Daniel Iglesias (44) grew up in Spain and later moved to Belgium. In this interview, he talks about his passion for writing and music. About living with autism and the many misconceptions and prejudices about it, and the challenges and discrimination he faces but also the privilege he has as a queer autistic brown vegan, living in Belgium.
Can you give us a short intro on your background? Where you live(d), education, occupation, … ?
I was born in Spain and grew up there. I completed a master in English Philology at Madrid’s Autónoma University. During my studies I lived for a while in England and Belgium with student exchange programs. After getting my degree in Spain, I moved to Belgium to follow a postgraduate course on Dutch literature and language at Antwerp University, and decided to stay there. I have done all kinds of jobs to make ends meet but translating has always been my main source of income. A few years ago, I graduated on Librarianship and Documentation Centres studies. I work as a volunteer at the main library in Antwerp to help migrants and refugees with the choice of material to learn Dutch. I consider myself to be a writer at heart. After spending years writing and translating for others, I decided to do it for myself and finished my first book last year. A story about life at a mental health institution.
You post a lot about music on your IG account. Can you explain why this is important to you?
Music and literature are everything to me. They literally saved my life. IG is a visual platform and I like the visual side of the art of music as well. Sometimes I use, however, what seems to be a post about music artwork as a canvas for something else. I can post about a great record by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Marc Almond, Boy George or The Communards but I am also stressing out the revolution they were during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and how they defied preconceived notions about gender and sexuality. You can choose to laugh at my pictures of Milli Vanilli or realise that what happened to them was related to the colour of their skin: white artists were getting a free pass at the time for the same thing. Pop culture reflects where society is at and it can be very political and powerful. Morrissey, Chrissie Hynde, Belinda Carlisle and Moby inspired thousands of people in the 80s and the 90s about animal rights and exposed the systematic abuse animals are subjected to, risking their very successful careers, at a time when there was no internet and access to the things we know now. Veganism, queer issues and feminism were not commodified in the 70s or 80s by artists as many celebrities do in 2019. It was all considered to be kooky or uncool. There is nothing more positively radical and socially disruptive right now than being an ethical vegan. I also like giving a twist to artists that are generally thought of as being bubble-gum, commercial, not alternative enough, disposable. It amuses me how it challenges archetypes about masculinity.
You told me that you preferred to be called queer instead of gay. Can you explain why?
Queer doesn’t tie me down to a single definition about who I feel I am. It doesn’t tie down my past, my present and, certainly, not my future. I don’t feel the word gay accommodates who I feel I am. Queer allows gender fluidity and redefining your own identity as you grow up. I can navigate. Gay and straight are just too binary for me. It is kind of internally restrictive for people who are not into a binary mind-set. Interestingly, there are a lot of disabled people, especially within the autistic spectrum, that would rather choose “queer” over “gay”. I do not think you can intellectualise 100% the preference. You just feel it. It is an umbrella term, but it goes far beyond that. It allows me to embrace other marginalised groups in a more organic way as well.
All of those children’s books with happy farms and friendly smiling farmers. They erase our innate compassion for all living beings.
When and how did you become interested in animal rights and veganism?
I have always been extremely sensitive to the suffering of non-human animals. I have very early recollections of this connection I have always had with them and been very aware of how they have always gotten the shorter end of the stick on this planet. In 2009 a good friend of mine jokingly pointed out during a dinner that he saw some inconsistency in me caring about animals but still consuming them. The remark had a very powerful effect on me (I thank him for that) as I suddenly realised that it was much more than just an inconsistency. It was a horrible hypocrisy on my side with terrible consequences for the animals. Right after that I watched “Earthlings” and it was the hardest punch I have ever received in my heart. It was as if someone had slapped me in the face, forcing me to wake up. The Connection, and I made it the night I watched “Earthlings”. I read a lot and informed myself. I was petrified when I started realising where those leather shoes came from, the whole process behind dairy, the torture, the scale of it all. The list seemed to be never ending (and still does to this very day). The industry is so powerful, ruthless and determined that they succeed in desensitising us at a very early age. All those euphemisms: meat, milk, seafood, leather… just to masquerade the horror behind it. All of those children’s books with happy farms and friendly smiling farmers. They erase our innate compassion for all living beings. I opened the door of the dystopian world I had ignored so far. It was The Truman Show and The Matrix. But I do not regret it. I only wish it had happened earlier in my life.
