When I was laid up last month with a stress fracture, I watched an embarrassing amount of television. Included in the binge was one stunningly moving episode of Queer Eye. A white man in the very small town of Gay, Georgia, had nominated his African-American neighbor not for a typical reality-TV makeover, but for the completion of the church community center this woman’s late mother and grandmother had envisioned for the past half-century.
Thickening the plot, we learn that at least two the Fab 5 (those are the makeover guys if pop culture is not your thing) had experienced a lot of hurt and resentment over being rejected by the churches in which they’d grown up. And the makeover-ee, whose life revolves around her church, has a gay son who experienced that same hurt and rejection.
In the end – even before the end – the community center was realized and there was a perfect snapshot of radical acceptance: white and black, gay and straight, Christians and those no longer wishing to carry that nomenclature. I can’t say that it will last forever – some moments, like some movies, are “made for TV” – but it touched my heart just the same.
And it got me thinking. These people shed generations of prejudice, a lifetime of indoctrination, the pain of abuse and abandonment; and they were able to embrace others. Why, I wondered, is it so hard to break down these barriers when a vegan is involved? I think it is because we vegans expect people to change, and they expect us to expect them to change. In this Queer Eye show, nobody was being told to change anything. They could come to respect one another on an “I’ll do me, and you do you” basis. But throw in a vegan, and it gets tougher.
For starters, we can’t eat together. Well, we can, but we (the vegans) are always asking, “What’s in this?” “Do these muffins have egg?” “Do you have any almond milk?” We need this information and yet our presence, our need for “special” milk, inadvertently shames those who don’t see what we see. In the show, the woman from Gay said at one point, “You’re not evangelizing when you’re criticizing.” I thought about that in my vegan outreach. I feign understanding, but underneath I’m still sometimes thinking, “It’s dead flesh and cow lactation. How hard can this be?”
And yet in my experience, taking it easy has always been the way to the win. I get emails every so often in which someone tells me they’re vegan and thanks me for “not being pushy” about it way back when. And yet I want to be pushy. Animals are suffering unimaginable pain and terror for what – bacon? meringue? It’s absurd. If pushy worked, I’d push like crazy. I just don’t think it does.
My husband, William, is a case in point. He was the first non-vegetarian I’d dated since having been widowed nine years earlier. I figured, “It’s not like he’s going to marry me. What can it hurt?” Well, he married me, and months before that he’d stopped eating meat. The other aspects of veganism were of no interest to him so I stayed vegan, my daughter too, and we let him live his life. (This was over twenty years ago, when managing to find — or convert — a vegetarian mate was like winning the lottery.)
About 4 years later, at a Farm Sanctuary gala, they showed a short video about a dairy cow and her calf being separated. William leaned over and asked, “Can we start getting more of that milk like you drink?” I said, “Sure,” as if he’d asked me to pass the rolls. Inside, I was jumping up and down with excitement.
He didn’t commit to chapter-and-verse veganism, and when I was out of town, he’d usually order a cheese-and-tomato pizza one or two nights. That went on for nearly a decade. Then I picked up a phone call from William – he was on a train somewhere in the Midwest, coming home from a visit with his mother. “I’ve read your manuscript,” he said. “Now I get it. I’m vegan.” I’d loaned him a galley of Main Street Vegan. The book wasn’t published yet, but it made its first convert.
These days, he is a card-carrying ethical vegan and animal rights proponent. And yet with his children, still omnivores, he doesn’t push. He models. They know what he does and why. If they want more information, they know where to come for it.
I wish the process were quicker. And simpler. But this kind of transition is seldom quick and probably never simple. We talk about changing hearts and minds, but that isn’t the half of it. A change of heart and mind only begins the process. Then we get to changing pantry contents and shopping carts and family menus. We want people to change their palate preferences, their nutritional belief systems, even the content of their gut flora. It’s a huge ask, and I think we do it most effectively by:
Feeding people obscenely glorious food. Don’t go overboard about its being vegan. You made it. They know it’s vegan. If one person misses that, no harm done.
Living an aspirational life. Be somebody that people admire. If you’re helping people and being a force for good that they can recognize, they either won’t care what you eat or they’ll want to know if there’s something in it responsible for your kindness.
Trusting each person to find their way. This is hardest for me. It feels like my responsibility to veganify every person who crosses my path. And yet the truth is, some will never change, and some will change later. All I can be is a willing source of information and support.
We vegans can be hard for other people to take. We don’t want them to merely read a pamphlet and change their position, or sign a petition and support an issue. We’re asking them to change their very physical being. We want them to build the bodies they’ll live in a year from now and five years from now of entirely different material than has composed their physical being since conception. Even beyond that, our existence in the world says to them: “You support cruelty – and, by the way, your mother fed you wrong.” Most people would rather have a legion of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door than sit next to a vegan at a dinner party. This is why surveys rank “vegan leather” as through-the-roof positive, but “vegan relatives” fall on the negative side.
Yes, we’re right. And that doesn’t matter much if we’re not effective. We are effective when our lives, our love, and our service cause others to see more deeply into themselves. When the woman on the TV show spoke for her church about how she learned to accept people, including her son, whose sexual orientation is different from her own, she said, “I would be a hypocrite to say that I love the Lord if I don’t love this one standing right next to me.” I turned off the television feeling vastly more love for everybody: animals, human animals, telemarketers, even those people who gush, “I never really felt good until I was keto.” This much I’m sure of: nobody ever opted out of veganism because of being all loved up, just for being them.
Victoria Moran is the author of 13 books, the director of Main Street Vegan Academy, producer of the new film, A Prayer for Compassion, and host of the Main Street Vegan podcast. And she thinks that having a life makeover by 5 talented gay men really would be better than winning the lottery. (The Fab 5 recently did a makeover for a shelter dog. Watch here.)