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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Exploring the intersection of queer culture and veganism

Veganism is often seen as “queer” and a lot of queer-identifying people are vegan. But is this a pure coincidence, or is there a correlation between being queer and being vegan?

Recently, I was on a date with a girl and, both being vegetarian or vegan, we discussed our dietary habits. She mentioned that she had a lot of queer friends who also happened to be vegetarian or vegan, and then made a fleeting comment about this seeming to be the case for a lot of queer people.

Strangely enough, I’d never really thought about it before that, but a lot of queer people do happen to also be vegetarian or vegan. In fact, journalist Josie Le Vay created a poll on vegan Facebook groups in the UK, asking people if they identified as LGBT+. Out of 925 responses, 66.4% said they were LGBT+.

But of course, just one poll doesn’t address whether or not there is a link, nor the similarities and differences of being queer and being vegan. So, I spoke to some queer vegans to find out what they think and how they feel these concepts overlap and differ. Is being queer and vegan a pure coincidence, or is there a correlation?

queer veganismFirst, I wanted to acknowledge the similarity that being both queer and vegan are part of a person’s identity. For me, being bisexual and vegan are two (of the many) things that make me me. But I wanted to know whether being vegan is as much of other queer vegans’ identities as is being queer.

“The main difference between the two is that one was a choice and one was not,” clarifies K Anderson, a queer London-based singer-songwriter and host of podcast Lost Spaces. “So, much of my identity has been formed in navigating — or, at times, trying to survive — a heteronormative world.”

In contrast, he describes being vegan by saying it’s “more about making a conscious choice about how I want to live based on knowledge accumulated”. “So,” he concludes, “whilst they’re both important to me and my identity, my queerness feels like it’s buried deep down there in my DNA.”

Writer Kelsie Colclough, who is asexual, agrees, arguing that her asexuality is a bigger part of her because “it’s something I’ve been born with and known for longer”. Like Anderson, she clarifies that being vegan is a choice, describing it as “part of my philosophy, values and how I live my life now”. She explains that if she had to define herself in a few words, being asexual and being vegan would appear, but “vegan wouldn’t be first”.

Sportsperson JP Casey, who is non-binary explains that argument by saying that “being vegan isn’t as much a part of my identity as being queer, because there’s a flexibility to a lot of vegan culture that there isn’t for queer culture”.

lgbtqveganThey describe how they’ve been to vegan food events with non-vegan friends, but have attended fewer queer nights with straight friends: “Dietary choices are more flexible, and can change as personal preference and health needs shift, whereas sexuality is more fixed.”

They add: “I would more readily describe myself as a queer person than a vegan person,” reaffirming that, as Anderson put it, queerness is buried deep in their DNA, whereas veganism is a conscious choice.

Dr Sunni Patel, a gut health influencer and scientist-clinician, who is gay, has a different stance. He believes that being vegan is as much part of his identity as is being queer. “[Both] play an important role in my life and make me who I am today and what I stand for.”

He goes on to say that although he doesn’t brand himself as “the queer vegan Indian doctor”, it has improved his approach and allows him to be more open-minded. He explains that his identity isn’t defined by the labels, but “the approach and outlook it brings me and the desire to… help others by making them aware of creative cooking, being more gut-healthy and using my experience… to back that up so that people can relate”. He refers to it as a journey to find yourself and live as a queer vegan in the modern world: “Both bring the best out of me.”

 

Despite queerness and veganism differing in terms of identity, it’s clear that there are definitely links between these two concepts. After some thought, Anderson says: “I can definitely trace my veganism to my queerness. As a spotty and ostracised teen, I wasn’t able to find any male role models who resonated with me.”

He adds that all his “queer heroes were out female singer-songwriter”, which, in turn, meant that “my first queer friends were their fans — queer women”. He adds how this links to veganism by recognising the stereotypes that queer women are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan than men, meaning he was “more exposed to that diet as well as the ideology behind it”. In her essay, feminist Joni Seager argues that animal rights and feminism are directly related.

Colclough agrees, addressing that both being queer and being vegan are viewed as being different: “Growing up, I knew I was different in some way but didn’t have the word to describe it until I was a teenager.” She says that her asexuality and veganism link together in the way that people think they’re both ways she’s depriving herself of something. “When you don’t fit into the image people have of how you ‘should’ live, [they] can get weird about it,” she explains.

gay veganCasey recognises a more positive way in which queerness and veganism can be interlinked. “A lot of my vegan friends and queer friends could be described as welcoming, affectionate and considerate, and this extends through larger events, creating similar atmospheres at both queer and vegan festivities.”

However, they acknowledge that this might not be “an explicit link” between queerness and veganism. Instead, they argue: “It might be more of an indirect relationship where the people who are considering their sexuality beyond heterosexuality may also… think more critically and carefully about their dietary choices.”

Contrastingly, Patel says he’s never linked his queerness and veganism together in his personal life. Nevertheless, he proposes that “many use the learning and experience of navigating the challenges, questions but also the joys and discoveries of being queer and vegan”.

He elaborates by addressing the community side of both movements, suggesting that “both can bring comfort”. However, he also acknowledges that “finding your tribe in the queer community may not be the same as finding your best vegan food or restaurant”.

 

It’s clear that there are links between queerness and veganism, but it’s also important to recognise the deeper reasons behind them. Colclough describes them as being outside societal norms, so “adding another splash of difference doesn’t feel like much at all”. She links them both very positively by saying that “life’s too short to not do what makes you happy in all aspects of your life”.

This reemphasises the idea that queerness and veganism are interlinked in their perception of being different, and being part of these communities deems you as an outsider. Casey agrees, arguing: “Once one starts to break down one aspect of the self, other aspects are likely to come under scrutiny too.”

So, perhaps queer people are more inclined to be vegan as it’s viewed as different and they’re already considered different? As Casey said, they’re likely to come under scrutiny anyway, so why not?

Moreover, Patel addresses the stereotypes associated with being queer and how this can relate to being vegan. “Some of the stereotypes of the queer world is the vanity aspect, so I guess one could say that making healthier choices by going vegan goes hand-in-hand — it can have great effects on the skin, for instance.”

Similarly, he touches upon the stereotype of queerness and creativity, explaining that being plant-based has made him more creative in the kitchen, so this could be another reason for the link. He adds: “Vegans are marginalised… so perhaps the queer community can see some similarities there.”

lgbt illegalHowever, Casey argues that vegans “don’t face anything near the kind of legal and social challenges queer folk do”. Thus, linking them together in terms of marginalisation can be seen as rather problematic, as “it’s illegal to be queer in some parts of the world, but no one is imprisoning vegans”, they explain.

Patel goes on to suggest that perhaps the link lies in the fact that a lot of the queer community are openly vegan, specifically mentioning Bimini, Sia, Ellen DeGeneres, Alan Cummings and Laverne Cox: “A lot of the queer community are activists and want to push boundaries to make people aware about the growing issues, which includes queer issues and planet issues.”

So, perhaps being queer increases the motivation to be aware and stand in solidarity with other significant issues, such as climate change. “Are the queer community trendsetters? Most definitely!” says Patel.

 

There’s also been a lot of discourse comparing coming out as queer and “coming out” — if you can call it that — as vegan. In A Queer Vegan Manifesto, Rasmus R Simonsen addresses this, saying: “Declaring one’s veganism to the world can almost be compared to the act of coming out for queer-identified individuals.” He gives the example of “coming out” as vegan to his mum, and her responding with: “How will I ever cook for you again?”, which is a response I know I, and many other vegans, have experienced.

Anderson describes coming out as queer as a terrifying and excruciating process, but also as liberating. “Once you’ve gone through that process, and once you realise that being authentic to yourself is far more important than pleasing others around you, you have more bravery to make other decisions that people might not approve of or understand,” he says. “You’re less bound by the box you think society wants you to fit in.”

And this is where coming out is liberating. I personally feel that every time I come out to someone new, I feel that little bit lighter and more liberated. I guess coming out has made me live differently in the sense that I don’t feel I constantly need to please people or require their approval as much as I used to.

coming out gayAnderson adds: “When I first decided to go vegan, I had so many well-meaning people trying to talk me out of it. It caused tensions in places I wouldn’t have expected it to… and required a certain determination to stick it out in some of those social settings.

“I have no doubt that my experience of coming out [as queer] helped me not be deterred by these types of events.”

However, he also acknowledges that coming out as queer is very different to “coming out” as vegan. “I can ‘hide’ my veganism in a way I can’t my queerness,” he remarks. “I can certainly ‘pass’ as an omnivore in daily interactions. But as soon as I open my mouth, people clock me as queer and moderate their behaviour accordingly.”

And this is where the difference lies — queer people have faced distinct oppression for centuries. Thus, coming out as queer has significantly more serious consequences, and “coming out and going vegan are not the same”. Anderson recognises this, explaining that announcing yourself as vegan has “nowhere near the potential repercussions as coming out as queer”. “And although it’s caused some mild annoyance, it hasn’t impacted my life in a way that homophobia has,” he stresses.

 

Colclough talks about the distinct disparity in coming out as queer and vegan, saying she felt more nervous about coming out as asexual because “it’s an undeniable piece of me”. She goes on to explain that with veganism, compromises can be made if someone’s values differ. “But we can’t tiptoe around the asexual thing,” she asserts. “Someone bugging me to eat chicken is annoying, but someone doubting my asexuality and trying to push me into a relationship is deeply insulting.”

She brings up the “casual coming out experience” to relate the two concepts. In both cases, people will often make jokes, then ask some questions. She identifies her concerns about the questions surrounding veganism: “I’ve been asked if I can actually eat tomatoes and if fish is a plant.”

But in regard to her asexuality, she’s been asked much more personal, inappropriate questions “about my relationship or sexual history, and it’s awkward”. “But I get that usually people haven’t met someone like me and are trying to understand,” she adds.

She stresses that the importance is how they treat you later. For example, when people try to encourage her to eat beef or download Tinder. “Please stop trying to make me someone I’m not,” she says. “I could do those things, but I’d rather eat my bean fajitas and die a single virgin, thank you.”

lgbtq veganPatel believes there is just as much controversy and stigmatisation in being vegan as there is in being queer, adding that society “is becoming more understanding that being queer is part of who you are, but that people choose to be vegan”.

He goes on to explain that when people are given choices, despite the reasons (in veganism’s case, animal cruelty, sustainability, and health, for starters), it’s “natural for them to question them to understand”. Patel tells me that more people ask him about being plant-based than being queer, as it’s “new to a majority of people”.

“Social norms of heterosexuality and omnivorousness have led to similar anxious and defensive responses when someone comes out as queer or vegan,” he suggests, “as it challenges the norms that they’ve accepted and assumed for everyone.”

However, Casey argues the difference is stark: “I think it would be dangerous to equate a declaration of a vegan identity with a declaration of a queer identity, and perhaps even insulting to queer people.”

While queerness and veganism share a number of similarities, it is also necessary to note that being queer has a much more oppressive history and many more negative consequences than being vegan, which will always influence how it is viewed in society. There is certainly some overlap, and they interlink in several interesting ways, but whilst acknowledging these similarities, we must recognise their clear differences and view them as separate concepts in their own right.

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