The very fact that veganism and LGBT+ history both have a whole month dedicated to them in the UK — albeit with decidedly different backgrounds and aims — suggests that what were until recently considered fringe phenomena are becoming increasingly normalised.
There are obvious advantages to this. But going mainstream can come at a cost. Remember those fervent debates about the pink pound back in the 90s? Well today vegans are talking about the rise of the green pound. With acceptance and even celebration comes the marketisation for profit of identity and lifestyle. This may make things easier and more accessible for some people, while excluding others. For example, veganism mainstreaming, like gay rights, has sometimes been associated with racism and classism.
Not so long ago veganism, like queer politics, was belittled as apolitical, or at best seen as a soft political cause that distracted us from serious politics. By 2020 both are increasingly recognised as important issues. But again: at what price? Does the normalisation of LGBT+ identities and relationships, and the rise in popularity and acceptance of plant-based diets, take the political bite out of the movements that initiated them?
Movements for radical social and political change always walk a fine line between rejecting an oppressive system by refusing to participate in it, on one hand, and being coopted by the same system once it shows limited signs of accommodation, on the other. But amidst all the critique of queer neoliberalism and vegan mainstreaming, it’s important to remember that the normalisation of queer identity politics and veganism do not make the issues of sexual and animal liberation any less pressing.
A friend of mine recently asked me whether people who experience oppression are more likely to empathise with animals. Queer people are, after all, vulnerable to homophobic, sexist and transphobic violence — and in many cases racism, class exploitation and other oppressions. Does this make us more aware of the violences suffered by other creatures? Not all queer-identified people are vegan; far from it. But the queerness of veganism is not just about a rejection of different forms of violence against different groups of people and different species. It’s also about challenging normative identities and practices, including the ways we define desire and pleasure.
In his provocative Queer Vegan Manifesto,Rasmus R. Simonsen, argues that coming out as vegan is a bit like coming out as queer or gay: it makes others uncomfortable and threatens the continuation of family traditions (getting married, having kids, happy dinnertimes). Just as queerness disrupts heteronormativity, veganism challenges the norm of eating animals in an overwhelmingly meat-eating society.
As Simonsen notes, in much of the West, meat-eating is associated with hetero-masculinity, while the refusal to eat animal products is coded as abnormal, unnatural, feminine — indeed, queer. These associations can’t be generalised, however. In some parts of the world hetero-patriarchy may go hand-in-hand with predominantly plant-based diets. That’s why it’s important to think of ethical veganism as contextual, that is, as something that varies according to culture, time and place.
Understanding veganism as contextual allows us to think of it as a practice rather than an identity. Simonsen warns against thinking of either queerness or veganism as fixed identities (You’re straight/ I’m gay; You’re a meat-eater/I’m vegan); instead he sees these as things that challenge the very identity categories upon which normative and oppressive relations are founded.
To me, this means that veganism involves much more than a boycott of animal products; it opens the space for different kinds of human-animal relations. Other animals cease to be “things” we instrumentalise for our own ends, and become creatures we recognise as kin. Queerness too is about developing kinship beyond normative family and community structures.
When I told another friend that I was writing about veganism and sexuality, she remarked that “sex positive spaces tend to be more vegan-friendly than others”. Without generalising or offering a definitive explanation for this, I suggest one reason is that in such spaces — many of which are queer or queer-positive as well — in addition to the aforementioned rejection of dominant culture, there is a a great deal of discussion about boundaries and consent.
Being in queer spaces and relationships has made me think a lot about what it means to cultivate different kinds of consensual relationships, including, but by no means only, sexual relationships. I think of this commitment to consent and negotiation as part of an ethics of nonviolence, one that can and should be extended to other animals. How can I know, in the context of a culture that commodifies animals for human use, that a cow has consented to being exploited and killed so that I can eat her — or wear her hide as a pair of boots or trousers? These are questions that, I believe, are fundamental to queer as well as vegan ethics.
I first encountered people practicing veganism collectively in feminist and queer anarchist communities in London around the turn of the millennium. In these spaces we engaged in skill-sharing, art and performance, protests against corporate Gay Pride events, migrant solidarity and campaigns for affordable safe housing, among other activities. Alternative forms of sexuality were both a source of oppression from the straight world outside and of celebration amongst ourselves. These spaces were also vegan: in them we gathered, cooked and shared plant-based foods. Even when other animals were not present, by doing veganism we made room for animal as well as human kin in our queer communities.
This LGBT+ History month I want to remember and honour the memory of those spaces that taught me about what the queerness of veganism means to me: an ethos of nonviolence extended to people and other species as part of a politics of solidarity and pleasure.
Originally published at https://veganismsexandpolitics.com on February 3, 2020.