You wrote to me that since you moved to Belgium, you experience racism. Can you elaborate on that please?
Systemic racism is very much alive in Belgium. The interesting thing is that I started experiencing it at a later stage of my life. I did not experience any racism while growing up in Spain, as people with darker complexions are the norm there. It all began when I moved to Belgium as an adult, so I could instantly feel there was a “before” and an “after”. I had kind of sensed it when I travelled abroad but I didn’t give it much thought at the time. And then September 11 happened, and things got worse for brown folks. Renting an apartment or opening a bank account were an ordeal. I keep on being asked to lock my bags at big shops or supermarkets to prevent shoplifting while everyone else is going inside carrying one. It seems it is only people of colour that will sit next to me on a train or a bus in a natural way. Applying for a job with a foreign family name and getting no response, being pulled over by the police, at airports … The whole surveillance business has black and brown people as their main clients. It is a long list and there is food for a whole interview about this topic. There is a constant profiling on the street, and also at legal and academic institutions based on the colour of your skin. It is not a question of if I will be stopped by the police at customs or on the streets. It truly is a question of when. There is fear of the North African, there is fear of darker people. There is a tendency to describe some of it as “micro-aggressions” or “micro-racism” in academia or the press, but there is nothing “micro” about them. The rise of right wing parties in Belgium and The Netherlands give a lot of people more entitlement, sort of speaking, to be racist. Europeans laugh at Donald Trump and North-Americans from their Eurocentric high horses, but the truth of the matter is that the same is going on in Europe at a frightening pace but with a different package. And we all know history always ends up repeating itself.
Can you tell some more about autism and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges? How is it like to be living with an invisible disability?
Autism is very unknown by society in general. We still suffer from what I call Rainmanitis and all sorts of stereotypes and prejudices fed partly by the media and partly by a general lack of interest to listen to what autistic people think and how they experience the world. Ableism is also a result of wilful ignorance. It is a spectrum and every autistic person is different, and yet we all share common traits. The severity of the traits and the impact that it has on our lives also varies. I do not use the terms “low” and “high functioning” because they are misleading, and I have the feeling that they create first and second class autistic individuals. And I do not use the term Asperger either. Autistic brains are wired differently. It is as if the majority of people in the world have Windows installed on their brains and autistic people have Linux as operating system. There are a lot of challenges and most of them are invisible. We experience everything much more intensely due to a lack of filters that non-autistic and neurotypical people do have. That means that our perception of smells, noises, light, touch, warmth and coldness is overdeveloped (and sometimes dramatically underdeveloped). Our Theory of Mind is different. That all could be bearable if the outside world was autistic friendly but that is, unfortunately, not the case. We come over as being socially awkward, quirky or weird, but this is often because we are ourselves. Most autistic people do not have the mechanisms to fake body language or profound dislike for something or someone, and that is pretty unhandy in a society where you need deceit and lie to thrive. Clinical depression runs rampant in adults within the spectrum. There are a couple of scientific studies about life expectancy in autistic adults. One of them concluded that it was 36 years old and a more optimistic one talked about 52 years old. Suicide is the number one cause of death. These are devastating figures. Chronic depression and anxiety in autistic adults is a mental health issue that is swept under the rug at all levels. The older you get the greater the struggle, so I can totally understand where those figures come from. Children nowadays are getting diagnosed but there is a whole generation of people older than 40 that slipped through the cracks and were not diagnosed. We need to find them and nurture them before they become one of these statistics. Unemployment, solitude, mobility, access to healthcare or education, poverty. One of the hardest bits is the disbelief on the side of the people you know. “You cannot be autistic”. “You don’t look autistic”. “Your autism is really mild, isn’t it?”. “You are so high functioning”. “That is something that happens only in children”. “Is it not being over-diagnosed?”. “It is just a label”. That denial is an extreme form of ableism in itself. Ask us. Ask us what it feels like. We are dying to tell you what it feels like. Both the good and the bad bits. Do not be afraid. Because the only way that things can get better for us is if the outside world is more aware of the true side of it. Do not allow yourself to be educated about this by Netflix or Hollywood.
