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Sherry F. Colb

What Vegans Can Learn from the Gay Rights Movement's Successes


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

These are heady times for gay and lesbian rights. Four states now provide for same-sex marriage, and the number is likely to increase in the near future. A Republican conservative who acted as President George W. Bush's Solicitor General is currently bringing a court challenge to the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in that state. Though sexual orientation discrimination continues, much has changed in a country in which, just 23 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Georgia criminal sodomy law and specifically approved its selective application to homosexual couples.

Such success inspires emulation by other groups seeking to end other sorts of persecution. One profound and ubiquitous form of subordination is that in which we humans engage with respect to nonhuman animals. At the present time, the law permits and condones the massive injury and slaughter that is inflicted on billions of animals for purposes of their consumption as food and clothing.

An increasing number of people have come to recognize the injustice of the injury and slaughter, but an overwhelming majority of the population resists this recognition. What lessons might the struggle for gay rights have to teach those who seek to end the systematic torture and slaughter of animals?

A Risky Analogy – But Not One that Should Give Offense

The first thing to note is that there is a risk in analogizing the struggle for gay rights with the struggle for animal rights. The danger that concerns me is not, as some might think, that of offending people. People were (and some continue to be) offended by comparisons between struggles against racial oppression and struggles against homophobia, but it is precisely the resistance to an unfamiliar claim (especially a claim that implicates one's own behavior) that makes it seem "offensive."

If inflicting terrible suffering and death on nonhuman animals who can feel pleasure, pain, and a wide range of emotions represents a real harm – and most people acknowledge, at some level, that it does – then no one should be offended by the suggestion that this harm must stop, just as other harms, once taken for granted as permissible, are now almost universally condemned.

The risk, though, is that of missing the real connection. The proper analogue to a gay person seeking gay rights is not a nonhuman animal, for the latter is not able to seek justice for herself (except by appearing, occasionally, in the public consciousness and awakening rare pangs of conscience and empathy). The proper analogue to the gay person struggling for gay rights is, instead, the vegan struggling for animal rights.

When I use the word "animal rights" here, I mean something very basic – an entitlement to have one's interests seriously considered in people's decision-making process. No one, to my knowledge, is advocating that nonhuman animals be permitted to vote, hold public office, or receive scholarships to state colleges, any more than one would advocate similar entitlements for a three-year-old human. But if a being's interests are taken seriously, then surely one may not inflict torture, misery, and slaughter on that being simply to satisfy one's culinary and fashion preferences.

What Makes Gay Men and Lesbians Similar to Vegans?

Once we recognize that it is the vegan – rather than the nonhuman animal – who occupies the space parallel to that of the gay rights advocate, we immediately see some important commonalities. One is that, unlike race and sex, gay identity and vegan identity are, in part, chosen.

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that people "decide" whether to be gay or straight, in the way that they decide what books to read. What I mean is that in the absence of surgery or other kinds of mutilation, a person who is white cannot decide to be African-American, and a man cannot decide to be a woman: sex and race are, in that sense, immutable. By contrast, part of what makes the gay rights movement distinctive is that it is possible for a gay man or a lesbian to live (unhappily) as though he or she is straight.

This possibility is, in fact, both noted and encouraged by many who are religiously committed to heterosexuality. It also helps explain why anti-gay advocates say that they supposedly do not discriminate against gay people, because gay people are free – like straight people – to marry someone of the opposite sex.

Because it is possible for a gay person to live as though he or she is straight, however unfulfilling such a life might be, the decision to acknowledge (to others but also to oneself) that one is gay or lesbian is a momentous decision that takes courage and often results in family tensions.

Similarly, ethical vegans make a decision that they will start consuming a vegan diet and wearing vegan clothing. Unlike the non-vegan majority, very few ethical vegans were born into veganism, and thus most necessarily had to question a status quo that treats the farming of animals for their dead bodies as an inevitable and fine state of affairs. Though vegans are routinely asked why they are vegan, non-vegans are almost never asked why they are not. It would, in fact, be considered rude to ask a non-vegan "why do you choose to consume animal products?"

Becoming a vegan often generates family conflicts, in some of the same ways as coming out as gay does. Family members can have a hard time accepting the change and may enjoy bringing up old stories of animal consumption by the now-vegan.

