Saturday, October 20, 2012

Out of the Closet? Veganism as Orientation or Preference

I was running, stepped on a rock, rolled and then broke my right ankle on October 3.  I’ve never broken a bone before, and I can tell you that of all the bones I could have broken, my right ankle would not be my first choice.  Things I’m observing while trying to heal: there’s nothing worse than a runner who can’t run.  I am currently in a space of telling off random strangers in other people’s Facebook posts (I’ve forbidden myself from FB for a week as a result of telling off a friend’s friend for trying to mansplain why veganism is bad), nearly punching the last person who told me that at least I’m getting good upper body workout from the crutches, and sending a nasty letter to some random news station after reading a horribly written and factually inaccurate article about Mickey Shunick’s murderer.  I corrected the article using Track Changes and requested that those folks hire an English major. 

 Again, hire an English Major.

So I’m in a rare space that constitutes a haphazard mixture of rage at not being able to run and the subsequent depression resultant from such a state, feminist ire from reading too much social media (binders full of women!) – a position that arises from my inability to do much of anything else – and generalized misanthropy, aimed at

1.  Anyone walking, running, or driving, all of which I can’t do
2.  My neighbors, whose Romney/Ryan sign keeps creeping closer and closer to my yard
3.  The gym that I’ve joined (cause rowing machines and exercise bikes suck and are not even remotely as awesome as running)
4.  Anyone who doesn’t offer to hold a door for me when I’m trying to get into the gym (cause I can’t open doors and manage crutches)
5.  Anyone who offers to hold a door for me (cause don’t feel sorry for me, asshole!)

You see my predicament.  I’m a miserable bastard, and there is no making it better til I can run again.  Anyway, I have been doing a lot of reading and writing and thinking.  Here’s what’s new.

But first, here are my ankles.  The one that looks like a loaf of bread is the one that's broken.

I went out to dinner about a month ago with three people, two of whom are friends, and the other someone I’d just met.  While we were ordering, one of my friends shared with the new friend that I’m vegan.  I don’t mind this at all; I am, at present, wearing that status like a gigantic badge of honor (“vegan” tattooed on my arm and all), so it’s not like I’m trying to hide that fact from anyone.

This hasn’t always been the case.  For a long time, I was very private about both my vegetarianism (when I was a vegetarian) and my veganism (after I became vegan) for a whole variety of reasons, the most prominent of which was that I didn’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable or judged.  Another reason was that I’d found that often when I would disclose my dietary weirdness, there would ensue all manner of things that I didn’t want to deal with: people telling me their stories of their failed attempts at vegetarianism (usually something along the lines of “I used to be vegetarian, but then I got sick…”), questions about where I got my protein, and, sometimes, worst of all, blatant attacks on my lifestyle.

Now, however, I don’t care about whether or not I make people uncomfortable.  I’m not judging anyone; I just refuse to self-judge to protect other people’s feelings.  It took me a long to get here, and I’m not leaving.

So when my friend outed me as vegan, there was that moment that I always feel when this happens around someone I don’t know, when I wonder how I’ll be treated thereafter.  This new friend was very nice; she thanked me for being a “normal” vegan, as she’d known quite a few who weren’t.  And then she told me about them. 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be the friendly face of non-judgmental veganism, to be the “normal” one among so many weirdos, despite the fact that there’s nothing at all normal about me. I exist within a subculture that constitutes at most something like 3% of the U.S. population, and our very existence (and I’m seriously not trying to speak for vegans as a whole because we are not in any way a unified movement) is about as counter-cultural as anything that’s out there. 

Here’s what happened when I told my friend Will about being a normal vegan.  He said, “Oh my God.  That’s exactly what happens to me, only I’m the ‘normal’ gay guy.”

The whole experience got me thinking about the way that veganism, like homosexuality, constitutes a non-normative identity position that requires one to constantly negotiate whether to be in or out of the closet, and, should one come out, to manage other people’s reactions to that position.  Sex and food: two of our most primal and primary needs; mess with how the majority of folks think you should fuck or eat, and watch what happens.

To take this comparison further, a 2007 study by Annie Potts and Jovian Parry even explores the emergence of “a new ‘sexual preference’ and a new controversy [that subsequently] appeared in the global media-scape and on the internet: ‘vegansexuality’” (53), which surfaced after a 2006 nationwide New Zealand study that looked at the perspectives of vegetarian and vegan consumers in that country.  Several vegetarian female respondents – only one of whom identified as vegan – noted that they engaged in sexual and long-term relationships only with others who likewise abstained from meat and animal products.  Potts and Parry note that in subsequent news stories, the term “vegansexual” was coined to define this phenomenon and that the global coverage of it “was, predictably, highly sensationalized” (55). 

The backlash that ensued was aimed at women who would dare to express this new sexual orientation – and Potts and Parry read vegansexuality in Foucauldian terms, noting its creation “through various machinations of power and resilience, discourse and confession” (55) – with the most vitriolic contempt for vegansexuality coming from omnivorous heterosexual men (57). The various criticisms from this group aimed at women who express this orientation include the assertion that both veganism and sex with only vegan men constitute a form of self-imposed abstinence by women who really prefer meat eaters – and meat – “but deny their ‘true’ desires,” or as dietary and sexual dysfunction, a deficiency, and/or a form of discrimination against men who eat meat (64). 

