Mary Fantaske (28) is an activist and student living in Toronto. I got to know her through her presentation ‘The Disabled Body and the Animal Body’ at the ‘Human Rights are animal rights’ Conference in Canada (2013). In this interview, Mary talks about how she began to explore the connections between ableism, sexism and speciesism, and her thesis in sociology on this topic. She also talks about her activism, how her health problems have affected her studies, activism and life in general, and the ableism and sexism in the vegan and animal rights movement.
Hello Mary, tell us who you are? What’s your background and what do you do in life?
My academic background in sociology, in combination with conversations with old friends, initially sparked my interest in feminism and cultural studies. My work at animal sanctuaries, along with my activism bearing witness with Toronto Pig Save, heavily pushed me to think critically about speciesism and sexism as interconnected oppressions. (Toronto Pig Save eventually expanded into the global Animal Save Movement.) When the health problems I’ve experienced my whole life, began interfering with my studies and my ability to hold down a job, it was then that I became interested in examining the connections between ableism, sexism, and speciesism. While I keep up with new developments within the ecofeminist community and wrote a chapter for a recent edited volume on eco-ability (a newly coined term which encompasses the intersections between animal rights, environmentalism, and disability theory), I currently spend most of my time looking after my own health and doing occasional volunteer work with the Animal Save Movement.
When and why did you become interested in veganism and animal rights?
Since as far back as I can remember, I hated eating meat and I would throw it out behind my parents’ backs. It was a combination of disliking the texture and the cognitive dissonance it caused when I would look at my dog, Rainbow, and think about how she was no different from the animals whose flesh I was eating. I became “officially” vegetarian, in the sense that I was finally open with my family and friends about my refusal to eat animals and my reasons for doing so (meaning that I no longer felt I had to hide pieces of flesh in napkins during meals for them to be later thrown out). It wasn’t until I did an internship at a sanctuary (which eventually led to me working at multiple sanctuaries) that I saw the connection between dairy and death. Specifically, I feel I must give Norman the Jersey steer credit for showing me just how emotionally and spiritually complex animals I hadn’t really considered as persyns before can be. He had been rescued from the dead pile at a dairy farm, so the need to be vegan was literally staring me in the face.
You graduated in sociology and were originally going to write your thesis about the intersections between sexism and speciesism. But the focus has changed to the intersections between feminism, veganism and disability studies. How come it changed?
The increase in my symptoms made my disability more obvious to society at large. The oppressive and discriminatory ways in which I was treated by my family members, friends, and medical professionals reminded me a lot of the ways we treat other beings whom we consider to be “less than,” including animals and womyn. It was especially apparent to me because I had gone from feeling like a relatively healthy, abled persyn to being constantly subjected to the trauma of being categorized as a “sick womyn” in the confines of a patriarchal society. The prevalence of ableist tropes in how I was treated by others led me to desire strongly to challenge ableism and investigate its intersections with sexism and speciesism, which hasn’t been frequently discussed prior in academic literature. I thus altered the topic of my thesis to reflect this change in perspective.
Can you tell us some more about your thesis? What are some of the topics that you deal with in your thesis?
As I’ve stated prior, my thesis is about analyzing the connections between ableism, speciesism, and sexism. One of the subjects I am specifically looking at is how society teaches womyn and disabled people to be ashamed of their bodies and minds, and often uses comparisons to nonhumyn animals as one means to this end. Such phenomena, in combination with my previous studies in sociology, lead me to begin really questioning the social construction of the “person,” that being, how we decide who and what is a humyn persyn, who isn’t, and what the consequences of being deemed a persyn or not are. Exploring this idea in detail through the use of previous research and literary reviews is a very important part of my thesis. However, I also want to incorporate my own lived experience, as well as those of others, including people with experiences of different disabilities, slaughterhouse workers, and the animals themselves, just to name a few. A lot of people don’t think about how the animal-industrial complex, and slaughterhouse work in particular, is a cause of physical and psychological disability in humyns. This is another real-world example of situations which can be better analyzed and understood through the use of a perspective such as mine which is highlighting the ways in which ableism, speciesism, and sexism intersect to affect the individual lives of members of various minority groups. I want to write my thesis in a way which emphasizes the value of individual subjective story-telling. This is because rationality has historically been valued over emotionality and other methods of obtaining knowledge, a notion which has been weaponized to oppress and suppress the stories of womyn, nonhumyns, and humyns who are not able-bodied/able-minded. Thus specifically using emotionality and storytelling to highlight the themes and arguments of my thesis is incredibly important to me.
