The case for animal rights as an intersectional issue

Lee Williscroft-Ferris proposes that intersectionality should extend to non-human species.


I’ve always been an animal lover. When asked which name I had chosen for my confirmation at the tender age of 11, I was a solitary Francis among a multitude of Josephs, Matthews and Johns. It was, I confidently informed my teacher, in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. I may have long since renounced Catholicism but my enthusiasm for other species remains. Having become vegetarian in 1990, I made the transition to veganism in January of this year and feel fantastic for it.

It’s always been a no-brainer to me that we humans have a responsibility to nurture all living beings and to cause as little harm to other sentient creatures as possible – you don’t, after all, need a prescribed religious code of morality to comprehend that.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Save Movement National Animal Rights March in London. 5000 animal rights activists gathered to call for an end to the oppression of animals, whatever form that may take. As we winded our way through the West End, several things struck me. First, this was a noticeably diverse gathering, with marchers of a range of ages and from a diverse set of backgrounds. Second, this ‘felt’ political. There was a raw passion palpable in the words spoken through the megaphones, a visceral desire to bring about change through collective endeavour – kind of how Pride used to feel before falling victim to the scourge of commercialisation and carefully stage-managed spectacle. Lastly, many of those present were carrying rainbow flags. This got me thinking: could animal liberation be the next battleground for LGBTQ+ activists? Is there any intersectional complementarity between the fight for queer equality and the burgeoning anti-speciesism movement?

6340864Speciesism is a term that denotes the hierarchy of worthiness applied by arrogant human beings to other species of animals. Depending on where you are in the world, this might mean that while you shower your pet dog with love and affection and rightly frown upon the abuse of certain species, you display no empathy towards the plight of others, instead considering them to be commodities to be traded, artificially inseminated, prematurely killed and served up for your dinner. It presupposes human superiority and, fascinatingly, reflects a religious thought-process that convinces adherents that they are ‘chosen and created’ by a deity and therefore the pre-eminent species with free rein over the millions of other species with which we share the planet. It favours egocentrism over ecocentrism and is destructive.

Groups of humans arbitrarily placing themselves at the apex of such hierarchies is, of course, not a new phenomenon – far from it. From the earliest times, humans have exploited others on the basis of a warped sense of supremacy. What’s more, such behaviour persists throughout the world, from India’s rigid caste system and extremist Islamic jihad with its associated dismissal of ‘kafir’ as unworthy of life to rampant sexism, queerphobia and racism across the globe. An ever-increasing number of people are beginning to realise that the right to exist unfettered by exploitation, torture and death should extend to our non-human fellow earthlings.

There are clear intersections for the queer community to consider. According to various sources, including the UN, animal agriculture is responsible for some of the worst environmental degradation. In poorer nations, local people starve while grain is sold to feed animals who are subsequently slaughtered to provide meat for wealthy customers in developed countries. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, impoverished black communities suffer the consequences of pig waste being pumped into local water sources by meat production companies with no moral compass and few qualms about slowly poisoning local residents. Other impacts of intensive farming, including desertification and Amazon destruction (91% of which is due to livestock farming) affect poor people of colour disproportionately, with population displacement in developing countries posing a very real threat to human stability. There are no winners here; people, animals and the planet all stand to lose.

Intersectionality is hard work. Forcing oneself to see past one’s own experiences, concerns and privilege can be exhausting. However, there is reward in devoting energy to adopting an intersectional view of the world; it enriches your outlook beyond measure. Why, then, should this not extend to other species? In acknowledging that human beings are inherently speciesist and seeking to oppose that, would we not, in fact, be championing a version of intersectionality that not only recognises the rights of animals to live lives free from unnecessary pain and suffering but also accepts the inherent link between our treatment of other species and the impact of intensive animal agriculture on poor communities and the planet.

Equally, the animal rights movement – the vegan community, in particular – has its own progress to make in terms of intersectionality. Largely seen as a cause dominated by the white middle class, it is absolutely essential that activists amplify the voices of people of colour, many of whom are, in fact, vegans but – as in so many social movements – often find themselves drowned out by the white noise. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon vegan activists to listen to the genuine concerns of people of colour who object to the correlation often made between black slavery and the meat and dairy industry. This is not to say that hundreds of millions of animals across the world are not, in fact, enslaved by humans. However, memes depicting the lynching of black people alongside a slaughtered pig fail to make the point and instead, flounder at the first intersectional hurdle by risking the dehumanisation of PoC by (inadvertently, yet thoughtlessly) making a visual equation of ‘black = animal’ – a notion all-too-often used to victimise black people through the ages.

Ultimately, if intersectionality means advocating for the most oppressed, then surely it is no outlandish notion that this should extend to other species. Literally voiceless and routinely abused for the selfish ends of human beings, animals rely on people with a non-anthropocentric outlook to fight their corner. See you there.

Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)

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