The vegan author Jordi Casamitjana interviews fellow vegan author and podcaster Jasmin Singer, co-host of the very popular US podcast, Our Hen House.
Most of my friends are vegan.
That is what happens when you have been vegan for decades. But also, when you are privileged enough to live in one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world (London) and be a resident of one of the most vegan-friendly countries there are (the UK). Even more when you have worked in one of the most vegan-friendly sectors in existence (animal protection). And as I live in a fully vegan household (with my tiny veganic orchard) and now work from home, I think it would be fair to say that I spend most of my time in a comfortable vegan bubble where I do not have to constantly explain to others why I do not eat eggs or wear leather.
In this regard, I know I am both lucky and privileged. Lucky because, after trying to live in many different countries and locations, I settled in a very good one for me before I knew how vegan-friendly it would become. Privileged because, in my case, my appearance, ethnicity, background, and perceived identity have never been an obstacle to manifesting the philosophy of veganism in the way I wanted — which I am aware is not the case for many people of the global majority.
So, now, finally, I don’t have to interact with many people I don’t like, I don’t have to share a space with many people I feel uncomfortable with, and I don’t have to converse with many people who have very different values than mine. I get now to chat with those I want to, and meet other vegans from whom I can learn and progress further in my veganisation process.
Relatedly, I recently had a very good experience. Do you know that feeling when you meet people who are very articulate but who speak with lots of colloquialisms in a very down-to-earth manner showing vulnerability and honesty? It’s a feeling of comfort. A feeling of ease. A feeling of familiarity that breaks barriers and dismantles overzealous protections. With these feelings, you can have very satisfying conversations, in which lots can be said without fear of crossing any dangerous line. This is how I felt talking to the author and podcaster Jasmin Singer via Zoom a few weeks ago.
I had already read her memoir, so I already knew a lot about her history and background. I supposed that helped, but that was not all. There was something in her style of speaking. It sounded organised. It sounded layered. It sounded prosaic. What you would expect from a natural writer, who had channelled her storytelling skills into performing as well? Her voice was well written. I could tell that she has become a proficient vegan conversationalist — a vegan who converses with other vegans — who has interviewed many vegans so far.
Jasmin is a worldwide leading expert on veganism, and a coveted speaker on topics including radical body positivity, personal narrative as a means of social justice, and how to change the world for animals. She is the author of “The VegNews Guide to Being a Fabulous Vegan” (Hachette Go, 2020) and “Always Too Much and Never Enough: A Memoir” (Penguin Random House’s imprint, Berkley, 2016), and the editor of “Antiracism in Animal Advocacy: Igniting Cultural Transformation” (Lantern, 2021).
Along with animal law professor — and former spouse — Mariann Sullivan, Jasmin is also the co-host of the long-running Our Hen House podcast, an award-winning show centred around animal rights and veganism. This could well lead her to achieve, at some point, the record for the vegan who has interviewed more vegans in the world — I don’t know if anyone is counting, but along with Mariann, she has surpassed the 1000 mark already. Now, though, I turned the tables on her, as I was the one who interviewed her.
Read on if you want to know what she had to say.
Jasmin’s Vegan Journey
To find out the intimate details of each of the steps Jasmin took in her long journey to veganism, you can read her very interesting memoir published in 2016 — a kind of “first-chapter” memoir, as it only covers her first decades — where you can also learn about her passionate relationship with food and her struggles with body image. As a summary of her vegan journey (which started in Edison, New Jersey, where she grew up), this is what she told me:
“I always felt like an outsider. I can trace my activist tendencies back to when I was a little kid on the playground and would speak up for the other little kids being bullied — even though I was also bullied. But as a result, it was a very lonely, difficult childhood in many ways.
I had rotating parents and step-parents because my mother and father were divorced several times before I was 11. I did have stability, thankfully. My grandmother was my rock, and to some degree, my stepfather — both of whom have passed away at this point. And my mother was (and remains) a wonderful human and friend.
But my home was in theatre and public speaking. I loved performing. It was all I cared about. And writing as well. Writing poems that I don’t even know where the subject matter came from, because I was so young. But they were about broken hearts long before I had any romance — although I think maybe I was just channelling a broken heart in general, like I just always felt some degree of broken-hearted.
