Monthly Archives: May 2015

Vegan, Trans and Doing My Best

As I dealt with the disadvantages of many of my personal circumstances, such as my health, my queerness and my trauma history, it was crucial for me to also reflect on ways I have power and advantage. Becoming vegan was just one outcome of this self-reflection – as was recognising the power in my relative maleness, and my white skin.

As it’s about coming to terms with human advantages, being vegan does inherently come from a place of privilege. That’s kind of the point – we can’t risk, as activists, mulling only over our disadvantages – not only is it self-serving, it’s inherently disempowering.

Vegan means I'm trying to suck less

But given most vegans I know are queer or trans, disabled or mentally ill and relatively financially disadvantaged, I feel I want to challenge this idea that veganism is a privileged social position in and of itself, characterised by cis white able-bodied male hipsters, rather than just that, like all other movements, the animal rights movement is dominated by those who hold more of the social aces.

In my experience, we often come to a place of reflecting on our own advantages from having understood the impact of others advantages over us. This is probably why I know a lot of queer and trans vegans, many of them disadvantaged in multiple ways. “Vegan” does not indicate, or confer any particular privilege, but just like every other rights movement people “getting it” about animals does not necessarily mean they “get it” on other issues.

Vegans need to be pro-intersectional . . .

Caring about animal rights is only worth a damn in the context of caring about the rights of all animals, including human ones. Vegans who are racist and sexist, or who simply don’t give a crap what’s happening to humans in this world, don’t deserve praise for their ethics. Peta and its misogynistic campaigns are just one example of this.

There are some oblivious vegan tub-thumpers out there who go too far. Yes, you can eat healthily vegan on food stamps, as one disabled trans friend of mine does, and it’s true that many of the word’s cheap staple foods are or can be vegan – rice and peas, tofu, bean chilli, tarka daal, chana masala, and pease pudding are traditional dishes from all over the world that would have been traditionally eaten in places where meat was rarely, if ever, eaten by poor folk. At the same time in the Western world it is currently hard to eat vegan, and if you don’t have the know-how, it is even harder. If you’re young, haven’t come from a culture where such cooking (or any cooking skill) is taught, and you don’t have access to cooking facilities or guidance, well then of course being vegan may be nearly impossible. So there is an element of privilege speaking in the assumption that “everyone can do it” even if vegans are far from being members of an elite.

We need to let go of the idea that everyone could, or should, be vegan. Some folks cannot manage health on a vegan diet, and many people with eating disorders find the topic of veganism triggering.  My life-long vegan friend has recently had to concede to eating eggs on doctor’s orders. Another could not manage her anaemia. Another vegan found she was developing problematic eating issues. Let’s not be ableist and assume it’s as easy for everyone.

Many traditional cultures work in harmony with hunting or agriculture in ways that are the very antithesis of modern intensive farming. Western vegans would be colonialist to attack such traditions. Equally, there is a racist undercurrent to many animal rights “shares” on social media – where we are encouraged to condemn the eating of dogs in other cultures more than the eating of pigs in our own.

So sure, the animal rights movement, like every other movement, needs to learn to be pro-intersectional, and often fails at this.

 . . . But non-vegans need to stop making sweeping dismissals

Just like angry feminists and bolshy transactivists don’t “help our cause” so the existence of a bunch of non-intersectional vegans out there on the internet haven’t exactly paved the way to vegan peace in our time. But there are assholes in every movement, and they are always used as an excuse to attack the rest of us, in every movement.

Arguably there are many people who talk about “vegan privilege” as an excuse not to reflect on the relative privilege of being human. Which, if they’re disadvantaged and in the middle of their own struggle is quite understandable. But it’s also a shame, because such reflection is empowering and enriching. Learning compassion towards beings more vulnerable than us has a profound effect on our own wellbeing, how we treat ourselves, how we treat those around us.

This is futile if we reflect on human privilege in isolation from other structures of oppression. Our food choices need to consider the impact on the lives, environment and culture of all the beings on this planet. And if we do find ourselves worrying more about sheep than we worry about what’s happening to our fellow humans, then we need to do some soul-searching.

But for those of us who struggle with the gladiatorial arena that is social justice activism, going vegan is a way vulnerable people can do our little bit for the planet. Because giving up animal products does not just mean less animal cruelty, it means a massively reduced carbon footprint, massively reduced water consumption, and it means we are directly consuming crops that would have gone for animal feed, meaning there is more food to go around. All these things have a profound sociological impact, particularly on the world’s more vulnerable cultures.

So please don’t judge me for being vegan and I won’t judge you for not being vegan. I am just trying to do my best for a global community that needs as much care and compassion as we all can muster.

