaging, and will be among the topics discussed at the Whidbey conference. Vegans and non-vegans alike often derisively label folks who care about these issues as “social justice warriors.” As I’m a pacifist, I like activist vlogger Kat Blaque’s comeback to this charge: “I’m a social justice mage.”

I likely won’t be blogging again until after the conference, though I’ll still review and approve comments if I have time. I believe the presentations will be filmed (though not live-streamed), so hopefully those who cannot attend in person can watch them later. There will be an official photographer, so I’m not planning on taking many photos, but I will post any good ones that Ziggy and I take for sure. Here’s to a successful conference!

* Whose arm I will be gently and lovingly twisting until he agrees to set up a web site of his own to host all of his brilliant writings. I hate linking to Facebook!

**After posting this entry, I learned that the anti-trans bill in Tennessee has not yet been killed. I wish I could say I’m surprised.

Honey is for bees, not vegans

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

Honey is a perennial topic of debate among vegans. On the face of it, whether or not to eat honey should be a simple matter: Bees make honey, bees are animals, vegans avoid exploiting animals to the extent possible, eating honey is avoidable, therefore vegans should not eat honey. Yet many vegans continue to rationalize that eating the food made by these amazing animals is consistent with vegan ethics.

I know, because I was one of those vegans myself. From 2011 to 2014, I called myself vegan because I did not consume any flesh, dairy, or eggs. But I still occasionally ate honey, mostly in products like bread. When asked about it, normally by people who were not vegan and had no interest in animal rights or welfare, I gave various excuses, but eventually admitted that I just couldn’t get all that worked up about the plight of bees.

Even then, I knew that eating an animal product was inconsistent with a vegan diet, but I didn’t yet see animals as people, not property. In addition to eating honey, I still used some animal-derived clothing and other products, and visited a zoo once or twice. I stopped doing all of that, to the extent possible, when I became an animal rights activist in 2014. I could no longer justify exploiting any animal – including insects – if I could reasonably avoid it.

I’m bringing this up now because I read a recent article by KD Angle-Traegner about additional reasons to avoid honey; namely, the use of honey in animal testing. The same author had previously posted a more comprehensive guide about the problems with honey, which I recommend reading, as it addresses many common questions and objections. Whether you’re vegan or not, having additional information on this subject cannot hurt; it’s troublesome, though not surprising, that the author notes that many people have unfollowed her on social media just for posting about honey. (If you’re tempted to do the same to me, go ahead; I don’t self-censor to get more “likes.”)

The timing of this article’s publication was fortuitous because I’ve been watching the series Inside Man by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) on Netflix, and had just gotten up to the episode where he investigated honey and bee colony collapse. I like Spurlock’s documentary style, but as with other episodes of this series where he’s covered issues involving our fellow animals, it was difficult for me to watch because of the overt speciesism. To the commercial beekeepers Spurlock worked with (more for pollination services than for honey), these animals were nothing but mindless automatons, and when they died off in massive numbers, the only mourning was for the loss of income. Even the smaller beekeepers he visited actually hunted and captured wild bees to breed them with their existing “stock.”

Whether on a large or small scale, to me, beekeeping is forced labor, indistinguishable from dairy or egg farming. Bees make honey and royal jelly to feed themselves, not humans. The fact that bee pollination is responsible for a large portion of the plants we eat just makes it even more unfair to take their food away from them. If large-scale agriculture cannot be sustained without commercial beekeeping, that’s just more evidence to me that humans are taking up far too much space on this planet.

While I do not consider eating honey to be compatible with veganism, my point of writing this post is not to shame people who call themselves vegans despite eating honey; as I said, I was once one of those people myself. My goal is to provide information about animal exploitation so that people can make informed decisions about what products and services they buy. While I have no authority on who merits the title of “vegan,” I expect that if I buy a food or other product that is labeled “vegan” at a grocery store or restaurant, it should not contain honey, pollen, royal jelly, or beeswax. These are animal products, period.

Bees are remarkable, hard-working animals. Let them keep the product of their labor.

Two-party politics will not liberate animals

[Image: Gandalf, a goat at Preetirang Sanctuary.]

Disclaimer/reminder: I am registered with no political party and do not support or endorse any presidential candidates.

I’ve tried to stay out of political discussions, but recent social media posts about Democratic presidential candidates and their support for animals, or lack thereof, has irritated me enough to say something.