You talk about persyns and not persons. Why is that?
While I liked the idea of doing my best to not use oppressive language, I went back and forth on whether using such language would make a difference or not because, ‘it’s just a matter of spelling’. Then I had a conversation with another ecofeminist writer and friend of mine, and they expressed that they use this spelling to spark conversations with people, especially those who are annoyed by it. So, in essence, I now also use it as a way to open up dialogue with people who would probably never talk to me about gender, species, and social justice more broadly, had they not felt compelled to do so as a result of my unusual spelling.
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 (in)visible disability?
I was diagnosed with endometriosis and, later, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – Hypermobile Type after suffering from a variety of symptoms for about a decade. These symptoms included gastrointestinal issues, frequent injuries, migraines, a severe exacerbation of painful cramping and overall distress when I was menstruating, and widespread pain that would range from mild to excruciating and unbearable. Endometriosis is a condition that affects one in ten people with uteruses in which the endometrium spreads elsewhere in the body, causing growths, inflammation, painful adhesions, cysts, and many more complications. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a group of connective tissue disorders that can cause an incredible variety of symptoms pertaining to the skin, internal organs, eyes, soft tissues, muscles, vascular system, neurological system, digestive system, joints, and even more. The specific type that I was diagnosed with, known as the Hypermobile Type, is characterized by widespread joint and muscle pain; joint injuries; some skin issues including easy bruising and scarring; neurological complications involving the spine, spinal fluid, and brain; mild vascular issues; and digestive issues.
I live with vascular, digestive, and neurological complications due to my Hypermobile EDS. I struggle the most with severe chronic pain as the result of degeneration and deterioration which occurred during years of chronic injury to my spine that has severely damaged parts of my nervous system. On a day to day basis, I will often use braces to support various joints and require a lot of medication just to get out of bed. I will sometimes additionally use a cane, wheelchair, or walker. While my disabilities are extremely limiting and currently prevent me from working and finishing my studies, there is an extent to which some of the difficulties I face being a disabled womyn day to day have nothing to do with my body and everything to do with society. I have been particularly harmed by the stereotype of the “hysterical womyn” who is perceived as feigning or exaggerating illness for attention and emotional validation, and whose physical suffering is dismissed as a mental disorder. Even when I was going in and out of different emergency rooms all across the city for years due to severe back and leg pain, as well as some other worrying symptoms, I would still be asked by staff if I had recently gone through a breakup or emotional trauma and was put on multiple antidepressants. My pain was not taken remotely seriously until I received the diagnoses and imaging that the medical industry perceived as legitimate “proof” of what had been going on in my body, which I had been desperately trying to communicate, for all those years.
Do you identify as being disabled, or do you prefer to be referred to as a person with a disability? (or none of the above) Can you explain?
I prefer to be identified as disabled because, even though, as I mentioned in the previous response, society does indeed play a large role in the limitations I experience daily, I am very much debilitated by the illnesses and body I live with. My current perspective on my body (and mine alone – this is not at all a commentary on how I feel about others with EDS or any other chronic illness/disability) is that is currently broken and most likely permanently disabled. Although others may feel differently, and I do empathize strongly with the social model of disability, my experiences clearly shows me that not all disabilities can be reduced to having a social causation via ableism; my disability is largely caused by my physical and psychological conditions.
In any social justice activist community, high-profile, physically inaccessible, and often dangerous protests and demonstrations are the forms of resistance that receive the most attention and glorification.
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?
One hurtful reaction I’ve frequently received is disbelief that I can be sick as a vegan, since veganism is often automatically stereotyped as healthy and a cure-all for various illnesses and disabilities. I’ve also received judgment from non-vegans about my veganism and my involvement in animal rights activities, since they see my activism and refusal to eat animals as “making things harder for myself.”
You are an activist in the Toronto save animal liberation groups. What kind of activism do these groups do and what is your involvement?