Keeping the “T” in LGBT

IDAHOBiT day gave me a chance to reflect on trans inclusion within what sometimes feels like the LGB(t) movement. I’ve written lots before about the importance of organising across difference, and I make no bones about it – I think whenever and wherever we can, we should be as inclusive and pro-intersectional in our community organising as possible.

This point was drilled home for me in one of the events in IDAHOBiT week that I co-organised – a creative writing workshop followed by open mic event that was all about the trans community being empowered to tell our stories. We deliberately made no exclusions – trans people were prioritised, but anyone could attend. This inclusiveness led to the discovery of how many themes connected across the different groups represented. We don’t have to be “the same” in order to connect to one another.

I’ve been struck, also, in some of the other organising I do, where socials are organised across a broad LGBTIQA spectrum, that so many LGB people who approach these inclusive spaces are reporting experiences that intersect with a trans story, even if they do not want to live or identify openly as trans people. I’ve met lesbians, for instance, who have some gender dysphoria, and who feel like imposters in women’s spaces, as I once did, or gay men who toyed with transitioning but decided it was not for them, but nevertheless remain gender variant. These people often feel marginalised in the communities that are supposed to be “theirs”.

Gender is an unspoken issue across LGB campaigning. When it is not spoken about, we pave the way for “acceptance” that is based in cisnormative values – if you act and present yourself in gender conforming ways, you can sleep with, and indeed marry, who you like. LGB people have been sold an idea of “rights” that looks a lot like assimilation. This leaves gender non-conforming LGB folks, who often face the most prejudice, high and dry.

Gender and sexuality have only recently been seen as two entirely separable things. When the term “lesbian” was first coined in the late 1800s, it represented gender non-conformity rather than simply sexuality. In Nazi Germany, when “homosexuals” were sent to the death camps, that included people we would now think of as trans. In the early 1930s, Germany had been pioneering transsexual surgery – the Nazis burned down the institute responsible.

At the Stonewall riots, butch lesbians and “drag queens” took a lead role – these were the people subject to the most violence and oppression, the folks who did not conform to gender. Stonewall icons Sylvia Riviera and Marcia P Johnson, called “drag queens” at the time, would now be known as transgender women.

Since Stonewall, we have come to understand gender identity and sexuality to be different things, and our community has separated out in a way it never was before. The movement for rights in same sex relationships has forged ahead, with gender non-conforming folks being left behind with weak promises that the bus will come back for us.

Now inclusion is improving, and I’m pleased to say locally there was good representation of T and B at IDAHOBiT events. But representation is often based on the idea that it is LGB’s movement and we Ts are crashing it. However, those folks within the LGB community most in danger, most at risk, are those with the biggest connection to the trans narrative. This is why gender variant folk have always been at the forefront of LGBT activism.

In reality, there is a huge overlap between our communities. Our rainbow is an ever-merging spectrum, rather than neatly divisible colours. It is not that we are “all the same” but that we are on a continuum, with no clear place to draw a divide between us.

We are and always will be one movement.

IDAHOBiT day celebrates the day, 25 years ago, when homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness by WHO. However, Gender Dysphoria is still in DSM V, the latest manual for psychiatric illnesses. Of all days, this has to be a day to raise awareness of the fact that trans people are still fighting a stigma that LGB folk have had lifted.

Those that say IDAHO is really about being gay and nothing to do with trans folk are missing not only the interconnectedness of our lives and histories, but also the importance of reaching out in empathy and fellowship to people who still fall under the stigma of psychiatric diagnosis.

Even when we’re nominally included, the extra difficulty trans people face in participating in events is often overlooked. Trans women in particular are more likely to experience hate and violence than other members of the community, and are often, therefore, terrified of being visible. Many if not most trans folk have trauma levels higher than the general population. Making participation safe and welcoming is therefore a disability access issue.

And let’s not forget that the violence figures for queer people of colour are even higher still.

But often instead of being supported to participate, trans and queer people are branded “unreliable” or “difficult” and cis folks just shrug and say “we tried”. Often they haven’t listened carefully enough, at worst they see us as an inconvenience, or too demanding.

Image: Sam Hope holding a placard that reads : Listen to the trans community

IDAHOBiT, 2015

In reality, if we’re not making events accessible and fully inclusive to trans people, we are probably also deterring other vulnerable and marginalised elements of our LGBTQ+ community. IDAHOBiT needs to be more than just a day when white professionals can come out to represent “diversity”. Youth, disability, race, gender non-conformity, class, mental health and a whole lot of other issues are the casualties when this happens. When we start to focus on inclusion, it’s hard work, but the benefits to the whole community are enormous.