Let’s face it. No Democratic or Republican presidential candidate is ever going to campaign for animal liberation. The best you can expect is maybe some promises of welfare reform or promotion of plant-based diets. But recognizing legal personhood and abolishing the property status of animals? Forget it.

The two major U.S. parties are not identical, but they are similar in one fundamental respect: Money. In our capitalist system, there is simply too much profit to be made by exploiting people to achieve true justice and equity for humans, much less our fellow animals. I am convinced that the only way to make radical changes is to dismantle the system and rebuild it from the ground up.

Note that I’ve been voting since 1988, when I was first eligible to do so, so I’ve heard every argument against “third parties” in the book. Don’t bother telling me that “A vote for x is a vote from Trump” or “Not voting is a vote for Trump” or anything else that implies I am personally responsible for rescuing this country from the fucked up state it is in. (See yesterday’s post by A. Breeze Harper for some insight on how that might have happened.) Besides, I’m not convinced that any political party is able to accomplish the kind of radical change that would make me feel safe, welcome, and happy to call myself a US-American.

For the record, though, there is a political party that is campaigning on a platform of animal rights (among other reforms): The Humane Party. They actually require all of their candidates and officers to sign an oath abstaining from all animal products and services. Their presidential candidate (who again, I am not endorsing) is Clifton Roberts.

Of course, I’m sure none of the animal rights groups are bothering to mention this party’s existence because it’s such a long shot that they would win. But you know what else is a long shot? Animal liberation. Only a tiny proportion of people in this country actually recognize farmed animals as individual sentient beings who deserve to live for their own sake. Citing polls that say things like “32% of people believe animals should be given the same rights as people” is frankly disingenuous, because if that were really true we’d see far more widespread acceptance – and even enforcement – of veganism than we currently do. Such respondents might have actually believed what they were saying, but I guarantee the majority of them poured cow’s milk on their cereal before putting on their leather shoes and going to work.

So if animal rights activists truly want animal liberation, why aren’t more of them campaigning for candidates who actually support it? Or, better yet, organizing for (peaceful) revolution? I know why I’m not doing it: Serious depression and dysphoria that have made it difficult for me to even take care of myself, much less get involved in radical political reform. But there are a lot of energetic vegan activists out there.

Regardless, US-American politics is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic at this point. I’m not saying any other particular country is better on animal rights specifically; animals are exploited – just by nature of them being considered property – pretty much everywhere. And as a queer black trans person with mental health issues, even if I had the independence and ability to just pick up and move, I honestly don’t know where I would go.

To reiterate: This is not an endorsement of Clifton Roberts or any other candidate. I am just fed up with two-party politics, and the expectation that as a progressive I have a duty to play along.

Happy International Women’s Day

[Image: lauren Ornelas gives a presentation on the Food Empowerment Project.]

Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of the occasion, I’d like to say a few words about each of the women currently featured on my links list.* I present them here in alphabetical order, along with one recommended work for each.

Kat Blaque

Kat Blaque is a vlogger, illustrator, and activist, speaking out against sexism, racism, and trans-antagonism. She has created educational videos on these topics for Everyday Feminism, and has built a thriving, active community on Facebook and other social networks. I recommend her video explaining the difference between gender expression and identity.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is a writer on topics including atheism, feminism, sexism, cis/heterosexism, and sexuality. She has published several books on atheism, and speaks out against oppression in the atheist movement. I recommend her article on what not to say in response to misogyny.

Amie Breeze Harper

Dr. A. Breeze Harper is a speaker, educator, and author on feminism, veganism, and critical race studies. She founded Sistah Vegan Project and Critical Diversity Solutions, and is on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock. I recommend her article on raising children in a world of oppression and hostility.

Aph Ko

Aph Ko is a blogger, performer, digital media producer, and founder of Aphro-ism and Black Vegans Rock. She advocates veganism from black feminist perspective. I recommend her video on animal oppression and anti-racism.

Syl Ko

Syl Ko is a writer, activist, and doctoral student, researching the human/animal binary from a black vegan feminist perspective. She co-founded Aphro-ism with her sister Aph, and is on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock. I recommend her article on anti-racism and the human/animal divide.

Sophie Labelle

Sophie Labelle is a trans activist, illustrator, and author of the web comic Assigned Male. Her comic challenges cissexism (including non-binary and intersex erasure) from the humorous perspective of a young trans girl. She has so many great strips that I can’t single out one to recommend; if you have time, just read them all from the beginning.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is an author, primarily of fantasy and science fiction, whose books explore gender and sexuality, among other topics. Le Guin is my favorite author; I took my last name from her book The Left Hand of Darkness, which is my recommended read.

lauren Ornelas

lauren Ornelas is the founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice organization that actively works to counter oppression of marginalized humans as well as our fellow animals. I recommend her post on experiencing oppression in the fast food industry.

