Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Animal Rights and Gay Rights

In my FindLaw column this week, I draw an analogy between the experiences of members of two groups, respectively: gay people and vegans. I argue that in a variety of ways, the struggles of gay men and lesbians for justice are distinct from those of minorities and women and resemble the struggles of vegans. Rather than rehash the argument here, I want to emphasize the claim that I am *not* making about gay people and vegans.

I am not suggesting that vegans have experienced a history of discrimination and persecution that in any way resembles what gay men and lesbians have confronted. To my knowledge, there are no laws that prohibit the practice of ethical veganism or that systematically exclude vegans from important institutional benefits, such as the ability to marry or join the military. Vegans, unlike gay men and lesbians, are not and never have been a major target of hateful invective or conduct. Though school lunches are almost entirely unaccommodating to ethical vegans, they are also (and for some of the same reasons) unaccommodating to children whose parents wish to avoid health crises in the future. There is, in other words, no concerted effort afoot to target ethical vegans for unfavorable treatment.

The reason that the analogy between gays and lesbians, on the one hand, and vegans, on the other, does not extend to law and victimization is simple: ethical vegans are committed to the rights of nonhuman animals, not the rights of ethical vegans. Thus, if we look to the history of how nonhuman animals have been treated and are now treated, we understand that no one is comparing serious persecution (against gay men and lesbians), on the one hand, with a lack of adequate accommodation (for vegans), on the other.

Nonhuman animals are, in most legal systems, considered to fall into the category of personal property, "pests," and "natural resources." To state this differently, the status of nonhuman animals -- creatures who can think, feel pain and pleasure, and experiences a wide range of emotions -- turns almost entirely on what human beings want from them. If people find a particular animal's flesh or bodily secretions to be tasty -- as they do in the case of chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, and lambs -- then the animals are bred, separated from loved ones, subjected to procedures that would unambiguously qualify as "torture" among human beings, and then efficiently (and almost always painfully) slaughtered. Though we might find a baby calf adorable and sweet, this does not stop us from consuming the dairy products that come from the calf's mother being impregnated, the calf being taken away from the mother, the calf being killed as veal, and the mother being killed when her milk production is no longer profitable. Though we find baby chicks cute as well, we purchase eggs that come from hens whose male offspring are separated out and killed soon after birth -- by asphyxiation, gassing or dismemberment. Nor does it stop us from wearing shoes, gloves, and belts created from the skin ripped from animal corpses -- and sometimes from animals still writhing in pain as they are dismembered.

Other animals -- like deer or wolves -- register as natural resources. When we decide that we like looking at them and want accordingly to avoid their extinction, we restrict hunting (or limit hunting to particular times or places). Then, when the "natural resources" no longer please us -- because they eat our property (whether, in the case of wolves, so-called "livestock," the animals whom we aim to kill and eat, or, in the case of deer, pretty flowers or apples that we grow), we kill them with abandon and call this activity a "sport" or "population control." Other animals -- such as mice and rats -- are more consistently viewed as "pests" and thus killed, unless they are deliberately bred in large numbers for excruciating research in medical laboratories.

Then there are pets, who seem favored, but they too are property. We can decide we don't want them anymore (as most "pets" encounter during their lives) and either "euthanize" them (a term that seems inappropriate when the animal is still young, healthy, and friendly) or give them to a shelter, which will generally do the same. And the breeding practices that produce the beloved pet go on behind closed doors and can sometimes rival the cruelty of the farm.

This is what ethical vegans resist through their "lifestyle choice." They attempt, as part of a movement, to expose the reality of animal use and thereby withdraw the support that consumer demand gives to institutional users of animals. And this is why vegans, like gay men and lesbians, cannot -- and should not -- be content to follow their conscience in the privacy of their own homes. Both groups of people strive, though for different reasons, to compel transparency and truth about what we falsely view as purely private choices that have no impact beyond the dining room table and the bedroom.