I went vegetarian when I was in college because I was a theatre student who wore all black and smoked clove cigarettes, and I thought that ‘vegetarian’ went with the aesthetic. And I didn’t really think about it beyond that — except to say that I thought meat was icky, and that’s about as far as it went. I had never heard of factory farming.
I think that, in retrospect, that was a moment for me where I was just beginning to settle into my authentic self, which would be a long journey. I was 19 — that’s when it happens for a lot of us — so it was the same year that I came out as bi — which I’m not, I’m a lesbian. I’m not saying, by the way, that bisexuality is at all a half-measure. I think when people identify as bi, it is very genuine — that is their true self. I think I was sort of taking what were, to me at the time, half measures — like going vegetarian at first and coming out as bi — to see how that felt. But in no way do I mean to erase anyone else’s bisexuality.
It was also a different time. I think that people nowadays are going right to veganism more often than they’re going vegetarian first, or they’re trying out veganism with a certain parameter — like vegan till six as Mark Bittman says, or vegan every weekday — rather than being vegetarian. Being a lesbian also wasn’t as accepted as it is now, and it scared me to fully go there at first.
Ironically, when I was vegetarian, I ate more animal products than I did when I was a meat-eater. All relied on was scrambled eggs — which are disgusting by the way — Mac and Cheese, and pizza. So, those were my consumption habits, which were far less ethical than, in my opinion, anything else.
Then, when I was 24, I was working for an AIDS-awareness theatre company in New York City, speaking up on behalf of various marginalised communities, and I met a vegan — as we do. I then learned about what was happening to dairy cows and egg-laying hens. I had no idea about any of it before then — even though I hadn’t eaten meat — and as soon as I learned about it, I knew that continuing to eat eggs and cheese was going along with a system that I fundamentally did not believe in.
It was about my feminism; it was about having been a rape survivor. I felt that dairy and eggs were very reminiscent of products of rape, not only of the female bodies but of the male bodies as well — since dairy also relies on the forcible extraction of semen from male-bodied animals. So, I went vegan at 24. And I didn’t just go vegan, I became an animal activist then.
As I also did, Jasmin became vegan for the animals, and initially did not care that much about the health dimension of veganism — so, she ate lots of vegan junk food and continued struggling with her weight. But then she moved to a much more whole food-based, healthy diet, even with a period of regular juice fasts — beautifully described in her memoirs — that radically changed her image. The book does not cover what happened since 2016, but it seems Jasmin has finally found the right balance.
“I feel like I’m in a very healthy place, mind, body, and spirit. I eat mostly a whole-food diet and I am very detached from caring too much about how others might judge me based on arbitrary standards of beauty. I’m happy in myself —and getting there took a long time. That’s what matters.”
A Journey of Storytelling
Jasmin’s career as a campaigner against oppression is wrapped in storytelling. The drama and narrative skills necessary to advocate for marginalised individuals of any species run deep in her. She explains how these manifested themselves throughout her life.
“I went to school for theatre, and I was an actor in my 20s, in New York City. There is where I learned about animal activism —I almost unintentionally pivoted to focus on that. I first worked stuffing veg starter kits into envelopes for Viva USA, and then I got a job at Farm Sanctuary as the campaigns manager. I started giving workshops with my friend Marisa Miller Wolfson — who was the vegan I had met who originally made me vegan. She is the creator of the movie Vegucated.
Marisa and I used to go around New York City and do workshops about veganism, and, as a result, I was auditioning less and less because this was taking over. I did start writing more and more because my acting and my writing are very much hand in hand. To me, writing and acting are very similar types of expression. If I’m not doing one, the other sort of takes over. So, I started writing, and I started getting published. I was mostly writing about animal rights and other social justice issues.
I also came out as a lesbian in my late 20s. I wound up meeting Mariann Sullivan, who is the co-founder and co-host of ‘Our Hen House’. We were together as a couple for 10 years. Marriage didn’t exist at the beginning of our relationship, and when marriage equality happened, we got married. We always had this big energy together, that’s where ‘Our Hen House’ came from. It’s a media non-profit that we founded, that creates podcasts for people who want to change the world for animals, and she also hosts the ‘Animal Law Podcast’ — which is also under the Our Hen House umbrella.