Are you an animal rights activist? Activist for disability rights? Queer rights? What kind of activism do you do or support?
The main activism I do is being open and vocal in my daily life about all three of them. I am an ethical vegan and I make it very clear from the beginning: it is about nonhuman animals. What I eat three times a day, what I wear, the places I won’t support because of animal exploitation, these are all strong political and defying acts that happen daily, and you have a large audience in the long run that you can inspire. Animal exploitation is the most flagrant form of injustice in the world and I want to believe that injustice cannot live forever. I think all ethical vegans are activists and walking sources of information. I also translate texts into different languages for animal rights parties or organizations. I have done subtitling in Spanish of English spoken videos about veganism on YouTube. Currently I am gathering information about animal welfare initiatives that have been implemented in Belgium and The Netherlands, translating the laws and providing them to animal rights parties in Spain so that they can use it as inspiration for similar initiatives. I am for abolitionism and I do not believe in democracy, but I am selling out if politics can take us there faster and alleviate some suffering in the meantime. I post regularly about veganism on my IG and I believe in stickers and T-shirt activism. It provokes thought and people regularly send me private messages asking me all kinds of stuff about veganism. My activism regarding autism, chronic depression and queerness takes the form of not hiding it and being an open book for anyone that wants to listen.
How is it living as a autistic queer brown vegan in Belgium?
Belgium and The Netherlands always take the first steps when it comes to progressive issues. They seem to be the first to dare to be socially disruptive. I like that about living in Belgium. I also like that Belgians are usually quiet people, it is quite soothing. I have actually a privileged life and I am very aware of it. The social security system is amazing, I had access to higher education in Spain and Belgium without worrying about how to pay for it and there is a healthy network of organizations that offer help to autistic adults. It is a very solidary country and I like that as well very much. Being queer is not a problem at work. I was always at ease everywhere I worked at. And we had an openly gay prime minister! However, queerphobic verbal and physical aggressions on the streets do happen. Maybe not as often as in other parts of the world but they do happen. They have shouted “faggot” at me several times on the streets since I live here. And I know I would be eventually physically attacked if I walked hand in hand with my partner on the streets. Still, I know the situation is much better than in other parts of the world.
I am a sentient being and refuse to be granted a “you-are-tolerated” status, as if it was some sort of temporary visa in this world and I had to be thankful for being allowed to exist.
What similarities or differences do you feel there are in ‘coming out’ as being queer, as being disabled (in case of invisible disability), as being vegan?
The biggest similarity between the three is primal: you are about to announce something that falls out of what you could call “the norm” and the majority. It varies in intensity depending on the context, but there is always a mix of fear, defiance, pride, courage, need for understanding and acceptance, and coming up for who you are. The element of oppression is present in the three of them. It defies the norm and that is always trouble. I do not believe queer people are accepted, we are tolerated at best. That feeling irks me, because I am a sentient being and refuse to be granted a “you-are-tolerated” status, as if it was some sort of temporary visa in this world and I had to be thankful for being allowed to exist. And still I must consider myself lucky because I have the privilege of living in a country where being queer is not legally considered a crime and where basic rights are protected by law. Coming out as vegan has a huge impact because there is not such a thing as the first and final coming out: it is a perpetual coming out. Interestingly, being mocked in your face about being vegan is largely accepted while being mocked about being queer or disabled is a politically incorrect move and, theoretically, a not done. That is also a blatant example of the position of nonhuman animals in the ethical ladder. Every time you are invited to eat somewhere and the defensiveness of a lot people at the table or in a conversation just by being present. That defensiveness, their silence, their snide remarks, the mockery. It all speaks volumes and I know it is all a projection on their side, but it hurts. When it gets difficult I mentally tell myself that what I am experiencing at that moment is nothing in comparison with the suffering of all the animals that are being electrocuted, tortured and dismembered as we are talking right now. I rarely find the right context to talk about my disability. I have learnt the hard way that there is no use to it in most instances and puts me at a worse and vulnerable place, but I will not stop self-advocating. Most people have a preconceived idea about autism and mental health. A curious, and unfortunate, assumption that I have noticed is that some people associate my veganism with my quirkiness (cancelling out my autism in the process). “He is weird and a rebel, therefore, he is vegan”. As if it was some sort of non-conforming move like dying your hair blue or wearing black clothes.
Do you feel the vegan / animal rights movement is ableist, racist, homophobic? If so, can you give some examples?
It depends on how we would define “movement”. I have not had much direct active contact with organisations as a whole. I do not think the movement is monolithic in any given case. I have been to vegan meet ups and festivals, but I would not say they represent the movement as such, and any bad experience that I may have had there would not automatically mean that something is present within the movement. I kind of miss a bit more of compassion and less judgement sometimes. The “good vegan, bad vegan bible”. Online pages on Veganism on Facebook and such are often far from being safe havens for ourselves. Mind you, I understand people that are angry. I am angry at the state of affairs and suffer from a deep anguish because I see no end to this massacre. I am not talking about tone policing. We do not even have to agree in the end about everything. That is why I cherry pick people that inspire me and that I learn from through their blogs, like yours. Another favourite advocate of mine is Christopher Sebastian because he doesn’t mince his words and translates most of the time this existential anger and anguish into a healthy dynamic discussion. Intersectionality is always present in his talk and I like that.
I have repeatedly read both online and in literature ableist remarks regarding the use of certain medication. As if it was the ultimate goal to be reached: not to get medicalised. Things are much more complex in real life. There are people that need that medication to stay alive or keep an acceptable quality of life, especially if you have been dependent on it for years or decades (and long before you were vegan) and stopping is not an option. Same goes for every time you are hospitalised. It is very difficult to maintain a vegan diet then. The “a vegan diet can fix you” mentality is pretty hurtful both for disabled vegans and non-vegans. Yes, a plant-based diet is healthier, but it does not give you automatically a green card for immortality or a thin fit body. And no, we are not forgetting to take a B12 supplement or doing anything wrong when it comes to our diets.
Have you yourself experienced discrimination in the movement? Discrimination based on your abilities? On being queer? On being a POC?
I have experienced the awkward look at a couple of vegan meet-ups and from some people attending food festivals, as if they were not expecting people of colour there. I know that look very well. Some sort of unconscious assumption in the air that veganism is a white thing. As I said it is hard to define what a movement is, and I am sure somewhere in the world there are vegans who are racist or queerphobic. I have not experienced it myself barring an odd look.
Can you give some suggestions as to how the vegan and animal rights movement can become more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities? To be more inclusive on all fronts?
I think we could listen more to what a person is willing to do and be understanding if a person does not want to get involved in what is considered as “real activism” (street actions, cubes, marches, sabs…) We are all different and for a person with a disability most of these forms of activism can be far-fetched or not realistic. Be gentle about how you would like to inspire about your activism or advocacy. Let people find the way by themselves. I believe all ethical vegans are hyperaware of what the state of affairs is, and I am sure all of them would like the world to go vegan. We all have our struggles and we don’t know how one person is or can be contributing to the end of animal suffering. Stop assuming you can fix someone’s health at a potluck. Making events accessible for everyone is a must. A quiet room to soothe sensory overload at crowded events would be very welcome for many people.
Can you give some examples as to how vegan outreach and advocacy can be improved, to better reach disabled people?
I would drop the pre-programmed assumption that somehow stops us from approaching people with a disability. And certainly the “going vegan can fix you” innuendo. A mental or physical disability does not equate a lack of compassion towards nonhuman animals or that you don’t care about anything from an ethical point of view.
Is there anything else that you would like to share here?
I just want to say that I feel a deep gratitude and love for everyone out there that in one way or another is doing their best to end the suffering of nonhuman animals. Those shepherds of the sea, the cubes, the demonstrators, the rescuers, the scholars, the outreachers, the people who refuse to partake in it three times a day, the sabs, the cartoonists, the vegan chefs, the bloggers, the translators, the designers. All of you.
Daniel Iglesias – Interview CripHumAnimal
– Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQ+ vegans, vegans of colour, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –