Aug 05, 2022
12 mins read
Vegans make up around one to three percent of the general American population, with higher rates in communities of color (an estimated eight percent).
Veganism is still a minority practice, but it is on the rise and therefore we're seeing a lot more discussion on food ethics, climate justice, environmental racism, and animal rights. This week for instance I was delighted to see Peace By Vegan's Ryuji Chua on The Daily Show, a fantastic interview where Ryuji briefly discussed his YouTube documentary How Conscious Can A Fish Be? - and held his own under Trevor Noah's fairly friendly (and for vegans, all-too-familiar) interrogations.
Veganism is - by definition - a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. Veganism is not a diet. It is a practice, a commitment, it's social justice and liberationist praxis. Veganism is a commitment to a movement and to justice, and to the preservation and stewardship of all life on the planet.
I am not here today to talk all that much about veganism's tenets, I'm here to talk about how I started and stopped and started and stopped and hung out in the weird hell of vegetarianism before I finally committed - and stayed committed - on January 9, 2016.
I know now I'll be vegan the rest of my life, and there's so much peace and joy, literal unfettered joy, in this commitment. It's like every day I wake up and I'm so happy to be vegan and I'm so glad I no longer have to eat the things I was told I had to eat. Growing up I had to eat these things to be a good child, a good white American.
I don't have to eat that stuff anymore. Every day is like a gift! And shit, I'm allowed to experience joy, right?
Like: my practice of veganism can make me feel good. It's allowed. Take your weird-ass sourpuss energy elsewhere if you don't agree.
Here's how I did it.
I first went vegan in 1990 at age thirteen - pre-internet and may I add, we not only lacked the plethora of plant dairy and plant meats in the store that we have today - we didn't even have tofu at hand. At thirteen I didn't know how to live vegan, none of my adults supported me in this (it was seen as a phase and I was seen as being a bit ridiculous) - and I didn't even think to go to the library and bolster myself up with books, that kind of thing.
I stayed vegan about six months - bagels and salads with only vinegar and oil - and then I lapsed back into living the way I'd been raised. I gave it up due to lack of support and a kind of apathetic pessimism that really isn't characteristic of me. But that's what happened.
Over the next twenty-five years I'd dabble in veganism, lapse into vegetarianism, go back to eating animal flesh and secretions. Back and forth. Veganism seemed at times as impossible and impractical as breatharianism. It felt out of reach. I thought only hardcore types, saints, or the health-obsessed could stay vegan - and I am none of the above.
But I couldn't let it go. Then in late 2015 I had two conversations that sealed the deal.
Here they are, in brief:
I was regularly having lunch at a lovely little grocery shop and one day while having my soup the owner was talking to me about food ethics. I said, "You know, I've been vegetarian many years but I think I'm going to have to go vegan. I keep thinking about the ethics of dairy and eggs and I know it doesn't work." The owner nodded knowingly and said, "That's why we buy from these local dairies. We know they treat their cows well." I said, "That... that isn't true. I mean I know you want it to be true. But what happens to the over-abundance of calves - especially males - that are needed to keep the dairy cows producing milk?" He answered - and I shit you not! - with a beatific smile and suavely replied, "Oh, they all go to a farm!"
I couldn't believe what he was saying. "They go to a farm" - these colossal quantities of unwanted cow-flesh, they "go to a farm."
What did he think happened on this farm? I had this sudden vision of like, a gay cruise ship with boy cows (yes I am aware they are called bulls), all holding hooves and skipping on the deck, happy as pie. It was just so ludicrous that this adult man - a smart person for sure! - just erased a catastrophically large reality because he simply didn't want it to be true. There aren't just a handful of extra males here and there: this IS the dairy system. In the US alone over half a million of these babies were wrenched from their mothers (remember, they're mammals - like us!) and turned into veal in 2019. And of course, ALL so-called "livestock" animals live about ten to twenty percent of their natural lifespan - in horrific conditions I might add - before slaughter.
That's not my fruity, too-sensitive opinion. Those are just facts!
And yet this adult man - who clearly cared about food ethics, or he wouldn't be running the business he was - was smiling in my face telling me it wasn't so.
A few days later on Facebook I posted a wonderful article on backyard chickens - an article that kind of blew my mind.
You have to understand that for many years I thought backyard chickens were a "no harm, no foul" kind of situation. In fact for many years we had backyard chickens, and my very own family was instrumental in a local civic campaign fifteen years ago to permit them within city limits. My partner and I truly believed that backyard chicken eggs weren't just ethical - they were superior to factory-farmed eggs.
The article I read gave me a broader understanding - and I knew every word was true. So I shared the article on Facebook, mostly as a "this really made me think" kind of thing. In response I received a several-pages long DM stream (unasked for) from a FB friend who was really, really upset by what I shared. She went on and on at lengths about how I didn't understand. She had only breezed the article, and found it very upsetting, and she let loose all her cognitive dissonance at my audacity to post.
Again: it was the effort, and sheer WALL of text hurled my way, that was so striking. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
I realized that for many, it is more important they are seen as "one of the good guys", than it is to deeply reflect on their actions (or inactions).