The ethical vegan – and not the nonhuman animal – is the face of animal rights that most people will see (if they see any face of animal rights at all). In the United States, most of the people who contribute to the suffering of animals – those who consume parts of dead animals and the products taken away from live animals, soon to be killed – have rarely had occasion to interact with a live version of what they eat. They do, however, occasionally run into a person who declines the routine American food choices and thereby opts out of a system of persecution and harm.

The notion that this choice is possible can be unsettling to someone who never seriously questioned the legitimacy of consuming animals and their products. Resulting hostility, whether subtle or overt, resembles that of a person who is in fact gay, but fails to acknowledge it to himself, who becomes threatened and angry when interacting with an openly gay person. A conversation with an ethical vegan may awaken the other party to a truth that is, at some level, known but not openly acknowledged: the truth that one is participating daily in the suffering and death of animals – and that there is another way.

Strategy for Vegans

Like a gay man or a lesbian, a vegan can choose from a variety of ways of being a vegan. Some stay in the closet. One woman I know, for example, purchases only vegan foods for her home, but when she is out and about, she either eats what others are eating or claims that she is not hungry, so that people will not know her true identity. She explains that once she knows someone well, she will confide in him or her that she is a vegan.

This "closeted" approach mirrors the way in which many gay men and lesbians once conducted their lives. Rather than have people judge them or hurt them more tangibly, they selected carefully the people who would know their true selves. Though such a decision was understandable, for gay people, it seemed only to entrench the false and destructive notion on the part of many that – as Justice Powell put it once – "I don't think I've ever met a homosexual."

Other ethical vegans are "out" in the sense of letting people know that they are vegans, but otherwise attempt to play down the differences between their own and non-vegans' consumption choices. These vegans resemble gay men and lesbians who "cover" (by not acting too "gay" in mixed company), to use a word the subtle meaning of which has been explained and developed beautifully by Kenji Yoshino.

Often, when a vegan and a non-vegan go to a restaurant together, the non-vegan will ask a question like, "Do you mind if I order the cheeseburger?" The ethical vegan who says "No; go ahead" conveys the impression that being vegan is simply a personal choice, rather than reflecting a deep moral commitment. For most ethical vegans, the very question is frustrating, because it dares him or her to say out loud, "What you are doing is wrong, and you shouldn't do it." Not saying so feels like complicity, but saying so risks alienating others and putting one's own status at risk.

The analogue for a gay person is obviously not identical. No gay man or lesbian objects to a heterosexual's choosing to be with someone of the opposite sex. On the other hand, gay and lesbian activists are – and always have been – opposed to dishonesty and self-delusion with respect to sexual orientation. They have claimed, convincingly, that some people who live as heterosexuals are in fact denying their true orientation. Such people have an obligation – to themselves, but also to others – to embrace their authentic identities. Advocates have consistently challenged the notion that heterosexuality is simply an inevitable and natural trait of human beings.

Ethical vegans face related challenges. By living as we do, we implicitly communicate to others a critique of the status quo and, necessarily, a critique of the behavior of those who follow it. Vegans suggest – without necessarily saying anything explicitly – that people ought to examine their consumption decisions, rather than accept the notion that eating animals and animal products is inevitable or natural for human beings. Despite increasingly available information about how unhealthy and toxic the consumption of animal proteins (including fish, and especially dairy and eggs) is for human wellbeing – at both the individual and the global levels – many non-vegans insist that people were simply meant to eat animals. Of course, the parallel within the gay rights struggle has been the claim by anti-gay advocates that people were simply meant to be straight and that anything else is "unnatural."

Few people fully embrace one or the other way of being gay or being vegan all of the time. As Yoshino said of gay people, one does not "come out" once and for all. With each new person one meets, there is a new choice of whether to "pass" as heterosexual (by saying nothing), to "cover," or to "flaunt" one's sexual orientation.

The same is true for vegans. As we have seen over the last decades, however, visibility is a useful antidote to ignorance and fear. As people learn – from vegans who are "out and proud" – that farming animals causes unspeakable suffering, destroys the planet, and contributes to diseases of affluence (including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes), they will likely become more open to questioning the false proposition that meat, dairy, or eggs are necessary to a pleasurable and fulfilling human life.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is available on Amazon.

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