Things Up: Queer Rights / Animal Rights
The Vegan Voice Interview with
Mirha-Soleil Ross By Claudette Vaughan
Whether or not you agree with her views, Mirha-Soleil
Ross is a force to be reckoned with. Mirha hit the radar last
month when we read the following interview in the Australian-based Vegan
Voice magazine and attended her one-woman tour de force, Yapping
Out Loud: Contagious Thought from an Unrepentant Whore, in New
Mirha-Soleil Ross is many things: transsexual videomaker,
performance artist, prostitute and long-time activist for prostitute
and sex workers’ rights, and advocate for queer rights and animal
rights. She is articulate and provocative, with a sharp wit—a
rarity these days. These may seem inherently contradictory, but underlying
all is a fierce sense of compassion and justice.
Mirha-Soleil Ross has some very interesting things
to say—about queer and gay rights, feminism, animal rights, socio-economic
issues, armchair intellectuals, anti-pornography advocacy, you name
it—views that are unrepresented in progressive dialogues and at
the least deserve to be heard.
Irreverent and controversial, Mirha is long overdue an audience in the
U.S. Here, Vegan Voice’s Claudette Vaughan
interviews Mirha-Soleil Ross. Feel free to share your
views via www.satyamag.com.
For readers who aren’t familiar with
your work, please tell us some history about yourself and how you became
an animal rights (AR) activist.
I’m a transsexual videomaker, performer and a long-time prostitute
and sex workers’ rights activist. I grew up in a poor neighborhood
on the south shore of Montréal (French-Québec) in a francophone
and mostly illiterate family. In the mid-80s, when I was about 16 years
old, I watched a TV documentary about fur that included footage of animals
caught in snares and leg-hold traps. It changed my life forever. I was
so traumatized by what I witnessed that the next day I ran to an anti-fur
protest. That’s when I met a whole bunch of animal rights activists.
I had lots of questions; they had good answers, and by 6 p.m. that same
night, I had stopped eating meat, stopped wearing leather, and was eager
to learn and do a whole lot more.
In terms of animal rights work, some of my main contributions have included
hosting for four years a weekly animal rights radio show called Animal
Voices on CIUT 89.5 FM (broadcast on the web at www.ciut.fm). In 1997,
I also developed the first-ever publicly-funded social services program
for low income and street-active transsexual and transgendered people
in Toronto. Called MEAL-TRANS, the program included a weekly meal drop-in
where we served the best vegan food in town.
When I was elected Grand Marshal for the annual Toronto Queer Pride
Parade in recognition of my work within the trans and sex workers’
communities, I decided to use that opportunity to celebrate my own favorite
group of heroes: the Animal Liberation Front. I organized a contingent
of activists who carried placards that highlighted ALF actions spanning
two decades. So while irritating leftwing radical queer activists kept
complaining about how queer pride had become too corporate, too mainstream
and too apolitical, we led the parade celebrating an organization that
is identified as a domestic terrorist threat in North America!
The scam of animal experimentation and vivisection
has yet to be exposed in a big way from within the gay, lesbian or transgender
community. Why do you think this is?
I think it is the overall mass-scale exploitation and abuse of animals—not
just animal experimentation—that has yet to be exposed in any
way within queer communities. I learnt at an early age that it was a
mistake to think of queer people, even the most politicized ones, as
any more “revolutionary” or more likely to care about animals
than anyone else. They can be just as self-centered and self-serving
as any other group around. In addition to that, the gay community has
been affected by AIDS and, outside of a few exceptions, supports animal-based
research and multi-national pharmaceutical companies. For as long as
they can be made to believe that it can help increase treatment options
for their own asses, they really won’t give a shit about anyone
else, especially not animals.
Then you also have a small group that refers to itself as “the
leather community”—another whiny bunch who think they look
tough strutting around in their expensive designer fetish gears. Don’t
let me get into that one! I grew up in a family of really masculine
construction workers and none of them needed a leather jock-strap to
feel male. Both of my grandmothers could knock a man down in a flash
and neither ever needed anything more than one fist to assert their
power as women. So the whole queer leather scene with its grotesque
clowns trying to have their taste for dead skin recognized as an “oppression”
is nothing short of an elaborate and sick joke to me.
You’ve dedicated a lot of energy trying
to highlight the issue of queers’ unwillingness to fight for the
rights of animals. Your activism is an extraordinary accomplishment.
How did you arrive there?
