Queer Rights/Animal Rights. Straight talking with Mirha-Soleil Ross.

By Claudette Vaughan.

Claudette: For readers who aren't familiar with your work please tell us some history about yourself and how you became an AR activist.

Mirha-Soleil: I'm a transsexual videomaker, performer and a long time prostitute and sex workers' rights activist. I grew up in a poor neighborhood on the south shore of Montréal (French-Québec) in a francophone and mostly illiterate family. In the mid '80s, when I was about 16 years old, I watched a TV documentary about fur that included footage of animals caught in snares and leg-hold traps. It changed my life forever. I was so traumatized by what I witnessed that the next day I ran to an anti-fur protest. That's when I met a whole bunch of animal rights activists. I had lots of questions; they had good answers and by 6pm that same night, I had stopped eating meat, stopped wearing leather, and was eager to learn and do a whole lot more. In terms of animal rights work, some of my main contributions have included hosting for 4 years a weekly animal rights radio show called ANIMAL VOICES on CIUT 89.5 FM (broadcast on the web at www.ciut.fm). In 1997, I also developed the first ever publicly funded social services program for low income and street active transsexual and transgendered people in Toronto. Called MEAL-TRANS, the program included a weekly meal drop-in where we served the best vegan food in town. I coordinated the program from 1997-1999 and then passed the leadership onto another transsexual woman named Christina Strang who ran the project very well until 2002. Unfortunately she then accepted a new job at another agency and the new MEAL-TRANS staff recently started serving flesh! Another action I did was when I got elected Grand Marshal for the annual Toronto Queer Pride Parade in recognition of my work within the trans and sex workers' communities. I decided to use that opportunity to celebrate my own favorite group of heroes: the Animal Liberation Front! I organized a contingent of activists who carried placards that highlighted ALF actions spanning two decades. So while irritating left-wing radical queer activists kept complaining about how queer pride had become too corporate, too mainstream and too apolitical, we lead the parade celebrating an organization that is identified as a domestic terrorist threat in North America! I was dressed up as The Lady of the Beasts and the twenty activists accompanying me were in army fatigues and wearing coyote masks. All along the route, while up to a million people applauded, the activists lined up in front of every McDonalds, every leather shop and as I screamed "Meat is Murder!" or "Leather Sucks!" lifted their legs and pretented to piss on the storefronts... It was a real treat!

Claudette: The scam of animal experimentation and the vivisector community has yet to be exposed in a
big way from within the gay, lesbian or transgender community. Why do you think this is?

Mirha-Soleil: I think it is the overall mass-scale exploitation and abuse of animals – not just animal experimentation – that has yet to be exposed in any way within queer communities. I learnt at an early age that it was a mistake to think of queer people, even the most politicized ones, as any more "revolutionary" or more likely to care about animals than anyone else. They can be just as self-centered and self-serving as any other group around. In addition to that, the gay community has been affected by AIDS and, outside of a few exceptions, supports animal-based research and multi-national pharmaceutical companies. For as long as they can be made to believe that it can help increase treatment options for their own asses, they really won't give a shit about anyone else, especially not animals. And then you also have a small group that refers to itself as "the leather community" – another whiny bunch who think they look tough strutting around in their expensive designer fetish gears. Don't let me get into that one! I grew up in a family of really masculine construction workers and none of them needed a leather jock-strap to feel male. Both of my grand-mothers could knock a man down in a flash and neither ever needed anything more than one fist to assert their power as women. So the whole queer leather scene with its grotesque clowns trying to have their taste for dead skin recognized as an "oppression" is nothing short of an elaborate and sick joke to me.

Claudette: You've dedicated a lot of energy trying to highlight the issue of queers' unwillingness to fight for the rights of animals. Your activism is an extraordinary accomplishment. How did you arrive there?

