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March 2007
Coming Out for Animal Rights: LGBTQ Animal Advocates Make the Connection
By Jasmin Singer

 

When a New York City tour bus came to a halt and the passengers aboard started hysterically screaming and pointing toward Nate Walker, he and his boyfriend frantically looked for the cause of the commotion. They were sure somebody was getting mugged. It was only when a person on the bus began heckling did they realize they were the cause of the commotion. They had been standing hand in hand.

“We felt like we were animals in a zoo,” Nate told me. “I felt like I was being demeaned and dehumanized. And because of that experience and many other instances of marginalization, I stand in solidarity with all those who are oppressed, including animals. How can you not make that connection?”

The fact is, more and more people are making the connection. Mercy for Animals marched in the Columbus Gay Pride Parade, forming a human rainbow with colorful t-shirts that read, “No one is free when others are oppressed.” PETA leafleted and staged same-sex make-out demos at Gay Pride San Francisco and New York. The Queering Animal Liberation work group is revving up to challenge the Oregon State University experiments on homosexual rams. And Nate Walker, a Unitarian Universalist Minister, preaches to his congregants about the interconnectedness of all beings and all forms of oppression.

There are so many correlations between animal and gay rights—advocacy and activism, mainstream acceptance and prejudice, community and pride, legislation and politics, and, of course, the countless personal stories of coming out as vegan and queer in a world where the majority of people see both as radical and aberrant choices. In a country where mainstream media bats a blind eye at Butterball workers who punch and stomp on live turkeys until their skulls explode, and practically ignore gay hate crimes such as the brutal stabbing of teenager Sakia Gunn, the question should not be, “What is the connection?” but rather, “What is the difference?”

Different Connections
Pattrice Jones, co-founder of the Eastern Shore Sanctuary in Maryland, came out as a lesbian and quit eating meat in 1976. “Back then, it was cool to be?vegetarian but lesbians were seen as over-sexed perverts. Now, it’s?cool to be queer but vegans are seen as pleasure-hating prudes.” Pattrice believes it is difficult to look at the exploitation of animals and queer people without also talking about feminism, since many early feminists were also vegetarian and/or anti-vivisectionists. Regarding the subjugation of women, she explains, “Homophobia is really all about controlling reproduction and enforcing heterosexuality, specifically for the purpose of controlling women’s reproduction. And of course, animals are subjugated too. All of the so-called ‘domesticated animals’ are completely devoid of reproductive freedom. Even people who are animal advocates don’t blink before sterilizing animals without their consent.”

Many people with whom I’ve spoken feel that having experienced oppression as a gay person makes them more likely to be compassionate toward animals. However, if people from oppressed subcultures can cultivate compassion more readily than the mainstream, how can one explain those who don’t make the connection?

Mike Brazell, Vegan Campaign Coordinator for PETA, wondered the same thing. This past September, Mike attended the annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. This celebration attracts thousands of gay men who are part of the leather fetish subculture. In an effort to bridge the gap between animal and gay oppression, Mike and his partner staged a dominatrix demo where they called themselves “Pleather Daddies” and proved that it’s possible to maintain the biker-inspired image while not torturing any animals. Mike is a former Navy veteran, and told me that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy can easily be compared to both the meat and leather industries. Basically, it’s okay as long as people don’t have to know or hear about it. Much like his gay activism, Mike is determined to give a voice to those oppressed groups who are forced to serve in silence.

Coming Out Strong
Oppression of one group often hurts another. One example is HIV, which research indicates jumped to humans via bushmeat. In his new book, Bird Flu, Dr. Michael Greger, writes, “Somebody butchered a chimp a few decades ago and now 20 million people?are dead.” Because an animal’s life wasn’t valued, many people are dead. Since HIV was perceived as a “gay disease,” queer people were further devalued. Sadly, this cycle is now on its second rotation, and has led to the exploitation of animals in AIDS-related vivisection, wasting time and money, thereby significantly slowing down the search for a cure/vaccine.

Lawrence Carter-Long, longtime animal advocate and Director of Advocacy for the Disabilities Network of NYC, grew up as a poster child for cerebral palsy, which inspired him to look deeper into the motivations of both himself and others. Examining his own sexuality was, for him, an extension of his desire to live more authentically. “For a while, there was the question of how far from everyone else do I want to be? As it played out, the more out I was with being bi, an animal activist, disabled, Buddhist, you name it…the more ‘in my skin’ I became, the more my life seemed to come together, rather than fall apart.”

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Manhattan specializing in gay-related issues, spoke with me about the differences in mainstream reaction and acceptance to someone “coming out” as gay or vegan. “When a gay or lesbian comes out and becomes an activist, they accept that there are going to be straight people in the world. With vegans, because this is a choice, when one promotes animal rights to people who choose to eat meat, the meat-eater becomes the recipient of implicit judgment… Gay activists check people on their level of homophobia; vegetarians check all meat-eaters.”

Similarly, Pattrice Jones agrees that animal activism challenges people to confront their own privilege. “Animal activism is for me analogous to the anti-racism activism I’ve done, where I’ve struggled to both give up my unjust power, and use whatever unjust power I have to undo the things that have given me that unjust power.”

As with mainstream acceptance, at this point in this country, it may be much easier to be an advocate for gay and lesbian rights than for animal rights. This is because the new Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act states that anyone engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience causing at least $10,000 profit loss will be considered a domestic terrorist. “If César Chávez had staged a successful boycott of pork rather than grapes,” speculates Pattrice, “he would be a domestic terrorist.”

Graceful Discord
Both vegans and queers are stereotyped. To identify as both in many ways epitomizes marginalization. John Phillips, Executive Director of the League of Humane Voters of New York City explained, “I came out and went vegan at the same time. Some family members worried I would die of protein deficiency and AIDS. They’d wonder: ‘Which is going to kill him first?’”

When asked how he handled it, John smiled and said, “Gracefully.”

One definition of grace is moral strength, which is certainly necessary to advocate for gay and animal liberation. Olivia Lane, content manager for SuperVegan.com, can’t separate out her vegan identity any more than she can separate out her identity of being black, female or queer. “Instead of thinking, this is how they want you to be, you start to realize that this is who I am… Being gay, vegan, a woman and black kind of means you piss off most of the world, which makes you care less about other people’s opinions. You stay focused on what you want to accomplish in life.”

At the end of the day, the best excuse many can come up with when arguing against gay or animal rights is, “Well, God said so.” God and his posse aside, the explicit mental and emotional disconnect we, as humans, have developed when dealing with those who have not, as Ingrid Newkirk puts it, “won the lottery,” is causing a quake that is literally killing us.

Sakia Gunn was a 15 year-old African American lesbian from Newark, New Jersey. On May 11, 2003, Sakia and her friends were propositioned by two men while waiting for the bus to return home from a night out. After declining the men’s advances by proclaiming they were gay, Sakia Gunn was stabbed in the chest and murdered.

The killer pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault and bias intimidation. The media coverage of the heinous killing of Sakia Gunn was limited and tainted.

As far as I’m concerned, sliced to death is sliced to death, whether a slaughterhouse worker or a homophobic bully happens to be holding the knife.

Jasmin Singer is an animal activist, gay rights advocate, and freelance writer based in New York City. Visit www.jasminsinger.com.

 

 

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