With the somewhat extraordinary success of the #TimesUpAR revelations in the US early this year, which unseated several high profile animal welfare executives, questions have been raised as to what can be further expected of this momentum. In particular, questions as to whether such momentum will remain confined to the animal welfare establishment or impact the animal liberation movement directly are unclear – as is whether it will remain a primarily a US phenomenon. Editor Michael John Addario discussed some of these issues recently with Dr. Agnes Trzak.
Can you tell me about the environment for women in the animal rights movement in the UK?
I am based in western Europe and am most active within the UK animal activist scene, as well as the queer-feminist community – which is also my academic background. Coming to animal rights was very much a feminist decision for me and I was genuinely shocked at the misogyny (as well as ableism, racism and classism) amongst animal activists. All meetings, protests and actions I attended included only a minority of men, however they were dominated by them. Understanding that for me animal liberation was a logical extension of my anti-oppressive ideology, I naively expected everyone else to have come to animal activism over the same path. I soon came to the realization: ‘Why should it be different here, if this misogyny is what society has taught us?’
Like in all other walks of life, the aggression towards and exclusion of women, trans people and gender non-conforming folk begins with communication and power and ends with physical violence: Men speak and act much more, are much less considered, much more absolute and literally much louder than others. There might be only two guys in a meeting or at a protest, but they will take up the most space with their bodies (spreading their legs and arms over the couch in the meeting or taking up double the radius they need to stand on the pavement in front of the lobster restaurant). The language they use is oftentimes soaked with misogyny and violence towards women, beginning with passing remarks about some bitch or cunt and ending with the active sexualization or body shaming of people inside and outside the movement. Men feign solidarity and unity with us within the movement but through this behaviour actively perpetuate the same hierarchies they learned outside of it.
It takes an unbelievable amount of analysis to even spot this misogyny, and before I was able to articulate the injustice for myself, much frustration and anger had already built up. There is not even a platform for people suffering from sexism and misogyny in the animal rights movement to address the issue, because after all, “we are here to help the animals and we shouldn’t delay the urgent cause we are here to fight for”. But what men need to understand: we do need to address our human issues to be able to actually help the animals. If the men in our own groups destroy us, they won’t be able to help the animals either.
What is your sense of how the #MeToo or #TimesUpAR momentum is working through the animal rights movement in the UK?
Since 2012 I have personally come across three cases of sexual violence from within my extended activist circle. That is simply terrifying. And a piece of the trauma experienced by survivors is felt by other women and trans folk. Just like outside the movement, there is not much conversation happening around the causes and consequences in our community. So not much has changed for us in the six years since I started being active for animal liberation. But I was lucky enough to meet wonderful queer-feminist animal activists who seemed to be ahead of me in confronting masculinist aggression within the animal rights movement.
In time, I have taken matters into my own hands and decided to remove myself from the misogynist circles I was part of and I opened a group for women and non-binary people (The Antispeciesist Collective). The demand for this was astounding and so was the hate and ridicule we faced. Gaining legitimacy with a group that does not allow men to participate in a society where we are all expected to strive for masculinism, is a hard task. I wasn’t interested in that task though. Instead I focused on creating solidarity between ourselves and a platform through which we can notice one another, where we can organize for animals but also for ourselves. Seeing increasingly more conversations like this take place allows other activists who suffer from misogyny and sexual violence to realise that and come forward to tell their stories.
This is a beautiful thing that I was able to witness before #MeToo or #TimesUpAR.
What these hashtags are doing is making these conversations bigger and brighter, more public and harder to ignore, which is so urgent. With feminist organizations within animal rights activist spaces it is very easy for the men to discount and ignore what we are doing for ourselves. What #TimesUpAR is doing, is to confront the men directly. After all it is them who need to change things. Men must start having feminist conversations, where they hold each other accountable, teach each other and especially learn from us that the consequences of misogyny and sexual violence are far greater than losing your position, be it social or professional. The consequences include the pain, suffering and trauma men cause us, and the division and inefficiency of the movement that so often becomes the topic of conversation when anything other than strategy is brought up. White men need to realize that it is actually them who are to blame for this division.
Has the conversation so far been more sophisticated? I mean in terms of actually facilitating a meaningful intervention for women in the animal rights movement?
A sophisticated, considered and urgent conversation about/for/by people of marginalized gender identities has been taking place since the dawn of animal rights. The problem is that most men chose not to be part of that conversation: they don’t talk amongst themselves about these issues, they don’t hold each other accountable and they don’t organize themselves in a way that would make space for people of other genders to join the action. Because that would mean taking up less space, being less heroic, being quieter, smaller and – especially – actively listening to what is being said to them.
But are there wider conversations about the structure or strategic orientation of the animal rights movement as a result of this momentum?