My attempt to consider veganism as somehow analogous to something like homosexuality is probably raising flags.  And it should (cause the two aren’t the same), but I’m going to push this comparison still further.  Homosexuality is a characteristic that people are forever seeking to establish as based in some sort of causal relationship.  What causes a person to be homosexual (or, for that matter, what causes a person to be heterosexual)?  Is it a biological or learned?  What’s the role of culture vs. nature in a person’s sexual orientation?  And are culture and nature even distinct categories (I’d argue that they aren’t)?  Is there any aspect of choice involved in the forging of sexual orientation?  There has never been a clear consensus with regard to these questions. 

Big ole question mark.

Veganism is considered a lifestyle preference (remember that we used to say that homosexuality was a sexual preference as well, but in our infinite sensitivity, we switched to “orientation,” which implies that there’s more at work here than simply what people prefer) based on deeply held beliefs that consuming animals and animal products is wrong.  As a result of this belief, one chooses not to consume those things, opting instead of a diet and lifestyle that is devoid of such items.  In this context, veganism is no more an “orientation” than is purchasing a Honda over a Toyota (I’ve had both; I’m bi-carious.  C’mon: that’s pretty funny).

But I want to trouble the notion of what constitutes an “orientation.”  The third definition of “orientation” that’s found in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one that pertains to our thinking about sexual orientation: “a person's basic attitude, beliefs, or feelings; a person's emotional or intellectual position in respect of a particular topic, circumstance.”  And “basic” in this sense means “fundamental,” or “essential.”  For one to be “oriented” towards something implies, at least in the case of sexual orientation, an essential or fundamental position; an orientation, therefore, is something much more deeply rooted than a mere preference. 

Consider that veganism, like homosexuality (or heterosexuality, for that matter) has been around forever (although it wasn’t called “veganism” until 1944) and present in vastly different cultures,[1] even though we tend to think of it as some trendy, new, Western thing.  In Vegetarianism: A History, Colin Spencer notes, for example, that the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (whose name was evoked by Percy Shelley, himself vegetarian, to “describe an ideal way of life” (38)) was vegan (38).  But veganism has never been the dominant dietary position in any culture at any time.  So what causes people, over vast amounts of time and in decidedly different cultures, to be vegan, particularly given the minority position that such an option has always mandated?  Being vegan, no matter where and when, has always constituted a non-normative position, one that often inspired persecution.  

While there’s been tons and tons of research about what makes people gay, there’s been precious little about what makes people vegan, but there has been some. Barbara McDonald’s “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t not Know it’: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan” examines the experiences of a group of “successful and committed vegans” (19) to ascertain why they became vegan.  She notes that “becoming vegan represents a major lifestyle change, one that demands the rejection of the normative ideology of speciesism” (3).  McDonald identifies a process involving catalytic experiences, which lead individuals to seek education about the plight of animals, which then leads to the decision to become vegan.  She situates veganism as an activist position in that vegans “reject institutional power by choosing cruelty-free products and by engaging in protests and other activism” (17). 

All of this is interesting, if somewhat unsurprising to me.  But what kind of caught my eye were two points raised in the study, first that “most of the participants claimed to have been ‘animal people’ all their lives” (6, my emphasis) and that for the participants in this study, the decision to become vegan felt “inevitable,” “comfortable,” and “final” (15).  McDonald reads veganism as an orientation – a kind of pre-existing condition, if you will – one that is there prior to the potential vegan’s ability to act on it through catalytic experiences, education, and information.

The idea that there’s some essential quality in certain people that makes them vegan may seem hokey – and I’ll give you that if it does.  But to turn it around a bit, is such an idea any less unlikely than the notion that there is some essential quality that causes someone to grow up and become a serial killer?  No one has ever really been able to argue very convincingly that socialization is always the only thing that causes that behavior.  But I’ve always been incredibly wary of essentialism, and I sincerely believe that we are all combinations of both biological and social influences.
Still considering veganism as an orientation resonates with me, because I think that on some very primal level, I always knew that I was vegan, or, rather, that I have always believed and felt the things that drove me to the inevitable conclusion to become vegan; my core self, whatever has created it, has always been vegan.  I just had to fully realize that aspect of my identity before I could come out of the closet.

And such a position also really resonates with my previous criticism of Robert Pippin’s position that people simply can’t care about things that they don’t care about; maybe he’s right after all. 

Works Cited

McDonald, Barbara.  “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It’: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.”  Society and Animals 8.1(2000): 1-23.  Print.

Spencer, Colin.  Vegetarianism: A History.  New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000.  Print.

Stuart, Tristam.  The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times.  New York: Norton, 2006.  Print.

[1] Tristam Stuart’s exhaustive study The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times is a valuable resource for examining the long and multicultural history of vegetarianism and veganism.


  1. Hey! How do you think, have your writting skills improved recently?

  2. Some really interesting thoughts here! I'm not sure that I would ever be comfortable with the phrase "in/out of the closet" being used to describe veganism due to the difference in scale of consequences for being LGBTQ vs being vegan (the fact that non-heterosexuality is illegal in so many countries, including being punishable by death; expulsion/alienation from family life; possibility of losing one's job; violent physical attacks; etc etc) but you did a nice job of drawing parallels between two oppressions which I think we should consider to be interconnected.