Ali Seiter

Ali Seiter blogs about feminism, anti-speciesism, and anti-racism on Chickpeas and Change. The site has been on hiatus for awhile, but has many articles well worth reading. I recommend reading her thoughts on the origins of the term “intersectionality.”

Julia Serano

Julia Serano is a writer, performer, speaker, and trans activist. She has authored numerous essays and books, including Whipping Girl, a classic on trans feminism and gender theory. I recommend her article on the “T” word and the language of trans activism.

Sarah K. Woodcock

Sarah K. Woodcock is the founder and executive director of The Advocacy of Veganism Society. She speaks out against all oppression of humans as well as our fellow animals. I recommend her article explaining why her organization stopped using the word “abolitionist.”

Corey Lee Wrenn

Dr. Corey Lee Wrenn is a lecturer, author, and founder of The Academic Activist Vegan and Vegan Feminist Network. She advocates veganism from a feminist perspective, and calls out oppression in the animal rights movement. I recommend her article on sexism faced by vegan women.

Several of the women on this list  – A. Breeze Harper, Aph Ko, lauren Ornelas, and Sarah K. Woodcock – will be speaking at the Intersectional Justice Conference later this month, where I’ll also be presenting. I trust you will find much of value in their wise words.

* Remember that not everyone who has a feminine-sounding name or appearance is a woman; several people on my links list are non-binary.

Feminists, vegans, and vegetarians

[Image: Geeta, a goat at Preetirang Sanctuary.]

Last week, Everyday Feminism (a site I visit frequently and highly recommend) published a video by Celia Edell entitled “Does Feminism Require Vegetarianism or Veganism?” (A text transcript is included; I read the text rather than watching the video.) Based on the title and premise I wanted to respond immediately, but I waited for an important reason: I am not a woman, and it’s not up to me to decide who can call themselves a feminist.

Feminism strives for equality for all genders, but came about specifically to address women’s rights. It is inappropriate for members of the oppressing class – in this case, men – to tell the oppressed how they should behave or identify. Some would make allowances for trans men and transmasculine people like myself*, based on our lived experiences as women. But that same argument is used by TERFs to exclude trans women and transfeminine people from women’s spaces.

So I will not answer the direct question posed in the title, of whether feminism requires vegetarianism or veganism. I will instead point to vegan women who have addressed that question. Aph Ko wrote two essays for Everyday Feminism previously on vegan feminism and black veganism, and just today published an essay on understanding oppression which provides additional context. Charlotte Eure of Striving With Systems (another site I highly recommend) wrote a direct response to the EF piece this week. And yesterday, Vegan Feminist Network republished an essay on vegan feminism, with specific references to the work of Carol J. Adams, by Anna Varga. (Note: Aph Ko, Carol J. Adams, and I will all be speaking at the Intersectional Justice Conference, which starts one month from tomorrow.)

What I do want to address is the lumping together of vegetarianism and veganism. Seeing those two words together really irritates me because the writer is almost always implying two misconceptions:

  • Veganism and vegetarianism are both diets
  • The issue of harm boils down to “eating meat”

To the first misconception: Veganism is an ethical stance against violence. Eating a plant-based diet is a large and important part of veganism, but not the whole of it. I’ve watched with dismay as the word “vegan” has increasingly gone the way of the word “vegetarian”, the latter of which is sometimes used even by people who eat the flesh of fishes and birds. Sometimes I think fighting for the original, fuller meaning of “vegan” is a lost cause, but I feel compelled to point out misuse of the term regardless.

To the second: Consuming the milk and eggs of animals causes just as much harm as consuming their flesh, if not more so. Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated year after year, have their children taken away from them, and are slaughtered at a young age. Male chicks are routinely killed shortly after birth – by grinding, crushing, or gassing – in the course of egg production, and laying hens are also slaughtered at a young age. Dehorning, debeaking, and castration, all without anesthesia, are also standard procedures on so-called “humane” and organic farms, not just “factory” farms; Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary has the details.