I didn’t become politically active because I wanted to improve
my own life circumstances, but because I cared about other animals,
human and non-human. I was involved in the animal rights movement and
in other types of social justice activities long before I did anything
that revolved around queer or transsexual or sex worker or poverty issues.
And I think that it was for me a very healthy process in terms of consciousness
and development. If you care and feel revolted at the sight of a tiny
mouse stuck in a glue trap in someone’s kitchen cupboard, then
it won’t be hard to care about the future of humankind. And yes,
I’ve tried to do my part to try to address animal issues within
the queer community whenever I’ve had an opportunity. I’ll
give you an example. In 2000, I was invited to create a new short video
for the Toronto International Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
The video had to address the theme of “trans romance.” So
my partner Mark Karbusicky and I wondered how we could explore the topic
of “trans romance” while exposing the nauseating treatment
of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses, and how we could make
that package interesting and relevant to a young, mostly queer and trans
audience. We ended up using a series of interviews with a group of sexually
diverse vegans who spoke about their preference for other vegans as
romantic and sexual partners. In addition to that, in the first half
of the video, we used explicit images of me and Mark having sex, and
in the second half, we used video footage of animals in slaughterhouses
and factory farms. It turned out to be a success!
The film “G-SPrOuT!” has been shown at over 25 international
queer, trans, and other independent film festivals, and we constantly
have people telling us about the impact the video had on them, including
many who say it made them stop eating meat. Thousands and thousands
of people have seen the film, exactly the kind of people who will not
watch a tape of raw footage distributed by PETA or Farm Sanctuary.
So when we hear animal rights activists say they want to reach out to
diverse communities, we say to them that they need to rethink the way
they present animal rights issues to these communities. You need to
have different strategies and you need people who have roots within
these communities to do the work. Unfortunately, it appears as though
there isn’t much interest in learning about these kinds of successful
educational tools and campaigns. We tried over and over again to get
“G-SPrOuT!” screened at animal rights and vegetarian conferences
and it was never accepted.
Sex workers have become increasingly organized
this past decade demanding reforms of laws that punish consensual commercial
sex. Are you disappointed with the hypocrisy of feminist groups who
have shunned the issue while still professing to work for women’s
Western feminists have conveniently treated prostitution as the ultimate
symbol of male violence and of women’s economic and sexual subjugation.
But for the last three decades, we’ve had in the West (and even
longer than that in so-called “third world” countries) groups
and networks of prostitutes who have clearly articulated what our political
needs are and what needs to be accomplished legally and culturally in
order for us to work and live more safely and with more dignity. Internationally
at this point, we have consensus on basic goals such as the need to
have prostitution recognized as legitimate work and decriminalized.
We do not believe that prostitution is inherently exploitative, degrading
or hurtful. Instead we think that the various anti-prostitution laws
and vicious cultural attitudes towards prostitution and prostitutes
create a context within which our most fundamental human rights can
be violated, a climate within which some think it is okay to harass,
rape and kill us. Our analysis and positions as working prostitutes
have been elaborated from years and years of daily experience of prostitution.
They are not the results of abstract theorizing conducted by feminist
social scientists who have never turned a trick and who have spent most
of their lives buried deep in their library books.
Unfortunately the animal rights community has been one social justice
movement where the voices of prostitutes have been painfully absent,
and this in the presence of very disparaging and hurtful attitudes and
propaganda. Writers like Carol Adams, Gary Francione and Jim Mason all
regurgitate old seventies misinformed radical feminist ramblings around
prostitution and pornography. They make offensive and trivializing comparison
between consenting adult women working in the sex trade and non-consenting
animals murdered by the meat industry. And they do so without ever speaking
to us. If anyone is going to start writing articles and developing theories
linking meat to pornography and prostitution and the so-called objectification
of women’s bodies, then I insist that we—as women and as
prostitutes and as sex workers—be the first ones consulted regarding
In your one-woman show, Yapping Out Loud: Contagious Thought
from an Unrepentant Whore, you’ve made a connection between
coyotes and prostitutes. Please tell us about that.
In 1999, I got funding to write and produce my first full-length performance,
a series of character-based and autobiographical monologues addressing
anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns. I wanted to detail the way
various groups like feminists, social workers and law enforcement agencies
all work together to create a society within which both our work and
our lives as prostitutes are devalued with often tragic consequences.
