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Labels Schmabels. Just Change the World!

By Jasmin Singer — November 25, 2011

There is this activist – excuse me, person – I know who resides in Montana and spends her time doing vegan feed-ins for people who work at spay and neuter clinics, or organizing community-wide vegan spaghetti nights to raise awareness for spaying and neutering (get this – she calls the parties “Spay-Ghetti and No-Balls”), or hosting environmental fairs that focus on the planetary destruction inherent in animal agriculture. I know her because she supports Our Hen House in the unique, creative, and useful way of making handmade hen-themed jewelry that we sell on our Etsy page. Said-person has a name; it’s Bonnie Goodman, and getting to know her by way of the magical Internet has been one of the true joys of running Our Hen House.

Knowing that Bonnie had her hands in many baskets – baskets that I’m sure she wove herself – I recently asked her to tell me about her activism, because I only had a vague idea of all she was doing for animals. She replied and told me that she doesn’t think of herself as an “activist” – haha, funny that I would call her that – but here are the twelve projects she is currently working on…

Uh, okay, you’re not an activist.

Now, I’m not in the business of putting labels on people that they haven’t chosen for themselves. As long as you are using your power to change the world for animals, call yourself whatever you want. Or call yourself a cab, because there’s a demo, or a fundraiser, or a rescue, to get to.

I know that the topic of labels, particularly as it applies to activists, is hotly contested. It is my intention here to provoke thought and possibly conversation – as long as that thought and conversation does not keep any of us from going out there and changing the world for animals. It is neither my intention nor desire to alienate anyone. For newer activists, changemakers, advocates, peoplewhocareaboutanimals, thinking about how you identify might help you to find your groove that feels authentic and useful – thus making you more effective.

I’m coming to realize that some of us use the word “activist” when some others of us wouldn’t. Much like many people’s initial hesitance to try the word “vegan” on for size because WHAT WOULD THAT MEAN ABOUT MY LIFE AND MY IDENTITY?!?!, “activist” carries meanings beyond those encompassed in the word itself. If you’re someone who is uncomfortable applying that word to your own efforts, maybe it’s time to rethink. Embracing and owning “activist,” and following through by speaking up and out for animals in a way that makes sense for you in your life, might be just the attitude adjustment you need to work toward a more just, compassionate world.

Or maybe not. Don’t worry, I get it. Labels can be heavy to carry around, especially when society places too much meaning on them and attaches unwarranted associations to them. I sometimes giggle a little (to myself only) when people call me a lesbian, even though I’m in a long-term relationship with a woman and I have no desire to ever be with a man again (no offense meant, boys). It’s not that I don’t identify with being a lesbian – I do! But it just seems so… defined. So, in a box. That’s Jasmin. She’s a lesbian. That word, in and of itself, doesn’t define me. I am, indeed, a lesbian, but I’m a lot more than that too. (Like, I’m also a vegan and an activist, but I digress…)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m never ashamed of it (god no – it’s part of who and what I am and I love to sing it loud and proud). I also know that I am greatly privileged to even have the ability to talk about who I am. There are parts of the world – some of which are even in this country and even in the very city where I live – where singing your lesbianism for all to hear would get you beat up, or worse. (My privilege [it should be everyone’s right, not anyone’s privilege] to be able to be proud of who I am is something I spoke about in a recent article I wrote for The Scavenger.) So when I say that I find it funny to be called a lesbian, all I mean is that I’m not made up solely of my lesbian-ness. Or my vegan-ness. Or my activism-ness. Or my I-love-brussels-sprouts-ness. And I don’t necessarily have all of the characteristics that other people will put on me once I use those labels.

Truthfully, I see labels as something that can both help and hinder us. I think they can be over-thunk and can give us unnecessary fear or expectations. Just as there is nothing wrong with a 19-year-old girl having a fling, or a love affair, with another girl her age – and that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s gay (though maybe she is! In which case, welcome to the team!) – there is also nothing wrong with trying on labels, and the behaviors that go with them, for size and seeing how they fit. Maybe you’ll be uncomfortable with their gravity, or with the looks you get from your church group, or your fetish community – or maybe you’ll feel liberated and inspired and ready to embrace your newfound gayness, or activism, or veganism, or whatever.

A label might also change with time. As you evolve, it’s possible that so will your labels, and your outlook on them. A label is, after all, not that dissimilar from a kombucha culture (I’m vegan – I’m allowed to make kombucha metaphors). It needs to ferment a little before you can totally enjoy it, reap its health benefits, and get a little tiny bit drunk on it.

My point is: Be like Bonnie. If the labels help you and your work, take them on. If they don’t, leave ’em on the side of the road. Call yourself what you want, but don’t spend too much time thinking about it, because rather than getting overly caught up in discussions of whether or not you’re this or that, there are 286 chickens dying each second in the United States alone. And they need you on their side, pronto, no matter what you call yourself.






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(6) Readers Comments

  1. November 25, 2011 at 8:02 am

    I love this post! It puts into words exactly what I was feeling yesterday with my completely wonderful family. Everyone kept pointing out what my husband and I were eating at Thanksgiving dinner and saying, "They're vegans now. They can't eat this food." No major harm was meant of course, and I let it slide off my back, but their defining me like that made me feel really separate. I kept thinking to myself, "Why does that bother you? You ARE a vegan now." And I think it was this-- it made me feel separate, yes. But also, it made me out to be the oddball. When, in fact, I feel like I'm the thoughtful one who doesn't want to hurt anyone, and the non-vegans are the ones who need the labels -- the "I-don't-want-to-know-about-it"-ers or the animal-sacrificers. Not that I really want to call anybody anything -- I don't. But the idea that I now have a "weirdo-label" is ... weird. I'm not odd -- I'm nice and I'm me; just a me who opened her eyes up and looked at what she was afraid to look at for so many years. So I'm a way better version of myself. So thanks again for posting this. It helped me realize what was troubling me (if only slightly) yesterday. :) Keep up the great work!

  2. November 25, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Hi Katrina. Thank you so much for your incredibly wonderful comment, and I can totally relate. One thing that I find helpful when people say "Oh, you can't eat that..." is to respond gently with, "I CAN eat it, I CHOOSE not to..." Not sure if that helps your overall issue, but it might be a way to be less ODD, in the eyes of well-intentioned family and friends anyway. It also puts the responsibility on them, since it implies that they are choosing to eat the way they eat too. Anyway, yeah, I think you brought up some really great points that were well-articulated. Happy Holidays. :-)

  3. November 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I really love your kombucha metaphor (maybe because I really love kombucha?). When I first went vegan I was hesitant to call myself such. I would say things like "I don't eat animal products" but I realized that statement doesn't quite do the lifestyle justice. I also don't wear them, don't use products that contain them or test on animals, I feel strongly about why I don't eat animal products and I think the label now (that I know what I'm talking about) makes a great conversation starter to plant the animal rights seed in the heads of those who still haven't seen the light. Of course, it does also bring about that narrow-minded attitude, especially with people who have pre-conceived notions about how all vegans are supposed to act. I'm guessing the same is true for any label, but if I decided to ditch dudes and become a lesbian, I wouldn't want anyone to treat me like I wasn't still the same me I've always been. I think for most people, my family for instance, it just takes a little getting used to when it comes to the label and what it means before realizing I'm still the same old Kait, just with strengthened values.

  4. November 26, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Hi Jasmin -- Thanks for your ideas! You're absolutely right in your comments to say that "I choose not to..." instead of " can't." I'm kicking myself now because I even blogged about making such clarifications to people last month. I guess it's one thing to understand it and another to actually say those things when the situation arises. :) As a newbie vegan though, I'm working on becoming more kindly outspoken without turning everyone off. It's a really tricky balance, I'm finding, but one I'm gradually getting better at with more practice. (And as people get more used to me being vegan too, I suppose. I have to keep reminding myself that it's an adjustment for them too.) Anyhow, the learning curve is steep but one I'm happily trekking! :) Thanks to you and Mariann for being kind mentors to us newbies!

  5. November 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I give the same "can, but choose not to" response, or variations thereof, as Jasmin does. My perception: I think when non-vegans say that vegans "can't" eat certain foods, it's a subtle defense mechanism. It makes it seem more - at least sound more - like a dietary or religious food restriction, not a moral choice. The latter (reinforced when the vegan says "I can but choose not to") draws more attention to the non-vegans' (im)moral choices, and may be more guilt-inducing.



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