The Animal Save Movement, which started with Toronto Pig Save, is based on Leo Tolstoy’s idea of “bearing witness.” Anita Krajnc, one of the cofounders of the movement, states that her inspiration came from the following quote from Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom: “When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but, on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help.” Toronto Pig Save and the Animal Save Movement put this into practice by bearing witness at slaughterhouses. This means that we stand vigil outside slaughterhouses, stockyards, and farms, and document what we see, while at the same time trying to provide any comfort we can to the animals, even if it is something as small as a sip of water or a gentle caress.
In terms of my involvement, when I first joined Toronto Pig Save, there was no equivalent group to advocate for cows being slaughtered in Toronto. Myself, Anita, and a few other activists cofounded Toronto Cow Save and Toronto Chicken Save. Since then, I have maintained a volunteer role in what has now grown into the vastly successful global Animal Save Movement. I continue to bear witness when my body allows me to so, and at other times I volunteer by managing social media, which is a form of contribution and activism in which I can participate from my bed.
Which are some of the issues that you address on your blog (chronicallyvegan)?
Although I haven’t posted an original piece on my blog (chronicallyvegan) in a long time, I continue to share posts of interest to the vegan, feminist, and disability communities, and social justice activist communities more broadly. In the past, when I was more active on it, I used it to comment on current events, share my opinions and vent my own frustrations about how I was being affected by sexism and ableism, as well as to just share stories and feelings from my day.
The original name of my blog was thecaffeinatedvegan, and it remained as such for a number years. I then changed it to chronicallyvegan when my illness became a more prominent part of my life and my subjective experiences led me to begin researching and getting involved with anti-ableist academia and activism. My blog was very instrumental in giving me access to, and communicating with, activist networks outside of academia. I have made some long-lasting friendships and learned a lot from my interactions on my blog.
What is the core message in your activism?
The core message of my activism is about imploring others to recognize the persynhood of beings who have their identities as unique individuals with their own subjectivities and stories stripped away. The act of bearing witness with the Animal Save Movement has the power to bring awareness to the subjective experiences of those who have been silenced by speciesist and ableist ideology. It accomplishes this by encouraging intense sensory and emotional interactions between people who would not otherwise communicate, for instance, animal product consumers and the nonhuman persyns trapped in the animal-consumption-industrial complex. I strongly believe that activism such as this and interactions such as these will ultimately give rise to a collective ethical consciousness.
Has your activism changed over the years because of your disability?
As I previously mentioned, I hadn’t even been thinking about issues of disability and access, let alone planning to include them in my thesis, before my symptoms became debilitating and suddenly ableism became a part of my everyday life. In this regard, my academic and career paths completely changed because of my disability. On a practical level, my symptoms worsening meant that I had to be a part-time student and eventually take a long-term medical leave of absence. With activism, it meant that I moved away from focusing on attending vigils and editing footage from them, to work that I could do from my bed, such as social media management. I had to learn that there isn’t a real hierarchy of activism (meaning that any one particular form has not been established as being more effective in encouraging social change than another). Often, in any social justice activist community, high-profile, physically inaccessible, and often dangerous protests and demonstrations are the forms of resistance that receive the most attention and glorification. However, sharing a blog post from another author’s blog to your own, cooking vegan food for events, and showing emotional support for others are examples of types of activism which generally receive far less glory and attention and yet are just as valuable as any other form. Unlearning this ableist hierarchy of activism was actually a very painful process for me which involved the aid of a therapist to work through. I struggled with a lot of internalized guilt for not being able to engage in these grandiose activist demonstrations. However as I experienced more and more instances of ‘casual’ ableism and was thus motivated to do research and learn more and more about this system of oppression against disabled persyns, I came to see just how heavily intertwined ableism was with your average attributes of the over-glorified activist. I also noticed that this activist hierarchy is a very gendered one. I believe this to be at least partially the consequence of more confrontational, aggressive, and masculinized forms of protest being the ones which are often valued the most.
I came to see just how heavily intertwined ableism was with your average attributes of the over-glorified activist.
Your thoughts on this remark. ‘There is no sexism or ableism in the vegan community or in academia since you have been given a platform to talk at several meetings and publish several articles’.