Mirha-Soleil: I didn't become politically active in the first place because I wanted to improve my own life circumstances but because I cared about other animals, human and non-human. I was involved in the animal rights movement and in other types of social justice activities long before I did anything that revolved around queer or transsexual or sex worker or poverty issues. And I think that it was for me a very healthy process in terms of consciousness and development. If you care and feel revolted at the sight of a tiny mouse stuck in a glue trap in someone's kitchen cupboard, then it won't be hard convincing you to care about the future of humankind. And yes I've tried to do my part to try to address animal issues within the queer community whenever I've had an opportunity. I'll give you an example. In 2000, I was invited by two curators to create a new short video for an upcoming special screening at the Toronto International Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The video had to address the theme of "trans romance". The attendance was going to be really great, around 750 people. So my partner Mark Karbusicky and I wondered how we could explore the topic of "trans romance" while exposing the nauseating treatment of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. And how could we make that package interesting and relevant to a young, mostly queer and trans audience. We ended up using a series of interviews with a group of sexually diverse vegans who spoke about their preference for other vegans as romantic and sexual partners. In addition to that, in the first half of the video, we used explicit images of me and Mark having sex and in the second, we used video footage of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms. It turned out to be a success! The film "G-SPrOuT!" has been shown at over 25 international queer, trans, and other independent film festivals (including the Melbourne Queer Film Festival) and we constantly have people telling us about the impact the video had on them, including many who say it made them stop eating meat. Thousands and thousands of people have seen the film, exactly the kind of people who will not watch a tape of raw footage distributed by PETA or the FARM SANCTUARY. So when we hear animal rights activists say they want to reach out to diverse communities, we say to them that that they need to rethink the way they present animal rights issues to these communities. You need to have different strategies and you need to have people who already have their roots within these communities do the work. And you need to empower them and put them in charge. Unfortunately, it would appear as though there isn't much interest in learning about these kinds of successful educational tools and campaigns because we tried over and over again to get G-SPrOuT! screened at animal rights and vegetarian conferences and it was never accepted.

Claudette: Sex workers have become increasingly organized this past decade demanding reforms of laws that punish consensual commercial sex. Are you disappointed with the hypocrisy of feminist groups who have shunned the issue while still professing to work for women's rights?

Mirha-Soleil: Western feminists have conveniently treated prostitution as the ultimate symbol of male violence and of women's economic and sexual subjugation. But for the last three decades, we've had in the West (and for even longer than that in so called "third world" countries) groups and networks of prostitutes who have clearly articulated what our political needs are and what needs to be accomplished legally and culturally in order for us to work and live more safely and with more dignity. Internationally at this point, we have consensus on basic goals such as the need to have prostitution recognized as legitimate work and decriminalized. We do not believe that prostitution is inherently exploitative, degrading or hurtful. Instead we think that the various anti-prostitution laws and vicious cultural attitudes towards prostitution and prostitutes create a context within which our most fundamental human rights can be violated, a climate within which some think it is ok to harass, rape, and kill us. Our analysis and positions as working prostitutes have been elaborated from years and years of daily experience of prostitution. They are not the results of abstract theorizing conducted by feminist social scientists who have never turned a trick and who have spent most of their lives buried deep down within their library books. And unfortunately the animal rights community has been one social justice movement where the voices of prostitutes have been painfully absent and this in the presence of very disparaging and hurtful attitudes and propaganda. Writers like Carol Adams, Gary Francione, and Jim Mason all regurgitate old seventies misinformed radical feminist ramblings around prostitution and pornography. They make offensive and trivializing comparison between consenting adult women working in the sex trade and non-consenting animals murdered by the meat industry. And they do so without ever speaking to us. If anyone is going to start writing articles and developing theories linking meat to pornography and prostitution and the so-called objectification of women's bodies, than I insist that we – as women and as prostitutes and as sex workers – be the first ones consulted regarding these matters!

Claudette: In your one woman show Yapping Out Loud: Contagious Thought from an Unrepentant Whore, you've made a connection between coyotes and prostitutes. Please tell us about that.

