Recently, we were interviewed for an online article, which we appreciated very much and you can read here. We had the idea, though, that the interview would run as a Q&A and thus put a lot of thought into carefully and fully answering some very challenging questions. So, as an addendum to that article, here is the interview in its entirety.
With your VINE sanctuary work you’ve been making the connection between speciesism and LGBTQ rights at conferences around the country for over 10 years. How did you first made this connection?
The founders of the sanctuary came to animal rights work as lesbian-feminists with a history of social justice activism. Intersectionality is an important conceptual tool in social justice work but had not yet been extended to include speciesism. In brief, intersectionality refers to the way that different forms of oppression interact with, compound, and support one another—so much so that it is not possible to productively work on one problem without taking the others into account. So, from the start, we were alert to the need to understand how speciesism factors into the matrix of intersecting oppressions—including anti-LGBTQ bias.
When the first hen we rescued turned out to be a rooster, this started us thinking about the ways that people use animals to “naturalize” socially constructed conceptions of gender. The structural function of homophobia and transphobia is the maintenance of the binary, man-on-top gender system. You don’t have to actually be queer to be subjected to homophobic or transphobic discrimination or violence, just fail to conform to gender norms, which we we beginning to see as constructed in part by reference to animals. So, this initial line of thought was already relevant to the LGBTQ struggle.
Then we were featured on a segment of the PBS series In the Life, and we found ourselves struggling to clearly articulate the linkages between queer and animal subordination and liberation. So, we commenced a series of lectures and workshops at which we invited participants to help us identify and analyze the relevant intersections. That process of collective cognition led to numerous insights, such as the centrality of control of reproduction to both forms of oppression.
On your “Queering Animal Liberation” page you make the point that there is a growing academic interest in connecting other movements to animal rights politics. I’ve seen this with new Animal Studies programs and the field of Critical Animal Studies. With the sanctuary you both seek to make sure that activism moves beyond academia and truly educate the public. Why are you are so passionate about this in particular?
We saw Queer Theory, which arose in academia as a result of radical street activism in the context of the AIDS crisis, morph into an inaccessible discourse wherein elite academics talk to each other, never bothering to translate their ideas into terms that less-educated people could understand or use in their activism. The rightward shift (marriage and military) in the LGBTQ rights movement might not have happened if some of the more progressive ideas current in academia had been made accessible to grassroots activists. We’ve also seen Queer Theorists claim credit for ideas that in fact arose first on the street.
We’d not like to see the same thing happen in Animal Studies. Animal Studies needs to be both critical and practical. In other words, Animal Studies programs ought to be explicitly anti-speciesist in the same way that Women’s/Gender Studies programs are explicitly anti-sexist and Cultural Studies programs are explicitly anti-racist. Potentially useful ideas arising out of Animal Studies programs ought to be translated into terms that activists can understand. Finally, just as a matter of courtesy, Animal Studies scholars who publish ideas arising from the grassroots ought to give credit to the process of collective cognition rather than making individual names for themselves.
Why do you think sanctuary work is so important for animal rights also addressing racism, sexism and homophobia?
Sanctuary work grounds animal liberation activism in the real-world concerns of actual animals rather than in the rarified air of abstract philosophy. In the real world, actual animals live, suffer, and die in material circumstances shaped by human activities. Those human activities are themselves entangled in social, economic, and ideological systems that are themselves patterned by factors such as racism and sexism.
Our sanctuary began as a chicken sanctuary in a part of the country dominated by the poultry industry and now offers refuge to cows in a rural region in which dairy is dominant. In both places, we have seen first-hand how the exploitation of animals is patterned and maintained by social and economic forces that are structured in part by factors such as gender, class, and race.
So, we know that getting people to “go vegan” itself requires some attention to factors like gender, race, and class and we also know that persuading individuals to “go vegan” is only one aspect of the work to be done. Ending even one form of animal exploitation, such as “poultry” or “dairy” production, will require fundamental restructuring of local economies and global food systems. Truly liberating animals, not only from hands-on human ownership but also from human encroachment on their habitats, will require even more substantial structural changes to human social, economic, legal, and political systems.
How can the fairly small animal liberation movement hope to effect such thoroughgoing worldwide change? Only by making common cause with movements such as the emerging environmental justice movement, which is surging and will grow stronger as climate change proceeds. We must help activists in those movements to see that speciesism is foundational to the oppressions they already oppose. But we cannot hope to do that unless animal rights activists are willing to be sincere allies in struggles against social and environmental injustice.
There has been some criticism of ecofeminist politics as being transphobic. There are some claims ecofeminism embraces a woman-born-woman politics that is exclusionary to trans* women. What would you say to those criticism and how do the two of you work to address trans* inclusion in the movement?
There are five of us here, all queer. One of us is trans (FTM) and another is so non-gender-normative as to be frequently subjected to transphobic hostility but chooses not to identify as trans. Two of us are happily in a same-sex marriage while another of us has written extensively against marriage. One of us finds that none of the alphabet soup of LGBTQ identities quite describes her sexuality and tends to chafe at identity politics altogether.
In our diversity of identities and opinions, we at VINE reflect some of the diversity of the worldwide population of people who might be called LGBTQ but might or might not be well-served by that designation or by the aims of currently dominant elements of U.S.-based LGBTQ rights movements. It’s easy to miss that diversity, to presume that whatever the loudest voices are shouting right now is the most progressive or even only legitimate stance.
