Zane McNeill on Growing Up Vegan as a Queer Experience

When I was 8, my 3rd grade class had a unit on the Holocaust. To illustrate religious tolerance, the teachers asked us to share our own religious beliefs. When it was my turn, I smiled, and said that I believed in animals. Raised by an eco-feminist pagan, an atheist Marxist, and a Buddhist, my answer seemed perfectly normal to me. The next day, however, I was brought to the principal’s office and my mother was called in. A parent had complained, saying that me ‘believing in animals’ was threatening to her child and I was told to, in the future, keep my beliefs to myself. As a child, I knew very well what it was liked to be ostracized and to not quite fit in—to be ‘queer.’

Writer Leah Kirts has written that “Long before I came out as queer, I’d learned to a certain degree what it meant to be queered by coming out as vegan.” When I was 11, I began transitioning to a vegetarian diet. At 14, I started exploring vegan politics and stopped consuming all animal products. The normalized violence of animal agriculture was incomprehensible to me and made navigating high school as a vegan extremely difficult. Some students remembered that I had said that ‘I believed in animals’ at 8 and would ridicule me for that 10 years later.

Being vegan in my high school was a very queer experience. Students would throw food at me in the cafeteria, so I ate outside the library. In Biology, students would name their frogs after people they hated before dismembering them—one person named their frog after me as a joke. People would purposefully step on insects near me because they knew it would get a reaction from me. On senior prank day, kids released crickets in the hallways and put goldfish in the toilets, all of which I tried, unsuccessfully to save. One day, a classmate stole a neighborhood cat and stuffed him in their locker. The principal had to come over the intercom offering financial compensation for the return of the cat. I made myself as small as possible and moved through the school with an ingrained map of what spaces were ‘safe’ for me to exist in as a vegan. This map-making is something I still do when navigating cities as a visibly queer person.

Scholars like N.M. Kolb-Untinen and R.R. Simonsen have explored the connections between queerness and veganism—especially around the concepts of ‘coming out’ and ‘transitioning’ to veganism. Other writers and activists like Leah Kirts, Christopher Sebastian, and pattrice jones have also written on queer veganism, specifically on how a queer vegan politics can subvert hegemonic power structures. These thinkers, as well as the wonderful collection of texts from Sanctuary Publishers, informed me on how structures of oppression are interconnected and how a consistent anti-oppression approach to social justice is the only way to fight against these violent systems.

My queer experience as a vegan also made it possible for me to examine my own personal queerness and to question and challenge normative systems of gender and sexuality. In other words, already existing in a ‘deviant space’ as a vegan made it easier for me to reckon with compulsive heterosexuality, the internalized concept that we can only be heterosexual, which is enforced by a heteronormative system. It was through my vegan politics that I was able to understand myself as a queer nonbinary person and utilize my queerness as a tool to subvert and attempt to dismantle oppressive structures that marginalize people, animals, and the earth.

As I began to recognize the entanglements of speciesism, a concept that humans are inherently superior to animals,[1] with structures of (cis)heteropatriarchy, a system where men are endowed with authority and power over marginalized genders, I realized that social justice movements do not and cannot exist in silos. As Leah Kirts explains, “the practice of compulsory heterosexuality—mandating straightness as means of controlling human reproduction—has been used for centuries to police women and queer people; in industrialized farming and animal husbandry, bodily autonomy is systematically denied.” Compulsory heterosexuality is inherently intertwined with speciesism and speciesism is inherently connected to cisheteropatriarchy. I realized that in order for us to accomplish liberation for women and LGBTQIA+ people, we must also fight for animal liberation.

It was this realization, as well as my passion for uplifting and archiving historically marginalized voices, that led to my co-edited collection Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression. In this collection, over 25 contributors—activists, scholars, artists, and writers who identify as LGBTQIA+ and vegan—explore the interconnections between their identities and create a political framework that combines queer and vegan advocacy tools to take down systems of oppression. Chapter topics range from critiques of the carceral system, neoliberalism, heteronormativity, white supremacy, and single-issue veganism to what a movement and futurity that embraces consistent anti-oppression can look like.

Armed with Carol Adams’ Sexual Politics of Meat in high school, I organized for women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ justice, and environmental liberation alongside my vegan outreach. Not just because each of these movements are important, but because it is imperative for us to fight for total liberation if we will be successful in creating a more just world. Despite the harm I received from my peers for being vegan in high school, it was through that trauma that I was able to understand structural power disparities, my own queerness, and the revolutionary potential of a consistent anti-oppression framework. As a queer vegan, I have found that to fight for one is to fight for all.

Zane McNeill is an independent activist-scholar whose co-edited collection, Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, was recently released by Sanctuary Publishers.

[1] Especially white, cisgender heterosexual men in the human/animal dualism

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