I also wanted to show how the violence that is perpetrated against us
ends up being used by all of them to fuel their own anti-prostitution
ideologies and further their own agendas with absolutely no regard for
what we say we need in order to improve our working and living conditions.
So when I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I got interested
in one of the longest running prostitutes’ rights organizations
in the U.S. called COYOTE—Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. The
acronym was originally picked by founder Margot Saint-James because
the animal stood as a perfect metaphor for the way prostitutes were
and continue to be viewed and treated in our culture: as threatening
intruders, carriers of diseases, and as vermin to be eliminated. So
on one hand I was intrigued by this comparison, but on the other very
uncomfortable with having an entire nation of animals used once again
as a metaphor so gratuitously—that is, without any proper representation
or compensation. And I decided that as a prostitute and as an animal
rights activist, it was my duty to try to give a little bit back to
the coyotes and show people the brutal reality faced by hundreds of
thousands of them every year in North America—being poisoned,
shot and trapped as part of various hunting contests and “control”
programs. Indirectly, I also wanted to ask some hard questions regarding
our use of animals as “metaphors” for human suffering. How
appropriate is it to compare our own human suffering to that of animals
when most of the time, quantitatively and qualitatively, there is so
much disparity between the two? I presented the show here in Toronto
in 2001 and again in September 2003 in New York as part of Wow Café’s
first National Transgender Theatre Festival.
I’ve made a connection between women and animals and here’s
one example. In Australia recently a woman was brutally raped. She commented
at the time that the intruder was tearing out large chunks of her flesh
with his mouth, trying to mutilate her. I’m collecting files on
this aspect of rape, i.e., mutilation and decapitation, and I’m
convinced it all began with animal mutilation—vivisection, de-beaking,
tail-docking, castration, etc. Any thoughts on the matter?
I do believe there are some connections between cruelty to animals and
violence towards some groups of humans, including women. And I do think
that it can be strategically useful to point these out at specific times
and as part of specific campaigns. But I am not one who is obsessively
trying to “connect everything” as the eco-feminist slogan
goes. I think animal abuse—in labs, on fur farms, in slaughterhouses,
on trap lines, in live animal markets, etc.—is something that
in and of itself we as a society need to recognize as gruesome and unacceptable,
regardless of whether or not it directly affects us as humans. For as
long as we don’t acknowledge that specific form of violence for
what it is and as long as we are not deeply moved to end it, we will
be morally bankrupt and yes, I believe we will continue to commit atrocities
towards other humans.
What is your vision for the continuance of the AR movement?
Mine is that there must emerge a second women’s movement intrinsically
linked to it. Unlike the 60s when women were burning their bras, this
time we’ll be burning our leather shoes!
As a quick and catchy image I like it but I would love to see something
more meaningful done with the skins of these animals, something that
would more dramatically highlight where they came from and what they
really represent, the horror and the suffering behind them. Also, I
think that at least here in North America, we have already seen what
people refer to as “second wave” and “third wave”
feminisms, and I haven’t found these to be any more friendly towards
animals. It can actually be quite the opposite. A lot of hip and young
“third wave” feminists see vegetarianism as some tacky and
embarrassing vestige from very problematic, old-fashioned, feminist
politics. So therefore as a transsexual, as a prostitute, and as someone
deeply committed to fighting for animal liberation, I have become less
and less inclined to rely on feminism to provide me with an appropriate
framework within which to think and solve broader political issues,
including animal rights. I have just seen too often how seriously feminists
can fuck up and how much damage they can cause.
I am extremely concerned with anyone trying to impose a single political
or philosophic framework on the entire animal rights movement. I think
the health and success of this movement will depend on its ability not
to be dominated by one political ideology. The more we see caring for
animals and resistance to animal abuse flourish in a multitude of geographical,
cultural, linguistic, religious, class and ethnic contexts, the more
likely our movement is to survive, diversify, expand and be successful.
The most important thing is that everywhere in the world, there are
people who can recognize animal cruelty and abuse when they see it perpetrated.
Whether they decide to fight it based on their feminist or religious
beliefs or as part of their anti-speciesist or anti-colonial efforts
is really secondary to me.
To order copies of “G-SPrOuT!”, contact email@example.com.
Vegan Voice is a bi-monthly Australian magazine promoting “Compassion
for All Beings.” Subscriptions via credit card are available online
for approx. U.S.$30. Visit http://veganic.net
or contact VegVoice@lis.net.au. Reprinted with kind permission.