Phoenix Lee (32) is a writer, activist and student living near Washington DC (US). They blog and vlog about mental health issues, LGBT issues, racial issues, food justice, body positivity, issues within the vegan community, and their own experiences in life. In this interview, Phoenix talks about their background, why they changed their name from Ashley to Phoenix, the term ‘intersectionality’, and what the vegan and animal rights community can do to become more inclusive.
Hello Phoenix, on your twitter page, you introduce yourself as a ‘writer, student, artist’. Tell us who you are? What’s your background and what do you do in life?
Well, I’m a person who expresses themselves best through writing and creating art. It’s always been that way; growing up, I was very quiet and kept to myself often. I didn’t have many friends, though the ones I did have were very close. It was always a challenge to express myself the way I wanted to through words; even in my family, I was one of what was eventually five children (my youngest brother was born when I was in my first year of high school), so it was difficult to express this, even to my parents. Writing stories and drawing cartoons as a child was the way I communicated my ideas, thoughts, and sense of humor.
Today, I have a blog and a YouTube channel from which I express my points of view. I’m also attending the University of Maryland, from which I already have a BA in English, and am working toward a Ph.D. in sociology.
You identify as a gender queer woman (pronouns she/her/hers or they/their/them). You also recently changed your name from Ashleigh to Phoenix. Can you please explain some more?
I lived with my parents until very recently. Their home is in an affluent city in Maryland (about 45 minutes outside of DC), and paying for rent there was impossible for me and I had so much social phobia in my early 20s that I didn’t want to get roommates. As such, I was essentially under my parents’ thumbs into my late 20s, constantly feeling like I needed to placate them, lest I become homeless, which would exacerbate my mental illnesses.
I think that was part of why it was so difficult to come to terms with my identity issues. I told my mother I was bisexual (I’ve never come out to my father, but I think he’s had his suspicions), but never told either of them about my gender identity issues. I’ve never felt “like other girls” growing up, but I didn’t feel like one of the boys, either. As I got older, I met other LGBT people, including some who were nonbinary. Eventually, I realized that “nonbinary” and “genderqueer” were terms that more or less fit my feelings about my own gender identity.
I’m currently not living with my family and have no plans to do so again. My name change, I think, was part of expressing my commitment to taking my life into my own hands. I discussed this in my coming out YouTube video, but “Ashleigh” just feels like a label that’s been put on me. Plus, “Phoenix” symbolizes new beginnings, which is what I’m working toward now.
You became vegan in 2010. When and why did you become interested in veganism? Are you the same ‘vegan’ now as you were in the beginning?
I was an on-and-off vegetarian from the time I was 12 to the time I was 17 (I started eating meat again because my mother thought it would help alleviate my depression). Despite this, I still cared about animals and wanted to be a vegetarian, but during my teen years, I had zero guidance. Even when I was a vegetarian, I mostly lived on side dishes and junk food.
Things changed by my early 20s. I watched the PETA video Meet Your Meat, which revealed to me the inherent cruelty and suffering within the egg and dairy industry. My breaking point was seeing baby calves chained by their necks in veal crates and hearing the narrator say “If you’re consuming milk, you’re supporting the veal industry.” This led to a flood of tears and a “What have I done?” moment for me.
Admittedly, going vegan was not easy, as, once again, I had zero support. So I was an on-off vegetarian for a while, before officially making the change in 2010.
I’m definitely not the same vegan I was in the beginning. I was unsure of what I was doing early on, and would make frequent trips to Whole Foods, often blowing entire paychecks (which again, aggravated my parents, who insisted that they already buy groceries for the house). I was also easily swayed by pseudoscience from sources like Skinny Bitch and Freelee the Banana Girl.
Today, I do eat fairly healthily, don’t subscribe to any particular diet, and go easier on the expensive processed foods. Of course, I will never turn away some good vegan junk food. I also have a better understanding that veganism is not just about food, and keep issues like animals in research, entertainment, and clothing industries as important issues in my work.
Can you tell some more about your disability and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges? How is it like to be living with an invisible disability?
