This is the second of three excerpts from Dr. Lisa Kemmerer’s upcoming book on sexism and male privilege in the anymal1 activist community. This essay is from the fourth chapter, which focuses on testimonials on harassment and discrimination from CANHAD.org.
In the summer of 2017, a website, Collective against Nonprofit Harassment and Discrimination: For Social Justice Advocates, was posted anonymously. This website, designed for activists from social justice causes who have experienced (or are experiencing) harassment and/or discrimination of any kind, for any reason, steers victims/survivors toward legal counsel, and invites anonymous testimonials. Those who created the site write:
Perpetrators persist when protected by silence. Sharing your experience may:
• Stop or prevent harassment.
• Show others they’re not alone.
• Help others to recognize harassment.
• Prompt perpetrators to change their behavior.
• Empower others to seek legal advice and recourse.
• Offer support to the community of victims/survivors.
• Raise awareness about harassment and discrimination in nonprofits.2
CANHAD is the first international, anonymous site for testimonials about harassment and discrimination advertised inside the AA community. The site has collected twenty-eight narratives, most of which provide examples of sexism and male privilege inside the AA movement. Each of these testimonials was submitted between July of 2017 and February of 2018, with almost half (#16-#28) streaming in during the #MeToo controversies exploding at Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States in early 2018.
A Compassionate Movement?
I worked for a large, prominent animal welfare organization. I did not experience direct sexual harassment, but I did experience several years of systematic silencing, marginalization and humiliation due to my size. I am fat. I always have been, and likely always will be. I have accepted it. I have also spent my career working to help animals. I’m committed to it, and I care deeply about it.
During my time at this nonprofit, I was repeatedly shamed for my size. One notable incident involved an employee randomly accosting me in the break room while getting coffee insisting that I attend a “lunch and learn” with the authors of “No Meat Athlete.” I replied that I had no interest in attending, as I was already on board with a plant-based diet and not an athlete. The employee openly doubted that I was eating a plant-based diet, and insisted I come “for my health.” I politely declined, again, and walked out of the room. Multiple people had similar conversations with me over the years, openly doubting my diet because of my size.
I was also “talked to” by Human Resources about my appearance. For the record, I maintained a business professional wardrobe; I wore slacks and sweaters and dress shoes every day, except for Fridays, when we were allowed to wear jeans. This was a representative of HR who had the conversation with me—I was told, “Big girls have to work harder to look professional.” I asked her, specifically, what she was suggesting I change. She did not have an answer. I asked my friends and family and a few trusted coworkers if my appearance was sloppy or unprofessional, and they told me it was not. Many of my thinner colleagues repeatedly ignored the dress code and wore leggings to work, some even walked around the office barefoot after their heels started to hurt their feet, and yet they never had to sit in a meeting with HR telling them that their appearance was unprofessional. We had a blackboard outside of our breakroom where employees could write “suggestions” for improving the workplace. One person wrote: “Place a scale in the bathroom to encourage healthy habits!”
I was repeatedly passed over to represent the organization at events. One conference I actually helped plan — I had spent months working on planning the conference with other people on my team. It was my first year in this position, and in previous years, the person in my position had ALWAYS gone to the conference. I was looking forward to it, and had been led to believe that I would be going along with all of my coworkers. Instead I was told shortly before the conference that I wasn’t allowed to go. I asked why, and they told me that I was non-essential staff, and was needed to stay in the office. A younger, thinner, more conventionally attractive employee in a lower position with no role in the conference in my department was chosen to go instead. I was the only person from my department left behind. I am certain this is because of my size, because the nonprofit wanted someone thinner to represent them at the booths I had helped plan. (“Testimonials” #19, Jan. 26, 2018)
“Protest is pre-eminently about moral vision” — “participants make claims about how the world should be, but is not.”3 Social justice movements each have of their own particular “collective character,” usually rooted in a particular moral vision, and this moral vision is part of their core identity, part of what fosters a sense of unity across the movement.4 Social justice organizations and the campaigns they lead are usually about the “excruciating contrast between the way things are now and the way things might be” and it is the vision of how things ought to be that motivates activists.5 The AA movement, in particular, is one that demands “attention to moral motivations,” a movement where compassion toward the most vulnerable individuals holds “fundamental importance.”6
And yet CANHAD testimonials expose a fundamental lack of compassion among empowered and problematic men in the AA movement. for example, testimonial #19 (above) describes ongoing harassment based on body size discrimination. For activists to present to the public as moral authorities on kindness and compassion, while humiliating, bullying, and shunning an employee due to physical appearance, is startling. Such behavior exemplifies cruelty. Again and again CANHAD testimonials expose cruelty inside the AA movement. The author of testimonial #28 describes leadership that spread falsehoods about her to the activist community, how she was “browbeaten” and experienced gaslighting, and how she watched “men abuse or severely hurt” other women. Empowered AA leaders fired employees who did not wish to be in relationships (#25), badmouthed, ridiculed, belittled, ignored, and marginalized activists (#22), and portrayed activists as “crazy” after purposefully causing them to question their own sanity (#21). This behavior is dysfunctional and juvenile—the methods of high school bullies — in addition to being inhumane.
Testimonial #23 describes a much-discussed problem in the AA movement — the exploitation of the feminine body for advocacy:
I worked at an animal rights organization where I was routinely asked to participate in naked, or nearly naked, sexually-charged protests. Not only did it make me feel extremely uncomfortable (especially when male campaigners were the ones to ask), as if the only way I could REALLY help animals was through my body, I was also was made to feel like I hurt animals as a result of saying no.
Those who were not deemed conventionally attractive were never asked to participate in these demonstrations, which also created an uncomfortable environment. I remember chatting with one colleague who told me how they never asked her because she was “fat and ugly,” which was so very heartbreaking. This was within an organization led primarily by women.
It took me years to understand how messed up this stuff was. Looking back, I’m so happy I said “no,” and had a kick-ass woman supervisor who gave me the courage to do so. (“Testimonials” #23, Feb. 1, 2018, n.p.).
Recruiting methods for naked marches left the author of testimonial #23 feeling like her body—rather than her minds and hands — were her strongest tool for helping anymals, while leaving otheractivists feeling “fat and ugly” — unworthy of helping anymals because they were not assessed as conventionally beautiful.
Exemplifying the sensitivity that ought to prevail in the AA movement, the author of testimonial #23 comments on the “heartbreaking” cruelty of this group’s behaviors.
For at least a decade, complaints of sexism have been leveled against Ingrid Newkirk and her organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for developing and using naked marches as a form of activism against fur. Newkirk chooses methods that she believe will be successful even though they cater to sexism in the larger culture. What I find interesting is that other well-known AA organizations — Humane Society of the United States most obviously — have been embroiled in sexual scandals for decades, and yet it is PETA’s naked marches that receive wide publicity and ongoing complaints for sexism, while I have never heard or read of any accusations of sexual harassment or assault from PETA’s leadership. Why is there so much more interest in criticizing and challenging sexism in the form of a naked march than sexism in the form of sexual assault?
Testimonial #17 reports a less overt form of harassment, which could be featured under earlier topics, including “Empowered Problematic Men” or “Inside-Facing Loyalty and Need for Community.” Testimonial #17 provides a stark example of a man in the movement who appears to fundamentally lack compassion. . . even for anymals:
I ran into a big name vegan activist at a party. He wasn’t friendly at all. I felt violated, but at the time I didn’t know how to articulate why. He didn’t touch me, he clearly wasn’t flirting with me, but he behaved in a manipulative way that sent shivers down my spine.
It wasn’t just weird, it was abusive in a sense. Instead of asking my age, he tried to infer it with a series of invasive questions. Even though I was clearly uncomfortable, but being polite, he continued his interrogation. It was difficult to explain to my friends because there are no words for what he did. In a 4-minute exchange, I felt emotionally battered. I confided in a male friend who had heard the perpetrator speak at a symposium, and my friend said he had witnessed that same manipulation first hand. I was relieved.
Later I found out that two women and an adolescent child had accused this man of rape, and one of those women also reported him for animal abuse. He later sued his rape victim.
This man has written books on hearts, has a peace degree, and yet his actions, even the few seconds I spent with him, say the opposite. I’m truly scared of him. I still have stomach knots thinking about the seconds I had contact with him and have since dreaded running into him.
I realize the majority of people reading this would dismiss my testimony as frivolous, but no one could understand the emotional battering and fear I felt. It’s one of many reasons why I left vegan advocacy. (“Testimonials” #17, Jan. 25, 2018, n.p.)
Whatever this man said or did, neither his words nor his demeanor can possibly be described as compassionate. This testimony seems to indicate that the author of testimony #17 was a subject-of-interest to an empowered man already accused of rapes and anymal abuse. Nonetheless, he is apparently still welcome at AA social events, where he continues to seek victims.
Ironically, the supposed core ethic of the AA movement — compassion — currently protects perpetrators inside the movement. The movement’s “serial sexual exploiters benefit from the lowered defenses” of women in the movement, who believe that male AA activists are humane.7 Who would believe that a compassionate “bunny hugger” objectifies and exploits his comrades? Who would believe that a man who donates thousands to the cause is a serial rapist? When “heroic” men in the movement repeatedly speak of compassion for the vulnerable and exploited, who will readily believe that they exploit the vulnerable for sexual gratification? And who will believe victims/survivors when so many women are caught up in inside-facing loyalty that leads them to automatically defend the accused? Disguised as compassionate, moral, caring individuals, men in the AA movement hide under “sheep’s clothing,” and are able to grow into “the worst offender[s] of them all”8
In the words of the author of testimonial #15: “I never believed I would meet a monster within the animal rights community” — but she did.
Banner Image: Rochelle Brown, Unsplash
- ”Anymal” is a contraction of “any” and “animal,” pronounced as “any” and “mal.” “Anymal indicates all individuals who are of a species other than that of the speaker/author. In other words, if a human being uses this term, all species except Homo sapiens are indicated, but if a chimpanzee signs “anymal,” they reference all species (including human beings) except chimpanzees. Using the term “anymal” avoids the use of: “animal” as if human beings were not animals; dualistic and alienating references such as “non” and “other”; and cumbersome terms such as “nonhuman animals” and “other-than-human animals”.
- (CANHAD.org website, “Speak Out”)
- Jasper, James, The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements, Chicago: U of Chicago, 1999. p. 135.
- Benford, Robert D. “Controlling Narratives and Narratives as Control within Social Movements.” Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements. Ed. Joseph E. Davis. Albany: State U. of N.Y., 2002. p. 71.
- Jasper, James. “Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 37 (2011): 291.
- Jasper, James. “Cultural Approaches in the Sociology of Social Movements.” Handbook for Social Movements Across Disciplines, 2nd ed. Ed. Bert Klandermans and Conny Roggeband. NY: Springer, 2010. 59-109. 84, 86, 87.
- Adams, Carol. The Carol J. Adams Reader: Writings and Conversations 1995-2015. NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. p. 325.
- Tzintzun, Cristina. “Colonize This!”, Colonize This: Young Women Today on Today’s Feminism, Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman (eds), p 19.