These two back-to-back conversations - and the absolute energetic deflection and denial of simple facts - changed me on the spot.
I realized I was just so tired, so tired. I was exhausted from people - intelligent and seemingly caring people - telling me to my face that this scale of suffering wasn't happening. If these two people would have said, "I know it's awful, but I am not going to do anything about it," I swear in some way that would have galled me less. I mean that's a TERRIBLE way to live - "I know it's awful but I am not going to do anything about it" - but on some level I can understand that. It was the eager and bald-faced denial, and the simple over-exertion of their denial, that sealed the deal.
I saw with crystal clear vision that I didn't want to argue with anyone anymore. I suddenly saw that I didn't want to be the kind of person who, upon seeing a great injustice, made frantic excuses. Or worse, denied the injustice in the first place.
I saw that it was no longer possible for me to keep eating the flesh and secretions of animals.
I could no longer continue.
Some people step into veganism quite easily and never look back. Others struggle.
I struggled, but just for a little while.
At first, veganism felt like restriction (which is exactly the aim of the billions of dollars spent by animal agribusiness lobbies). I felt a great terror. I was sure I would not get enough food, and that the food I got would be lackluster.
I was wrong about that of course, but I am sharing it now to let you know I was VERY scared I'd be hungry and sad, but I did it anyway. Now here I am going on seven years and I'm plump and happy. But I gotta be honest, my first few weeks I was worried and I was kind of frantic and nervous (a condition we call FRANTIS around our household) - but that subsided because of what I did next.
I did three things right:
First, I told my family I was vegan, and asked for their support. Gradually, I told other people - or was outed, as in the case of people offering me food. At times this was little nerve-wracking (I had a coworker insistently shove some chili con carne under my nose, insisting I could eat it. Yes I "could". No, I was not going to) - but it wasn't that big a deal. Making my veganism public, was very smart. It held me accountable in those first few weeks while I was shaky. And this gave my friends the opportunity to be supportive - and some of them were! - which helped me feel a little less isolated.
Second: I was pretty active on Facebook at the time, so I joined something like two dozen vegan groups. I focussed on fun and food or recipe-oriented groups, and soon my entire feed was full of EVERY type of vegan experience and cuisine you can imagine! Broke Vegans, Manila Vegans, Junk Food Vegans, Asian Vegan Recipes, African-American Vegans, Fat-Ass Vegans, Gluten-Free Vegans, Indian Vegan Memes, Queer Vegans, Vegans on a Budget, Vegan Jokes, Anarchist Vegans - as well as local vegan groups like Portland Vegans, Tacoma Vegans, Olympia Vegans and Grays Harbor Vegans (the latter I now co-admin).
I joined so many vegan groups that these days non-vegan food posts are by far the minority on my page. Now these groups have various rules and cultures and some of them have in-fighting and all that stuff, just like any community on social media. But by saturating my feed I could see - very quickly - that literally any food I wanted, any recipe I needed to veganize, any emotional or practical support I desired - was right at my fingertips.
Third: I bought myself a lot of "junk"/comfort food when I first went vegan. I didn't worry whether it was in the budget or not, I didn't worry if I would waste the food or not like the food (that was hard for me)! I gave myself the comfort of having a LOT of food around me, at least to get started. This turned out to be super smart and I settled down within just a couple weeks. To my everlasting joy - my family joined me and we've all four been vegan since! I should add: our grocery bill quickly went down, after we got settled into this new life.
Once I realized I would have enough food, and that vegan cooking was even more Creative and delightful than non-vegan cooking - it was easy.
Even with all the weird shit that happens now and then - people really do say rude or obtuse things or make "jokes" that are dull as dishwater - it's honestly been wonderful, easy, and life-affirming to be vegan.
People ask me how I gave up cheese. "Commitment", I respond. But it only took commitment at first. For what it's worth today it is super, super, super easy to ignore products made from animal flesh and secretions, because those things simply aren't food. I was raised and habituated to see them as food, but I can tell you I just un-brainwashed this conditioning. I did a re-wash. Today when someone posts their "yummy" cow-steak dinner, it looks as appetizing as a squished-flat possum on the side of the road. I mean I hate to be real about it, but it looks like a corpse because it IS a corpse.
I don't share this to upset anyone (although it's weird I should be singled out in this way because I didn't create the monstrosity that is animal agribusiness) - I share this to let you know that you can change.
The world is fucked up in a lot of ways, and times are hard. My veganism gives me light and hope. My veganism is one of the most joyful and Creative things I've done (second only to partnering and raising children)! Every single meal feels like a celebration. Each discovery of a new veganized offering is like a birthday present! The new recipes, the new rescue sanctuaries I discover, the new vegan authors and activists I connect with - these are glad, life affirming connections that feel so good! The gatherings (rare now, with Covid) where people have provided not a flippin' thing I will eat except steamed broccoli, so what? I've long ago learned to bring my own peanut butter sandwich or whatever.
It just feels untouchable. Untouchable Joy. It's not hard.
I'd love - more than anything - for you to join me.
I'll help you ever step of the way.