We were living together in Soho, in lower Manhattan, in this tiny little apartment with our pit-bull — who was a darling and lived to be nearly 17. It was a cool life. It was exciting because everyone loved being downtown. I don’t think I knew how good I had it in a lot of ways.
I was working constantly. At the foot of our bed, there were all these leaflets for ‘Say No to Factory Farming’, ‘Say no to Veal’, etc. Because it was such a small apartment, they had to be kept on a bookshelf attached to the bed. And the protest signs were all squished on the left side of the bed. The whole apartment was like an activist hub.
Mariann and I did not wind up together after those 10 years, but we still had this big energy together. It took a long time. I moved to California as a sort of “geographical solution” to all the pain swirling around. But now we have found our way to being very close friends, living five minutes away from each other. We talk every day. Our podcast outlived our marriage, but the reason I bring up Mariann is because she has been the biggest influence in my life. And I think she is an absolute genius in the world of animal law and beyond.
When I was in California, I was the senior editor for VegNews Magazine. I helped moved the editorial office down to L.A., so I got to live in L.A. for a while. That’s where I met Moore, my wife, and we’ve been together for almost five years now. We moved to Rochester, New York, which is near Toronto. It’s like the very top of New York State, the very top of the United States. And the reason we moved here was because of climate change. There are relatively promising climate implications in this area of the United States, in terms of not being exposed to enormous weather conditions — like floods, tornadoes, droughts, and things like that. So, that’s why we moved here — as did Mariann —and I’m very lucky to have established a writing career in the process.
I’ve published two books and I’m working on the beginnings of three more. That’s what I’d like the rest of my career to be focused on. Writing, but bringing in a lot more fiction, and always speaking up for animals along the way.”
What Vegans Say
If anyone knows what vegans have to say, Jasmin and Mariann would be at the top of the list, because, at the time of writing this, together they have produced 750 podcasts between the Our hens House podcast and The Animal Law podcast (many of them with interviews of more than one vegan). Through their weekly podcasts that have been broadcasted in the last 13 years, they have listened to over 1000 vegans of all sorts and asked many questions. Many thousands more have listened to their podcasts, either in their regular form, or their extended versions (if you become an Our Hen House “flock” member, you will have access to bonus content). If you haven’t listened to any yet, it would take you over two years to catch up if you listen to one every day (and by the time you finish you would have 100 new ones to go).
I asked Jasmin what she learnt with all that affluent chatting:
“When we started Our Hen House, it was because we didn’t think that there was one right way to change the world for animals. That is validated week after week. When I don’t agree with someone, or I personally wouldn’t do what they do, I’m still glad that they’re out doing it because we’re in an emergency, a complete and total emergency, and if we’re going to get bogged down by criticising other tactics and other players, then we are missing the forest for the trees. So, that was validated. I don’t think I ever realised just how many different ways there were to change the world for animals.
One thing I learned is that I think most of the people who are on Our Hen House, the vast majority, are ethical vegans who went vegan for ethical reasons. I would say, most of them originally picked up a PETA brochure — regardless of how someone feels about PETA, I constantly look at how many leaders it has made. But what I learnt the most is that I am not convinced that the world will change because of an ethical argument. I used to hold out more hope for that, but I think that humans are ultimately extremely self-centred, and we have to appeal to their self-centred ways in order to create massive change.”
I also asked Jasmin if she remember any of the recent conversations that had a strong impact on her, and perhaps made her change her mind about something related to veganism or animal rights.
“There are two people we interviewed recently who spring to mind. I am a liberationist; I’m not a proponent of welfare reforms. I certainly don’t put people down who do welfare reforms, but when I spoke with PJ Nyman, who is a Canadian activist living in Toronto, I had a different perspective on why someone would pursue various reforms. It’s not to say that I’m going to go do it now, but their perspective was interesting. One of the reasons they focus on these reforms is because of the human element — the treatment of the workers in different types of factory farms, and the benefits to them when certain reforms are enacted. Focusing on cage-free systems is certainly not anywhere near liberation, but as PJ explained, it does effectively drive up egg prices, which ultimately is a low-key way of advocating for veganism — since, at that point, vegan egg analogues wind up being cheaper. Again, it’s not to say that I would become an activist for welfare reforms — cage-free eggs are still horrendous systems of cruelty to animals —but it made me consider it from a different point of view in terms of strategy.
