This article was originally published by MUNCHIES Switzerland.
Editor's Note: This is a personal essay reflecting one person's experience, and is not intended to be a generalization about the experiences of all LGBTQ people.
It used to be totally normal for me to consume meat and dairy on a daily basis. I grew up in a Bosnian family in the very traditional eastern part of Switzerland. For breakfast we had Pura (polenta with milk), for lunch we had Kvrgusa (pastry with chicken and sour cream) and for dinner we had Punjene Paprike (peppers filled with meat). Sour cream and yogurt are a part of nearly every Balkan dish, and for a long time I derided vegetarians and vegans. Who in their right mind would willingly forego cheeseburgers or St. Gallen bratwursts? But, as of last month, I officially get it. I decided to take part in Veganuary, a charity that challenges people to try veganism for the month of January, and ultimately decided to be vegan until further notice—and surprisingly, being public about it was more difficult than telling my family that I’m into women.
“You sure you’re not missing something in life?”, “WTF, are you serious?” or “You? Really?” were just a few of the things I heard when I told my family and friends six years ago that I was a lesbian. But those were usually followed up with a “it’s nice that you can be yourself” and “that’s courageous of you.” But amendments like these are missing when people call me out because of what I eat. Suddenly everyone is incredibly interested in what foods I consume; my colleagues and friends scrutinize the ingredients in every meal I eat, and obtrusively ask whether everything on my plate is actually vegan at all. Incidentally, before—when I used to eat pizza and meat and kebabs multiple times a week—no one cared whether I was getting all the necessary nutrients and proteins.
Food and sex belong to the most private areas of a person’s life. Sexuality, however, plays a role in society and for our fellow humans. My parents, for example, are concerned about whether they’ll ever have grandchildren. But whether I eat meat or vegetables doesn’t affect my surroundings at all. What I eat is a very personal thing. The only societal aspect to it is that it extends the life of the environment.
But despite all this, many people, regardless of how open, modern, or well-read they may be (or claim to be), react more stridently to me being a vegan than to my homosexuality. Why does what I do or don’t eat bother people so much? I’ve tried to find out why they feel antagonized—and why they’re seem like they're out to attack me. When I say that I don’t eat animal-based products, I’m not implying that I’m somehow better than people who eat meat, which, sadly, is how they often interpret it. Whether they feel attacked because of feelings of guilt, a lack of understanding or simply narrow-mindedness? I have no idea.
It might also have to do with the fact that veganism, much like homosexuality, is considered by some close-minded people to be "abnormal." According to them, people have always consumed meat and milk products—our bodies need their nutrients. But just because something has always been a certain way doesn’t by any means make it okay. A lot has changed since the Stone Age: Back then we used to shoot down mammoths with bows and arrows, and today we sometimes eat animals three times a day that were raised entirely for slaughter. That aside, we stem from monkeys, and they eat practically no meat at all. Absurd, isn't it? But that’s what my everyday life looks like. Absurd conversations are everywhere.
The nutritional psychologist Gigia Mettler-Saladin has a simple explanation for why some people are so interested in vegans and so vehemently denounce their eating habits: “Today, eating is highly moralized. People define their identities or their group affiliations through what they choose to eat. 'Who am I, who would I like to be, what do I wish to present to others?' Eating is a social act where all people know how to act. Stepping out of line with a vegan diet produces insecurity," says Mettler-Saladin. “When someone chooses something else, they put the rules into question. Does this person no longer wish to be one of us?”
But the fact that I don't comply with heteronormative standards bothers people less than my being vegan, because I'm unable to take the moral high ground by being a lesbian. My homosexuality doesn’t threaten the consciences of my fellow humans. But that I was able to save 30 animals and conserve 124.917 liters of water, 84 square meters of forest, 275 kilos of CO2, and 543 kilos of wheat in the last month alone—that does.
Concern for the environment—and a desire to mitigate my personal impact—were why I decided to try being vegan. My vegan friends definitely helped me shift my mentality, but not by telling me how great it was; rather, they showed me how our collective readjustment to eating can have a positive impact on our environment. Of course everyone knows (though some people claim they don't) what we face through climate change. But it's easy when you're comfortable to not think about it every day. And when hunger sets in, it's hard not to crave a burger. But can you believe that the production of one burger takes up as much water as letting a shower run for two months straight? I can’t either!
Coming out the second time was markedly more troublesome than the first, but I by no means regret my decision. A month of veganism did me a lot of good, so I’m going to continue to forego animal-based foods. Instead of feeling exhausted after eating, I’ve lost weight, my complexion has improved, I experiment a lot more with my cooking, and I’ve discovered a lot of new restaurants. I even have more energy than I did before. And all of that helps me ignore the anti-veganism verdicts I frequently encounter. People need to finally understand that individuals matter more for who they are than what they eat or who they sleep with.