Self-described ethical vegetarians really don’t like to hear these facts about their diets. I count myself among them, having wavered between a vegan and vegetarian diet for over 19 years before finally committing to living vegan. I’m going to keep telling the truth about farmed animals to stop people from claiming ignorance of the impact of their food choices, and I encourage other vegans to do the same.

If folks really don’t have a choice of what to eat – due to poverty or other circumstances – I won’t judge them for eating animal products. But too often the dire circumstances of others are used to excuse the personal habits of those who do have the privilege to choose plant-based meals. People who are truly concerned about increasing access to “vegan food” should consider supporting groups like Food Not Bombs and the Food Empowerment Project.

In conclusion: It’s not up to me to define feminism, but I do have a say when it comes to veganism. Veganism and vegetarianism are not interchangeable. From the perspective of the victims – our fellow animals who are exploited and slaughtered by the billions year after year – consuming dairy, eggs, or “meat” all cause avoidable harm. Even veganism is not “cruelty-free”, but living vegan is a significant and important step toward ending oppression.

* While I am agender, I transitioned to male for legal and medical purposes, so I also accept the label of transmasculine.

Music, food, and love at Omni Commons

[Image: Ayr sings and plays acoustic guitar on stage at Omni Commons. A drummer plays in the background.]

On Saturday I attended a fundraiser for Omni Commons, a community center in Oakland that hosts numerous Bay Area collectives, including Food Not Bombs. My friend Saryta, whose book about animal liberation I wrote about recently, volunteers for FNB, and helped organize this event.

Saryta and Arthur at Omni Commons[Image: Saryta and Arthur, two of the organizers of the Omni Commons Love Party.]

The event featured an open mic and several musical performances. I would have loved to stay and watch all of them, but my partner Ziggy and I had to get up early the next morning for a race, so I only caught the open mic and the first three acts: Ayr (pictured at the top of this post), Beet the System, and The Bogues.

Beet the System at Omni Commons[Image: A guitarist, keyboard player, and drummer from Beet the System perform on an indoor stage.]

Beet the System at Omni Commons[Image: A member of Beet the System sings and plays ukelele on an indoor stage.]

The Bogues featured a particularly eclectic group of instruments, including accordion, violin, and autoharp. They really got the crowd dancing.

The Bogues at Omni Commons[Image: Members of The Bogues play banjo and percussion on an indoor stage.]

Food Not Bombs provided an impressive vegan buffet. When I mentioned that I was running a half marathon the next morning, they loaded up my plate with an embarrassing amount of food.

Vegan food plate[Image: A plate overloaded with beans, grains, vegetables, and fruit.]

Between that meal, Saryta’s home-baked cookies and cupcakes, and the sumptuous Valentine’s Day dinner I had at my friend Phil Gelb’s underground vegan restaurant the following evening, I probably ate two full marathons’ worth of calories. I have no regrets.

I’ve posted my full set of photos from Omni Commons to Flickr. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of them, thanks!

Chocolate: No labor of love

[Image: A chocolate rhinoceros from Chocolate Decadence, currently a recommended company on the FEP Chocolate List.]

This Valentine’s Day, many vegans will enjoy what they might think is “cruelty-free” chocolate: Made without milk or other animal products. Unfortunately, much of the cocoa used to make chocolate treats is the product of child labor, and, in some cases, slavery. This applies even to some chocolate that is labeled “Fair Trade.”  The Food Empowerment Project has detailed information on this tragic situation.

The FEP has created a chocolate list that recommends companies whose cocoa does not come from slave labor. The list includes only vegan chocolates (containing no animal products). The research on these companies is ongoing, and the list is continually updated. It is available for iOS and Android as well as on the web. I highly encourage everyone to review it before your next shopping trip.

Some vegans might be resistant to adding one more product to the “not allowed” list. Here’s the thing: Chocolate is a treat. Avoiding chocolate does not put an unfair economic or health burden on anyone. Turning down a treat is, at most, a social inconvenience.

The question here shouldn’t be whether slavery-made chocolate should be considered “vegan” or not. Lots of products we use in our daily lives, including cell phones, come from oppressive working conditions. If we were to only grant the title of “vegan” to those who lived a truly cruelty-free lifestyle, likely none of us would earn that designation.

We should strive to cause the least possible harm simply because that’s the right thing to do, not because we’re vegans. What does it say to young African children if we are willing to enjoy momentary taste pleasure from their involuntary servitude, but balk at eating the same treats if they were made from the forced labor of cows? For US-Americans, does our distance from the African continent – or, dare I say it, difference in skin color – influence our choices here?