The other person is Carrie Hamilton (C. Lou Hamilton), who’s British and originally from Canada, and she wrote a book called ‘Veganism, Sex and Politics. Tales of Danger and Pleasure.’ I had a fascinating discussion with her on Our Hen House about gender and animals. How we have to gender them in the way that we know, but there are a lot of assumptions being made in that context, and I find that kind of fascinating. I think that, even though I came to the animal rights movement by way of LGBTQ activism, the overlapping issues have expanded organically for me, partly because of people like Carrie.”
I have written about racism in the vegan and animal rights movement, and I consider myself a person who practices anti-racism. Jasmin and I have that in common, although she knows much more about this issue than I do and has been working on it for much longer.
Jasmin used to sit on the advisory council of the organisation Encompass, which was set up to address the problematic fact that in the US people of colour make up more than 40% of the population yet fewer than 11% of advocates at the largest US-based animal protection organisations identify as people of colour. Five years after its creation, this organisation folded, but among the very good work it did was producing a study titled “Voices of the Movement: toward an equitable farm animal protection movement”, and a book titled “Antiracism in Animal Advocacy. Igniting Cultural Transformation” — which I have also read and learnt a lot from it. The book was originally Jasmin’s concept. She also edited it and wrote the introduction. I asked her whether she has perceived any improvement over the years on the problem of racism in our movements.
“I should have also mentioned Amy Luebbert as someone I recently interviewed who has influenced me. I met her through my work at Encompass, as she used to work there when Encompass existed. I interviewed her about various topics, but one of them is anti-racism and racism within the animal protection movement. I think that specifically within animal protection we lost something big when we lost Encompass.
People like me, who’ve been in the animal protection movement for 18 years, have a lot to look at in terms of our role in perpetuating a white supremacist culture within the institutional animal protection movement — and I have been looking at it. I was a white person in the animal rights world for many years before this even occurred to me, which I regret wholeheartedly. There were so many ways I benefited from being white in this corner of social justice work, and it took me too long to examine and unpack. I had a lot of unlearning to do and that will be a lifelong process.
Regarding whether the antiracism work in our movement has had an impact, one way that I think it’s moved along in what is ultimately a positive direction is that many of the institutional animal protection organisations are now taking this very seriously and are ensuring that there is inclusivity amongst their leadership.
Sometimes I worry that is just optics, and that people are just doing what they need to do in order to not get called out. But other times I see real change, I see real priorities of elevating activists of the global majority who are doing important work. But this is a very tiny amount of people, ultimately. And because we still live in a white supremacist society, certainly in western civilization, it’s going to continue as long as racism continues — and I think is going to continue for a long time because a lot of people refuse to look at it.
White vegans in the global animal protection community can do better at modelling the behaviour we want to be reflected in the rest of the world. We already model the behaviour of eating in alignment with our beliefs; we already did the hard work of recognising how eating animals is perpetuating an industry based on violence, so we have to continue to do the hard work and recognise that refusing to look at our role in white supremacy culture is also perpetuating a system that is based on violence. I think, in some ways, the movement and its players have taken this more seriously in the last few years, but not nearly enough; it’s two steps forward and one step back.”
The ”I” Word (Intersectionality)
I have written about intersectionality several times now. For me, it means the theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of social and political identities (race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination. In my book “Ethical Vegan” I “came out” (if that is an appropriate word in this case) as an intersectional vegan (someone who has also embraced the social justice dimension of veganism), and I have added this layer of identity to myself, partially because of reacting against anti-intersectionality in the vegan movement (almost like the famous Je Suis Charlie reaction to the 2015 murders of twelve people at the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo).
However, after having interviewed several vegans who have been associated with this label (such as Christopher Sebastian and Mark Hawthorne) I have been made aware of how many of those who used to define themselves as intersectional vegans do not use this term anymore — although they continue to have the intersectional approach and speak its language. Jasmin is one of them. I noted that the reason is explained in the glossary of the anti-racism book she edited for Encompass (and it is based on believing that the term should only be used with the specific meaning that was initially used in the 1980s):
“Intersectionality: The specific marginalisation of black women on the basis of race and gender, as coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Many people use this term to describe any juxtaposition of two issue areas, but we find that erases Black women once again. Therefore, Encompass uses this term as Crenshaw intended, to highlight the specific marginalisation of black women.”