To be honest, I have not noticed any large-scale improvement on that front. Many organizations are run by men and even if not, they still reproduce misogyny, if it is through the sexualization of women’s bodies in their campaigning tactics or if it is through what goes on behind closed doors between individuals. What we are saying right now under #TimesUpAR is nothing new. Yes, the hashtag gives us momentum and it finally makes us feel less alone in our fight against patriarchy within the animal rights movement, but nothing will change if men don’t start taking on board what we are saying. The first thing that men need to do is listen to us – not interrupt us – and most importantly not question or doubt our statements. Then, the second step for men to take is to spread our message to other men. This includes actions on a very personal level: amongst two buddies in the local animal rights group as well as big shot career-animal-advocates. Men must adopt and live a zero-tolerance policy towards aggression and violence towards other genders, and they must invest the time and energy (that we are losing on a daily basis) to enforce an anti-sexist belief, by interrupting, disrupting and excluding other men who make use of sexism and misogyny.
Do you know of any other women in the UK who are organizing around feminist issues in animal liberation?
I don’t know of any specific groups or organizations that are explicitly dedicated to feminism and animal liberation. That said, there are groups where women and trans folk are at the front lines of organizing. They might not run under an explicitly feminist agenda but do implement many measures that create space for us. Through the Antispeciesist Collective I met some people who identify as feminist animal activists though. Actually, most of the women and queer people I know who are active for animals are also outspoken feminists and also actively work against racism and ableism in their everyday lives.
What are some of these “measures” you’d like to see implemented on a wider scale in the movement? More directly, what would you say to men in the movement and how do you think men should be organizing to make the animal rights movement a struggle that is consistent with women’s liberation?
Men need to start making both structural and real-life changes not just inside the movement. To begin with, you guys need to understand that we must take care of one another before we can take care of the animals. We are social beings who are codependent on one another. I am not saying we all have to love each other, but feeling acknowledged and safe should be the very basis of any interaction we are part of. If this is not granted, we won’t be able to dedicate time and energy to the animals. Because white cis men enter any interaction with much more social capital than the rest of us, it is up to you to level the playing field. Take up less space (figuratively and physically), don’t make use of the benefits that you are automatically given in society just because you are a white man. You might have heard a lot about power and privilege, but to truly understand how privilege operates without you even noticing, I recommend reading “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B Dubois as well as “White Privilege and Male Privilege” by Peggy McIntosh.
Pay attention to your language (verbal and body): Be less commanding, demanding and absolute. Be more inviting. Ask more questions, consider other opinions and invite dialogue. When on a panel, in a new group or any other situation that warrants introductions, provide the group with your name and pronouns. This might be weird at first but queer-feminist people might see they have an ally in you. When organizing events for groups, provide accessible, gender neutral toilets. Further, in the spirit of being more inviting, pay attention to the way you physically navigate a space. As a general guideline: I know this sounds funny, but don’t unnecessarily spread your legs when sitting down, take smaller steps and remain in the background whenever possible. This might seem trivial, but it is one way of showing that you don’t want to dominate the conversation and are interested in what others have to contribute.
Value any and all contributions with eye contact and a friendly nod and smile. Allow space for emotions, too. Sometimes no amount of reason and debate can express anger, frustration, shock or sadness as well as a bodily reaction that goes beyond words. Honour such reactions, but don’t make a big deal, offer a tissue, a hug or just some reassuring eye contact. Also, acknowledge the importance of contributions that don’t necessarily add to the content at hand, such as someone volunteering to provide food or music, – you might think this isn’t helping the animals, but it is indeed keeping our spirits high, which is so urgent especially in a movement with such bleak perspectives as ours.
Always ask for permission before physical contact.
When engaging in banter, pay attention not to bond over ridiculing others (inside or outside your social circle). Participating in this behaviour will have two consequences: Other men might feel confirmed in their comments and will continue to derogate others, whilst some people will trust you less, knowing that you gossip, make fun of or bully someone.
Especially when relating to other men, acknowledge your mistakes (no matter what kind of mistake this is). They need to experience that it is ok to be flawed, and that it is necessary to hold yourself accountable. If possible, let them know what you learned from your mistakes, too. When you witness or become part of a conversation that is based on sexism, racism, ableism etc. it is your responsibility to voice your unhappiness about it. Women often get socially and economically penalized for drawing a man’s attention to the fact that a conversation or behaviour is in bad taste or even violent, whereas men unfortunately often trust and respect the opinions of other men more.
As abstract as these suggestions might seem out of context, once you become sensitive to them, they will actually become applicable in any social situation, because we communicate at all times. Even when we say nothing, power is at play. It is your responsibility to diminish the power you inevitably carry with you.
Lastly, actively expose yourself to the knowledge produced by marginalized people. Read literature, watch videos and listen to podcasts by vegans of colour, disabled vegans, women and queer people in the animal liberation movement.
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