The Food Empowerment Project has a saying: “Eat Your Ethics.” No amount of taste pleasure can justify child slavery. Please review the chocolate list before your next shopping trip.

Saryta Rodriguez: Until Every Animal Is Free

[Image: Left: Saryta at Souley Vegan restaurant, standing in front of a poster of Louis Armstrong while holding her book, Until Every Animal is Free. Right: Saryta pets Brahma, a bull at PreetiRang Sanctuary.]

Black and white headshot of Saryta, by Sophie Jane Stafford.[Image: Black and white headshot of Saryta, by Sophie Jane Stafford.]

Recently I had the pleasure of reading a wonderful book about animal liberation, Until Every Animal Is Free, written by my friend Saryta Rodriguez. Saryta and I met when we were both active with Direct Action Everywhere (though neither of us is currently) and their affinity group, Animal Liberationists of Color. During that time, she edited the three blog posts I wrote for The Liberationist.

Through both personal stories and well-cited research, Saryta’s book makes a solid case for veganism and animal rights activism. While I needed no convincing on those fronts, I learned new facts and perspectives that will be helpful in my own activist work. Her web site contains additional helpful resources and information that didn’t make it into the book.

I asked Saryta if I could send her some interview questions over e-mail, focusing on topics that were not directly covered in her book. For example, Saryta is agender; like me, she doesn’t associate that identity with a stereotypical “androgynous” gender expression. Saryta answered my questions with great enthusiasm; I’ve included her full responses below, interspersed with photos from our recent visit (along with my partner Ziggy) to PreetiRang Sanctuary. (The full set of photos is available on Flickr.)

As a fellow agender person, does having a non-binary gender identity give you any insights into the human/non-human binary that is often used to justify the exploitation of animals?

Ever since I was a child, long before I understood my gender identity and even longer before I went vegan, I always thought it was strange for us to draw such a divide between humans and nonhumans. I’ve often been accused of being overly literal— of zeroing in on the slightest nuance of a given word or phrase, of insisting on precision in language and communication. (My partner finds this very annoying.) I remember learning when I was maybe eight or nine years old of the classical scientific kingdoms: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea and Bacteria. Humans, like pigs, cows, and chickens, exist squarely in the Animalia kingdom. We do not have our own kingdom. Period.

So in a very literal sense, leaving aside the spiritual and the emotional for a moment, humans are animals. To me, it really is that simple.

Geeta and Ziggy at PreetiRang Sanctuary[Image: Close-up of Ziggy smiling at Geeta, a goat at PreetiRang Sanctuary.]

With respect to binary systems in general, I feel that they are all alike in that they serve to otherize those who are in some way deviant from the norm, so as to make their exploitation more palatable. One thing I also remember learning around 8 or 9 years of age is that “Women have XX chromosomes” and “Men have XY chromosomes.” This was how sex, with which many conflate gender, was first defined to me. Two options—XX or XY. Nothing in between.

I later learned, of course, that this is far from the case. For starters, many individuals have genetic makeups that are neither XX nor XY. Furthermore, even among those with XX or XY, there are other differences that affect their sex and in some cases, their gender identity. Exposure to hormones such as androgen in the womb is one example, but there are others. Even with respect to genitalia, to summarize that “Men have penises” and “Women have vaginas” is misleading, because it suggests that every human being on the planet was born with either a penis or a vagina, when some are born with parts of both.

I do see a clear parallel between this and the many ways in which humans otherize nonhumans— everything from “We have thumbs and they don’t,” which is immediately disproven by nonhuman primates, to “We have art and culture and all these high-brow elements to our society that nonhumans don’t,” which is challenged by the bowerbird, among others.

(The males in this species erect bowers, not to live in or for any other practical purpose, but strictly to appeal to the aesthetic sense of females. Possession of an aesthetic sense— the ability to discern between what is “beautiful” and what is “ugly”— has long been heralded as a distinctly human characteristic.)

Bertha at PreetiRang Sanctuary[Image: Bertha, a colorful rooster at PreetiRang Sanctuary. White hens are in the background.]

Ultimately, such distinctions serve the purpose of legitimizing violence and exploitation, as if we can convince ourselves that someone is “not like us” in ways that we find meaningful— such as our cognitive abilities and our abilities to experience pain and fear—then we needn’t concern ourselves with their wellbeing in the same manner as we concern ourselves with our own wellbeing. We can tell ourselves that the suffering we cause others is not really suffering, because no one else is capable of truly suffering— because that is unique to us.