As I still think it is very useful to look at veganism through a prism in which various forms of inequity and discrimination often operate together and exacerbate each other, I asked Jasmin which term other than the “I” word — which understandably triggers some people — would be better used to label such prism. This is what she replied:
“I used to use the word ‘intersectionality’ until I had given it more thought, so I understand why people do it. I think people who use it are well-intentioned — as I was — but, as Maya Angelou says, when you know better you do better. That’s what we’re doing here in this conversation and in our lives in general. So, what I would say is ‘the overlapping connections between various social justice issues.’ That is a turn of phrase I say a lot. If I have more time to elaborate, I will say that it is the mindset of the oppressor that is the same no matter what you’re talking about. But I’m not saying that the lived experience of oppression is the same —I don’t compare those — but the mindset that ‘I can do whatever I want to you because I’m better than you’ is the problem. So, all of that was said without using the word intersectionality, which I believe has become a misappropriated word.”
That’s an interesting turn of phrase. Perhaps a better term for the “I” word may be “Overlappinality”, and for the vegans who entered “the vegan mansion” through this gateway, a better term may be “social justice vegans”— just an idea.
A Vegan Queer Person
I wanted to know if the overlapping of Jasmin’s veganism and her sexual orientation had made her experience an enhanced form of discrimination — one that was bigger than the sum of the discrimination these two different identity attributes normally carry by themselves. This is what she told me:
“I find this a fascinating subject and I have thought this through nine-zillion times. I love talking about it, but I have to remind myself that it’s not vegans who are oppressed, it’s the animals. Of course, vegans are sometimes treated like shit because we boycott the oppression of animals, but I have caught myself in the trap of comparing the oppression that perhaps I have experienced as a queer person and as a vegan. But it’s ultimately not about me in terms of veganism, so it’s just something to keep in mind.
I remember interviewing John Phillips, an activist in New York City, in 2006. It was for my first published article ever, and it was about this subject. It was called ‘Coming Out for Animal Rights.’ He was gay and he said that when he came out as gay and vegan his mother was more concerned that he would die of protein deficiency than he would die of AIDS. That’s the way he said it.
I have experienced depression as a queer person, sure, but mostly as a fat person for most of my life — not really currently, but it’s always in you. The fat-phobia everywhere is staggering, and it feels as overwhelming sometimes as learning about what happens to animals — because of how normalised it is. There are a variety of things that are normalised, eating animals is one of them, but when we know better we do better, and recognising anti-fat bias is another one that is not only everywhere in the world, but it’s everywhere in the vegan movement — which also needs to change.
In general, I feel like I’m very privileged as a cisgender, white person. If I was a man of colour, if I was a trans person, if I was a trans person of colour, specifically if I was a trans woman of colour, it would be a very different conversation. It would be a very scary place to exist.”
You can tell when someone really cares about others, no matter who these “others” are. And by talking to Jasmin, it is clear that she cares. She not only spent most of her life fighting for the rights of non-human animals, LBBTQ+ people, people of the global majority, and anyone else who is a victim of oppression, but she cares for vegan activists too, and she tries to help them in any way she can. Jasmin told me that she used to coach people when she was in her 20s, and she has started to do it again — now coaching people about their activism and veganism, including those who might feel stuck in their lives for whatever reason (she has a website about this, if you are interested). She probably is very good at it, considering her own experience in transforming herself. And she continues writing, not only for her upcoming books but for her newsletter, Jasmin’s Jargon, which people can subscribe to).
Despite everything she does, one of the things I don’t think she will give up any time soon is chatting with other vegans. Via her podcasts, her conversations with other vegans of interest will continue to enrich her knowledge and understanding of those trying to help the victims of carnism and supremacism, whilst teaching a thing or two about this complex and challenging world to all of us listening.
When I talked to her via Zoom, it did not feel like an interview. Even if we just met, it felt like a conversation among friends. An honest conversation from which I could learn a lot.
I feel lucky and privileged of having had it.