It is definitely encouraging that people like me are being given spaces to talk, even at large mainstream events, such as the Animal Rights National Conference. I think this shows that not only are more people in the animal rights community becoming aware of issues of equality and access, but are also actively using this new-found knowledge to take steps to mitigate the consequences of systemic ableism within the animal rights movement and academia. That being said, unfortunately change is slow to come, and most spaces on university campuses, which are often used for the purposes of conferences such as the Animal Rights National Conference, are incredibly inaccessible. This is often why I feel I am sometimes barred from attending these events, and am still uncomfortable at this point returning to my studies, as I feel as if I must wait until I have the energy/ability/strength to combat the inevitable inaccessibility and discrimination I will deal with.
Is there ableism in the vegan/AR community? If so, can you give some examples?
To briefly answer the question, yes, there is most definitely ableism in the vegan community, but I find it often takes very specific and insidious forms. Two examples that I’ve already touched on are the frequent inaccessibility of animal rights/vegan conferences and street protests, as well as the ableist and patriarchal hierarchy of activism. To provide another example of ableism within the animal rights community, I have often had my veganism and dedication to the animals called into question because I depend on a lot of medication that has been produced through animal testing in order to engage in any activism at all and really just to survive. On a very similar note, I have frequently been offered unsolicited and/or pseudoscientific health advice from other vegans; if I turn this advice down or try their suggestions to no avail, I will receive snide comments about how I’m supposedly doing something “wrong” because they believe veganism to be a cure-all for chronic illness. This is another way in which the legitimacy of my veganism has been indirectly questioned by others, and is an obvious product of ableist attitudes in the community that have flourished largely unchecked.
Have you yourself experienced discrimination (in the vegan and animal rights movement)? Discrimination based on your abilities? On being a woman? On being all of these? How does it impact your life?
As I mentioned in my response to the last question, I have experienced a lot of shaming within the vegan community because of the medications I take, as well as other decisions I’ve had to make for my health that may affect my activism or the way in which I am currently living the vegan lifestyle. I have had my commitment to activism questioned because I cannot frequently show up to protests and vigils.
Even though I have been given a fair amount of space to speak publicly and tell my story, somewhat ironically this sign of progress has given me a unique vantage point from which I can ever more clearly see the oppressive ideology and discriminatory behaviour, by which I myself am affected, within the organization of animal rights and other social justice events, such as in analyzing who is put on a pedestal and who isn’t. I’ve found that far more often than one would think, this has little to do with how much effort and dedication one has contributed toward the event/action/movement in question, and much more to do with how loud, glamourous, and attractive one’s persona is according to the standards of a patriarchal society. Of course, this then means that the activists who receive the most praise and support within the community are often young, white, male, thin, heterosexual, and cisgender. I and other vegan womyn activists I know have had to work much harder than our male counterparts to receive recognition within the movement. I have noticed that, when vegan womyn do become very visible and popular within the community, often their notoriety revolves heavily around their diets, cooking, and other food-related topics. These womyn also tend to be young, white, thin, and cisgender. Obviously, this further entrenches ableist and gendered stereotypes within the community.
I and other vegan womyn activists I know have had to work much harder than our male counterparts to receive recognition within the movement.
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?
On a surface level, I think it is imperative that all vegan events and conferences follow the ADA guidelines as much as is realistically possible. On a deeper ideological and cultural level, I want able-bodied and able-minded people to learn about/listen to the subjective experiences of nonhumyn people, women, the disabled, and other marginalized folk and see them for the uniquely valuable persyns they are, rather than pieces of flesh, or caricatures, or collections of symptoms. Relatedly, instead of repeatedly glorifying people with socially valued traits, I think the vegan movement should focus on forming a collective which is held together through the recognition, validation, and use of unique abilities, talents, and knowledges. It would also help to eliminate the harsh policing of what veganism means to different members of the community coming from different life experiences and backgrounds. This would make the movement more inclusive to disabled people, and furthermore, less of this behaviour, in my view, would make the movement less insular and more welcoming to all members of the public.
Is there anything else that you would like to share here?
I would like to thank you for interviewing me, since having the opportunity to tell my own story is very meaningful and important to me as uplifting others’ stories that are often not heard is something I see as crucial to activism and social justice.
Mary Fantaske – 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 –