While the connection to violence and exploitation may not seem immediately apparent between nonhuman animals and agendered persons (I admit I have been very fortunate to have never faced either due to my gender identity), a more obvious connection perhaps is with respect to invisibility. Just as many contend that the perspective of nonhumans need not be considered because they don’t exist precisely as we do, so too are agendered individuals often told— either directly (by an individual in our lives) or systemically (by the media, our employers, and so forth)— that we “do not exist.” That there’s “no such thing” as the very thing that we are. This I have been told, many times, as well as when I first admitted to a friend that I was pansexual. She insisted that I was either a straight person going through a phase or a lesbian in denial. She was incapable of acknowledging any in-between, and while at the time I felt differently, today I can hardly blame her. I’m probably the first and may still be the only pansexual she’s ever met, and this wasn’t something people talked about back then, like they do now. When I was in high school kids rarely even came out as gay or lesbian, and no one that I’m aware of ever came out as anything else.

By rendering members of our society invisible, be they outside of the gender binary or simply one of the many forms of animal that is not human, we do them and ourselves a disservice. We not only commit injustice upon injustice against them, but we also shortchange ourselves from the benefit of their experiences. We miss out on an opportunity to learn from those with whom we share the planet. We stunt our own evolutionary development— remain mired in archaic modes of thinking and acting.

As a pansexual person, have you experienced or witnessed heterosexist oppression or micro-aggressions from other animal rights activists?

Have I ever! Although I have to say, I have more experience witnessing sexism more generally— cis-male domination— than heterosexism specifically, which I understand to refer to domination by straight people. But one form of microaggression I have witnessed as a pansexual, agender person of color over and over again is tokenization. I have seen, over and over again, animal rights organizations herald this or that activist as a tremendous asset to their work…When it’s convenient to do so. But should the same activist voice concern that racism, sexism, heterosexism or any other nasty –ism is slowly infecting the network, that activist is hung out to dry. If not kicked out directly, they may be given fewer tasks to complete. They may find that initiatives they spearheaded— including ones they conceived of themselves, without which they would not be happening at all— are handed over, without any explanation, to someone who in some way better fits societal norms (i.e. taking something from a POC and giving it to a white person, taking something from an agender person and giving it to a man or a woman). They are featured less and less in videos, blogs or other forms of media after speaking up about these behaviors.

Saryta and Chester at PreetiRang Sanctuary[Image: Saryta feeds carrots to Chester, a bull at PreetiRang Sanctuary.]

A common response in AR circles to problems of this type can be summed up as: “Animals, though.” This is the notion that we vegans must promptly sweep aside any issue that might sow division in our ranks— including various oppressions that affect humans— in order to keep fighting the good fight for our nonhuman brethren. This is not only unjust towards human activists but also ultimately hurts nonhuman animals as people outside of the movement peek in and think, “Wow, AR folk have some serious issues; I wouldn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole!”

Imagine how a person of color who is thinking about going vegan feels when they hear that some of the most outspoken, well-known animal rights groups in the country have developed a reputation for ignoring the concerns of their POC members, and/or have unapologetically run campaigns that are culturally insensitive. How likely are they to make this oh-so-difficult lifelong commitment when they suspect that this will be the company they’re keeping?

Have you felt pressure to hide or downplay your gender identity or sexual orientation when doing activism?

Only as much as I do in any other setting (haha). The truth is I don’t know if it’s fair to say I felt pressured, as this implies that the pressure was coming from outside of myself— like I was afraid something bad would happen to me if I mentioned who I was. It’s really more like, I pressure myself to avoid talking about myself when I do activism (and in most other scenarios, interviews obviously notwithstanding), and keep the focus on the issue I’m trying to address. I don’t want to get roped into conversations about myself when I’m trying to shed light on the oppression of someone else. I only really talk about being agender when involved in some sort of gender-related activism, and I don’t do as much of that as I should.

With respect to my sexuality, I only ever tell people who ask. This might be a result of what happened that first time I told someone about it, and perhaps that is society’s stigma leaking into my consciousness— a latent fear of being told yet again that I “do not exist,” that there’s “no such thing” as me. But moreso than any subconscious wounds I may be hauling around, I think at bottom, the whole notion that anyone should have to “come out” to anyone else as anything sexual is offensive. Straight men, for instance, are never expected to sit down with their parents and say, “Mom, Dad, I think I’m going to have sex with women for the rest of my life.” So why should a gay man have to declare to his parents that he will sleep with men, and why should I have to tell my parents that I sleep with folks independent of their gender? It’s just none of their business. If either of them were to ever ask me, I’d tell them the truth; but, knowing my parents, I sincerely doubt that will ever happen.

As a person who has also dealt with serious depression, how do you balance activism with self-care?

It took me a long time to get the hang of this, and I still struggle with it from time to time. One thing I’ve come to accept and embrace about myself is that the form or style of activism that comes most naturally to me is writing— which, luckily for me, can be done from the comfort of my own home. I do occasionally force myself to step outside of the box, but now I’m more careful than I used to be about over-committing, and I’m always honest with the people I work with about what my availability is. I’ve come to see “self-care” as being “unavailable,” whereas before it seemed selfish to turn down an opportunity to change minds and save lives to read a book or watch TV. I know that I am only human, and my brain and body need time to rest. So I now put “needing time to rest (mentally, physically and/or emotionally)” in the same category as I always have “having another commitment at that time” or “being really, really sick.” I’ve learned to say so, too; I used to be too embarrassed to admit when I had these needs, and would use those other examples— prior commitment, illness— as excuses when they weren’t really true. I’ve always felt guilty about that, being patently and unequivocally anti-lying. I’d lie awake at night, tossing and turning, wracked with guilt over having told someone I had the flu when really I was just exhausted, or had had a big fight with a lover or relative and was too sad to go anywhere.

I also firmly believe that part of being a good social justice advocate, whatever your cause or causes of choice may be, is being well-rounded and having a broad understanding of society. This means keeping up with things like theater, visual art, movies and, yes, even TV. You can’t expect to reach people if you exist in a vacuum, surrounding yourself only with people exactly like you, who behave as you do and think as you do already. You won’t make any significant changes that way. So I’ve come to appreciate that even when I’m doing things that might appear selfish or insignificant, like going to see a musical, it still has the potential to positively inform my activism. Often, much to my surprise, I’ve even found my causes of choice represented directly in the play or musical or movie I’ve gone to see, and it has inspired me directly to write or talk about the issue, rather than just passively informing my understanding of humanity.

Chester at PreetiRang Sanctuary[Image: Chester, a bull at PreetiRang Sanctuary.]

Finally, I’ve learned not to draw a connection between my position within a particular group or organization and my sense of self-worth. As a kid, I was super competitive. I got ridiculously good grades, so much so that once, I’m embarrassed to admit, I actually cried because I got a 98 on a test on which I thought I’d received 100. I was also a concert violinist, and even though I got a later start than the other kids in my orchestra (most of them started around age four; I didn’t start until I was ten), and despite not having my own private instructor (as many of the others did; I had one for a couple of weeks, but couldn’t afford to keep seeing her), I quickly rose to first chair. Throughout middle school and high school, I only lost that position once— when I had the flu on Audition Day. (You really don’t want to know how hard I cried when that happened.) So for a long time I associated my worth with how highly I appeared to be valued by whatever institution I was a part of at that time. If the institution didn’t value me, didn’t praise me, didn’t award me anything, then I must be a failure, a nobody.

I can’t tell you what a tremendous relief it has been to me to no longer live under such strain— to be able to objectively evaluate my own individual actions, achievements, talents, etc., without formal acknowledgement from any institution or individual.

As a Hispanic person, are there any misconceptions about your ethnicity that you’d particularly like to dispel?

Well, I guess there’s one that’s actually so widespread that, even as a Hispanic myself, I believed it until just a couple of years ago— the notion that all Hispanic people eat tons of meat. While my own family is very carnivorous, and I ate an absurd amount of meat growing up, this is not universally true of the Hispanic and/or Latinx communities. My friend Chema Hernandez Gil gave a great talk at the premiere People’s Harvest Forum in San Francisco, which I helped to organize with Millahcayotl, about how his family in Mexico ate a vegetarian diet throughout his youth (the Seventies, I believe). I have also learned more through him and others about the Three Sisters Diet— squash, corn, and beans— and how even gluten, which I thought people avoided mostly for health reasons, is actually a result of imperialism, as Mexico and other countries used primarily corn to make tortillas and other bread-like products until white settlers brought wheat over from Europe. Not to get too sidetracked here, but I was surprised to learn that there were ethical or political reasons not to eat gluten, in addition to health reasons like Celiac Disease.

So to think that Hispanic people just won’t ever go vegan really doesn’t make any sense. If Americans, who consume on average about 270 lbs. of meat per year— more meat per person than almost any other country in the world— can still be persuaded to go vegan, so can Hispanic people. And beyond merely going vegan, there are even organizations run by Hispanic and Latinx people promoting veganism, providing resources for everything from “Why Vegan?” to tips on vegan Mexican cooking, such as Food Empowerment Project. So my people do not merely form a minority of members within the Animal Liberation Movement— some of them are leading it.

On your web site you’ve posted a bonus chapter and other essays since the publication of your book. Are there any other recent developments or upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

Yes, I’d be happy to! So aside from still trying to conceptualize and book events around my first book, I’ve also started a second, which will be a compilation of essays regarding food sovereignty, through a vegan praxis. I can’t share too much about it now except that I’ve got some really great contributors on board already (and I’m hoping you, Pax, can be counted among them!), and that to the best of my knowledge nothing quite like this has been done yet. I’ve enjoyed working on my contributions so far and am really excited to gather the perspectives and insights of the many talented people who have agreed to work with me on this. I expect to learn a lot!

Saryta, Pax, and Brahma at PreetiRang Sanctuary[Image: Saryta and Pax pet Brahma, a bull at PreetiRang Sanctuary. Photo by Ziggy.]

My birthday wish (with bonus recipe)

[Image: A smiling stuffed toy banana slug wearing a button reading “100% SLUG”, next to a muffin on a plate.]

I turn 46 years old this month. I’ve removed the exact date from social media, not for privacy reasons, but because I’m not interested in getting a bunch of messages from people I only hear from once a year at Facebook’s prompting.* I understand that other people really enjoy those birthday messages, but it’s not for me, though I do appreciate sincere birthday wishes from friends.

I have special plans for the day (which I’ll write about afterward), but I also have a request to make of my readers. My primary audiences appear to be 1) vegans and animal rights activists, and 2) members of the LGBTQIA+ community and our allies. As a queer vegan, I would like to see more overlap between these groups.

If you are vegan, please take some time this month to educate yourself about trans, non-binary, and intersex people, using materials produced by people in those communities. My links page has a number of resources where you can get started.** Even if you yourself are trans, non-binary, and/or intersex, I guarantee you have more to learn from others who don’t share your specific identity or life experience. I know I’m always learning myself.

If you are a member or ally of the LGBTQIA+ community and not vegan, please take some time this month to educate yourself about farmed animals. While my links page has a number of resources, the one I specifically want to point to is Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary. The caretakers there treat animals as the individual persons that they are, and do a great job of debunking “humane” farming myths.

I would be remiss not to mention that this is also Black History Month. I can’t help but be a wee bit cynical about that given all the negative reactions to Black Lives Matter protests, and “colorblind” tone policing on social media lately. If you want to help black folks like me make some history of our own, check out Black Vegans Rock.

So that you’ll have something to munch on while you’re reading, here’s an original muffin recipe, as pictured at the top of this post. In addition to being vegan, it contains no sugar, salt, oil, or gluten.***

PB Banana Slugmuffins
(no slugs were intentionally harmed to make these muffins)

3 large ripe bananas
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
6 tablespoons water
1/2 cup peanut butter (peanuts only; no added salt or other ingredients)
1 3/4 cup oat flour (old-fashioned rolled oats ground in a blender)
6 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk (or other nondairy milk)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Put the dates and almond milk in a blender, and set aside to soak for a few minutes.
3. Whisk the flaxseed and the water, and set aside to stand for a few minutes to thicken.
4. In a large mixing bowl, mash bananas, then add peanut butter and flaxseed mixture and mix thoroughly.
5. Puree dates and almond milk in blender, then add date puree and vanilla to bowl and mix thoroughly.
6. In a medium bowl, whisk oat flour, baking soda, and baking powder.
7. Add flour mixture to other ingredients and stir until just combined.
8. Fill nonstick muffin cups (I use silicone) with batter, 3/4 full.
9. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

* I no longer post, comment, or “like” from my personal Facebook profile anyway, for reasons I’ve mentioned previously.

** The only cisgender authors currently in my “Trans/non-binary” and “Sexism / Racism / LGBTQIA / General” links sections are Ursula K. Le Guin, Greta Christina, and some of the contributors to Everyday Feminism.

*** While this recipe uses oat flour, gluten-free has nothing to do with veganism; I eat wheat and other glutenous grains all the time. Make sure to use certified gluten-free oats if you have celiac disease.