I was diagnosed with depression when I was 16 years old, and have issues with chronic pain, complications with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS; everyday complications like fatigue and hormonal aches), and a probable autism spectrum condition (my mother has said she’s always thought I was on the spectrum, and from what I know, I agree; it’s just hard to get an official diagnosis)
Finding a compatible job is a challenge. I worked retail for almost a decade, and that wasn’t easy with my chronic pain and only exacerbated my depression (I was getting low pay for all that I did there and had several managers who were downright emotionally abusive). To this day, I see jobs for students that require a lot of manual work and heavy lifting and must bypass those because I worry that I won’t be able to do them. I also often worry if I’ll be mistreated, something I don’t think I can handle in the workplace again.
Living with an invisible disability can be tough, as many people misunderstand that disabilities aren’t always something you can see from the out. I’ve gotten comments about how I’m “…not REALLY disabled!” (including from my mother). It’s like if you don’t use a mobility aid (though I’ve started to use a cane more recently), people don’t believe you’re disabled (even though my issues affect every aspect of my life).
What are the most common bingo reactions you get on being a vegan with a disability, which bingo reactions annoy or hurt you the most?
It irks me to no end when I see other vegans on YouTube talking about how “vegan diets cure depression!” and “just eat right and do yoga and you’ll be totally healthy”. The worst one was Freelee and her now ex-boyfriend Durianrider insisting that vegan diets with tons of carbs cure depression and suicidal ideation. Seriously, Durianrider’s video about Robin Williams shortly after his suicide made me want to punch my computer.
What do you think of the phrase: Everyone can be vegan, it’s easy!
It reeks of privilege, and shows a lack of understanding on how the world really works. It’s said that it takes 21 days to break a habit, for one thing. There are also obvious issues of access to healthy vegan food, both in terms proximity and cost, and these same issues impact one’s ability to buy personal care and household products not tested on animals. That’s another problem in itself; too much vegan advocacy focuses on consumption, and not on the goings-on that perpetuate the subjugation of animals.
What is your understanding of the term ‘intersectionality’?
As I understand it, intersectionality is a term used to understand the ways in which different forms of systemic oppression (racism, sexism, LGBT-phobia, ableism, ageism, etc.) can intersect with and amplify each other. In my view, it’s a tool, not a goal. Some (admittedly well-meaning) activists look to intersectionality as an end rather than one of many means to an end.
You have a lot of social media platforms where you share your thoughts. What are some of the topics that you talk or write about?
I write and talk about issues like mental health, LGBT issues, racial issues, food justice, body positivity, issues within the vegan community, and my own experiences in life.
What is the core message in your activism?
My core message is “everyone deserves justice” (that’s the title of my blog for a reason!). Animal liberation needs to be considered one and the same with earth liberation and human liberation.
Is there ableism in the vegan/AR community? If so, can you give some examples?
Hoo boy, yes. From raw foodists who’ll insist that disabled folks don’t need our meds as long as we carb up to people who insist that service animals are inherently slaves, there’s ableism throughout the vegan and animal rights community. I’ve made videos about some examples specifically on YouTube, and have plans to talk more about in in the future.
A big thing is to listen. Listen to disabled vegans, vegans of color, LGBT vegans, and the intersections thereof. Activism that takes place in the street isn’t the only activism that exists out there.
Veganism is a white thing. True or false? Your thoughts on this as a black person?
Absolutely false. Veganism has been a part of many communities of color for centuries (albeit not always called veganism). Veganism’s perception as a white thing, in my view, stems in large part from the way it’s often promoted by organizations and activists.
Have you yourself experienced discrimination (in the vegan and animal rights movement)? Discrimination based on your abilities? On being a gender queer person? On being a person of colour? On being all of these? How does it impact your life?
I’ve not faced as much discrimination as I have ignorance and judgment from some activists who think I don’t do enough, don’t go hard enough (people who take issue with my view of medications and service animals, for example), and that I’m not active enough. There’s not much I can do about what other people think. All I can do is the best activism that’s feasible for me.
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?
A big thing is to listen. Listen to disabled vegans, vegans of color, LGBT vegans, and the intersections thereof. Activism that takes place in the street isn’t the only activism that exists out there. There are economic and proximity barriers for people who’d want to become vegan, and that’s worth addressing. And there are ways to make veg fests and animal rights rallies more accessible. Just LISTEN.
Phoenix Lee – Interview Crip HumAnimal, by Geertrui Cazaux
You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCt2baezNb41Dl3RamJsTFaQ
– Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –