I rarely say I am vegan. If I attend a BBQ I choose to idly pass by the chicken and scoop up an extra heap of green beans and continue on my merry way. But people have a curious desire to know, to rank those who behave in ways unfamiliar. In this way there is something queer to veganism, something that by the resistances I encounter declares my position—a positing—a political stance. This is particularly curious given that veganism is itself an absence, a refusal of something, yet given the normativity of meat-consumption it stands out: ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ goes the proverb. This reminds me of Heidegger’s hammer somehow, the broken (unready-to-hand) hammer, the failure that gets read onto my being and in turn shapes and colors my being.
As the second-wave feminist mantra goes, “the personal is political.” What for me is a personal refusal of something is taken as (and therefore is) a political statement. People will ask why I did not pick up a kabob, why I took green beans, etc. And although these questions may be asked in earnest and a certain genuineness, they stem from a desire to take account of this statement, take account of me as a subject, to in fact give it a political shape. These statements and inquisitions themselves give birth to, flesh out the body of, my refusals as political.
Interestingly enough of course if I say I’m vegan for health reasons everyone is validated and secured in their position as a meat-eater—“well, it’s best for him and that’s fine, but it wouldn’t work for me.” But to be approached to give account of why I think it’s wrong to support the slaughtering of non-human animal life, to be asked to give the body—the meat if you will—of my personal practice is to ask for a politics of meat-eating. It is to ask, really, where I think they stand, on what ground I see their footing. And, they assume, they hope, that I will not say “over yonder with those who support the destruction of animal life.”
It is here that all the stock answers as to why someone’s not vegan or really really actually for reals cares about animals comes in. All of which boil down to trying to reposition me into the “over yonder of destruction” (usually by revealing the ‘hypocrisy’ of my stance) or reposition themselves as the wonderful kind compassionate person they truly really are (if only I could see how much they care about their cats)—both of which ignore the fundamental issue of whether or not giving money to corporations who profit off of breeding, abusing, and killing very real non-human animal life is good or bad or worthwhile. It defers the issue to teleology—how he or she or they use the animal—rather than an ontology of or ethics to the living, breathing animal. This is in part because, granted, it is an uncomfortable topic—especially when I am eating off a plate of green beans and she or he has chunks of a chicken’s leg in hand. But why ask the question in the first place then?
I think likewise this stems from people’s desire to ask about someone’s orientation—to take account of one’s (sexual) position. Derrida uses the nifty mouthful of a phrase carnophallogocentrism which I’m sure made him very popular at parties. Subjectivity, what constitutes the Western subject in particular, is a interpenetration of carno, that is meat—what they can consume/”handle”/receive; phallo, that is masculinity/virility—what they can fuck, and logo, that is reason—what they can speak of or argue for or justify. It is this structure of subjectivity—of this is what you are doing and ought to be doing and everything you are doing is okay—really that people do not want to question.
So really why I think people want to take account of vegans and queer people (as well as persons of color and disability and size and many other things that are outside my own privileged white, able body experience) is that it affirms their position as politically and subjectively firm and solid. It re-inscribes their position as central just as eating meat re-inscribes these behaviors. While attending a church I was once told—when making mention about a particular problem I had with the liturgy—that we don’t change god’s will for ourselves, but our will to his [sic]. Eventually, by inscribing the liturgy on my being, by repetition, I would create and foster new desires—the right desires—and I would come to find theological justification for performing the liturgy.
There is a radical and terrible truth to this. These repetitions that form our sense of centrality, of sure-footedness, even form our desires, are learned practices. Granted, they are inscribed, they are external—I don’t mean to imply they are a simple choice on the behalf of the subject. I believe meat is very tasty to a very many people. I believe very many women are *only* attracted to men. None of this means though that meat-eating and heteronormativity are not also means of socially positioning the (meat-eating, heterosexual) subject into a place of centrality, stability, and comfort. It is this central position that vegan practice and queer existence destabilizes, or at least threatens to destabilize, by its political stance and practice.
To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, the problem isn’t so much of learning new practices, constructing new desires, but of unlearning. The problem is the way in which we constitute subjectivity through a series of bodily practices—meat-eating, (hetero)sexist privileging of the hetero-fuck, and the cultural weight of these symbols—and repeat these practices socially so as to seem natural, god-given, and transcendental. Where veganism and queer existence stand is to simultaneously reject these practices as well as proffer new ones. For veganism, a practice that has unlearned the rhetoric of “handling meat,” “taking it like a man,” “manning-up,” “doing the body a favor,” etc, posits a practice based on compassion and self-humility. Likewise queer existence rejects heteronormativity, heterosexism, sexual binaries, and embraces a practice of openness to people regardless of binaries (fe/male, hetero/homo-sexual, etc), based on mutuality and consent.
Of course veganism and queer existence are very distinct things and ‘choosing’ a vegan lifestyle is very different from the process of finding oneself in or identifying as being queer. However, in terms of the threat people can feel, the political awareness it poses, the way it hints at the constructedness of heteronormativity and meat-eating respectively, and a possibility for change, the two intersect in interesting and similar ways. To quote Teresa de Laurentis, “for what is finally at stake is not so much how ‘to make visible the invisible’ as how to produce the conditions of visibility for a new social subject.” A subject, let us hope, not centered on consumption, hate, and apathy, but compassion, love, and consent.