Mirha-Soleil: In 1999, I got funding to write and produce my first full length performance, a series of character-based and autobiographical monologues addressing anti-prostitution discourses and campaigns. I wanted to detail the way various groups like feminists, social workers, and law enforcement agencies all work together to create a society within which both our work and our lives as prostitutes are devalued with often tragic consequences. I also wanted to show how the violence that is perpetrated against us ends up being used by all of them to fuel their own anti-prostitution ideologies and further their own agendas with absolutely no regards for what we - as working prostitutes - say we need in order to improve our working and living conditions. So when I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I got interested by one of the longest running prostitutes' rights organizations in the United States. That organization is called C.O.Y.O.T.E. (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and I read that the acronym COYOTE was originally picked by founder Margot Saint-James because the animal stood as a perfect metaphor for the way prostitutes were and continue to be viewed and treated in our culture: as threatening intruders, carriers of diseases, and as vermin to be eliminated. So on one hand I was intrigued by this comparison but on the other very uncomfortable with having an entire nation of animals used once again as a metaphor so gratuitously, that is without any proper representation or compensation. And I decided that as a prostitute and as an animal rights activist, it was my duty to try to give a little bit back to the coyotes and show people the brutal reality faced by hundreds of thousands of them every year in North America – being poisoned, shot, and trapped as part of various hunting contests and "control" programs. Indirectly, I also wanted to ask some hard questions regarding our use of animals as "metaphors" for human suffering. How appropriate is it to compare our own human suffering to that of animals when most of the time, quantitatively and qualitatively, there is so much disparity between the two? I presented the show here in Toronto in 2001 and I will perform it again in September 2003 in New York as part of WOW Café's first National Transgender Theatre Festival.

Claudette: I've made a connection between women and animals and here's one example. In Australia recently a woman was brutally raped. She commented at the time that the intruder was tearing out large chunks of her flesh with his mouth trying to mutilate her. I'm collecting files on this third aspect of rape ie. mutilation and decapitation and I'm convinced it all began with animal mutilation - vivisections, de-beaking, tail-docking, castration etc. Any thoughts on the matter.

Mirha-Soleil: I do believe there are some connections between cruelty to animals and violence towards some groups of humans, including women. And I do think that it can be strategically useful to point these out at specific times and as part of specific campaigns. But I am not one who is obsessively trying to "connect everything" as the eco-feminist slogan goes... I think animal abuse, what's happening in labs, on fur farms, in slaughterhouses, on trap lines, in live animal markets, etc. is something that in and of itself we as a society need to recognize as gruesome and unacceptable, irregardless of whether or not it directly affects us as humans. For as long as we don't acknowledge that specific form of violence for what it is and for as long as we are not deeply moved to end it, we will be morally bankrupt and yes, I believe we will continue to commit atrocities towards other humans.

Claudette: What is your vision for the continuance of the AR movement? Mine is there must emerge a second women's movement intrinsically linked to the AR movement. Unlike the 60's when women were burning their bras, this time we'll be burning our leather shoes!

Mirha-Soleil: As a quick and catchy image I like it but I would love to see something more meaningful done with the skin of these animals, something that would more dramatically highlight where they came from and what they really represent, the horror and the suffering behind them. Also I think that at least here in North America, we have already seen what people refer to as "second wave" and "third wave" feminisms and I haven't found these to be anymore friendly towards animals. It can actually be quite the opposite. A lot of hip and young "third wave" feminists see vegetarianism as some tacky and embarrassing vestige from very problematic old-fashioned feminist politics. So therefore as a transsexual and as a prostitute and as someone deeply committed to fighting for animal liberation, I have become less and less inclined to rely on feminism to provide me with an appropriate framework within which to think and solve broader political issues, including animal rights. I have just seen too often how seriously feminists can fuck up and how much damage they can cause. So I am extremely concerned with anyone trying to impose a single political or philosophic framework on the entire animal rights movement. I think the health and success of this movement will depend on its ability not to be dominated by one political ideology. The more we will see caring for animals and resistance to animal abuse flourish in a multitude of geographical, cultural, linguistic, religious, class, and ethnic contexts, the more likely our movement is to survive, diversify, expand, and be successful. The most important thing is that everywhere in the world, there are people who can recognize animal cruelty and abuse when they see it perpetrated. And whether they decide to fight it based on their feminist or religious beliefs or as part of their anti-speciest or anti-colonial efforts is really secondary to me.

Individuals and community groups interested in obtaining copies of Mirha-Soleil Ross' video work can contact: veganbums@sympatico.ca