Rather than joining the chorus shouting for trans inclusion, we think we can make a more substantial contribution by continuing to talk about the biodiversity of sexuality and gender expression among human and nonhuman animals, thereby unsettling the gender binary that European colonialism carried (along with capitalism and cockfighting) around the world. Of course we support—and embody!—trans inclusion. We just want to use our standpoint to say things we think will be even more disruptive to the binary logic of domination that oppresses both nonhuman animals and LGBTQ people.
As for ecofeminism, the charge of transphobia comes from the common, but false, charge of essentialism. Back in the day, some prominent feminists who really didn’t want to think about the environment or animals pushed back against ecofeminism by claiming that ecofeminists were saying that women were inherently closer to nature. It wasn’t true! Ecofeminists were saying that the dominant culture saw women as closer to nature, and that this falsehood was part of the logic of domination that we needed to challenge. But the charge kept being repeated—so often that it came to seem true. This is not to say that no ecofeminist has ever said anything problematically essentialist. But it’s important to understand that essentialism is exactly the opposite of what most ecofeminists believe.
That being said, most ecofeminists do subscribe to the important feminist distinction between biological sex and socially constructed gender, and this is sometimes understood by some trans activists to be transphobic. Ecofeminists, like other feminists, contest the dominant culture’s attribution of some personality characteristics (rationality, assertiveness, etc.) to males and other personality characteristics (emotionality, docility, etc.) to females.
Ecofeminists believe that the dominant culture is lying when it tells children that boys and girls have distinct and opposite characteristics. It is simply not true that all boys and only boys like trucks and sports while all girls and only girls like tea parties and fashion. But children are inundated with verbal and nonverbal messages telling them just that. Children think concretely, so much so that a young girl may fear that she will become a boy if she wears a blue rather than pink bike helmet. If a girl likes trucks and hates tea parties, she might feel that there is something very wrong with her—perhaps even that she was born into the wrong body—but feminism says there is nothing wrong with her. She is just one of the many ways girls can be. The problem is with a culture that tells her otherwise.
So, feminism (including ecofeminism) locates the problem not in the body of the non-gender-normative person but rather in the socially constructed gender system of the dominant culture. Rather than prescribing hormones and surgeries for individuals, feminism prescribes cultural change. With a more accurate understanding of the many different ways that boys and girls and intersexed children can be, the theory goes, nobody will have to wrestle with the wrenching sensation of being in the wrong body. This stance springs from empathy rather than hostility to gender non-normativity but feels insulting to some people who do experience themselves as being the other sex.
This is a terribly painful situation for all involved. Some transfolk experience a radical lack of solidarity from the very feminists to whom they look up in other respects. Some feminists feel themselves to be in an impossible bind—charged with transphobia for refusing to go along with ideas that they believe to be at the heart of gender bias.
Ecofeminism would prescribe dialogue rooted in an ethos of care aimed at getting past either/or thinking. Can’t we both work for the rights of people who choose hormones, surgeries, or other ways of identifying as the other sex and critique the notion that a boy who prefers flower gardening to hunting isn’t “a real boy”? Can we figure out how to do that in a way that meets everybody’s needs well enough to allow us to work together against speciesism? That ought to be possible, but it will be necessary to extend trust and set aside self-righteousness.
Productive discussion will be more likely if everybody is in possession of the facts about the natural history of gender expression among human animals, which has been much more diverse than most feminist or trans activists realize—and that’s where we come in. We understand that the currently dominant gender system—which both feminist and trans activists critique, albeit in different ways—is a product of the same European mania for pseudoscientific categorization that brought us the conceptions of race and species that are central to racism and speciesism. We know that taking that diversity into account can lead to new ways of thinking about both gender and sexuality. We’re going to keep talking about that as part of our intersectional approach to animal liberation, and it may be that, along the way, we help to decompress what have been harrowing conflicts around trans issues within the feminist and LGBTQ movements.
As for the woman-born-woman question, we are not aware of any ecofeminist writing on that topic, but we are all-too aware of the unproductive and dogmatic manner of debate that has characterized discussions of anguishing questions such as whether and when biological males should be welcomed into spaces created specifically for the purpose of providing female survivors of male violence a fear-free sanctuary in which to heal. Here, we can only argue against one-size-fits-all directives and urge all sides to bring both empathy and creativity to the task of finding a solution in which everybody’s needs are met.
Tell us the story of the queer ducks!
Ducks are among the hundreds of species of birds who regularly engage in some form of same-sex affection, courtship, pair bonding, parenting, and sex. Almost all drakes of many species are functionally bisexual, and lifelong male-male pair bonds are not uncommon. Jean-Paul and Jean-Claude were two survivors of a foie gras factory. At first we mistook their mating for fighting and tried to separate them. They went to great lengths to reunite until we realized they were boyfriends. After that, they were a lifelong bonded pair. They were not monogamous, sometimes engaging in raucous group sex in the pond, but they were always in each other’s company and slept cuddled up together each night. Then, after seven years of devoted companionship, Jean-Claude succumbed to liver disease. Even though Jean-Paul had been healthy, he died within the week. We loved them both very much and always remember our initial befuddlement whenever we are tempted to forget that there are still so many things we do not know.