Monday, 25 April 2016

An open letter to Stephen Fry

Dear Stephen Fry,

Like many people I read your comments on trauma with frustration. I was disappointed, but I wasn't actually that surprised. Even though you've been a mainstream figurehead for mental health issues, liberalism and LGBTQ+ issues, you've also always been a symbol of quintessential "Britishness", whatever that means. When you read Harry Potter on those audio tapes and everyone was fussing over your voice, I thought it was okay. But I was bored really, because yours is the same voice we hear most of the time across most of society, the voice that is churned out over and over again - the voice of a well-educated, wealthy, white man. Yes, we both have mental health stuff, and yes we're both queer, and yes we're both politically left wing... but I never felt like I had that much in common with you. That feeling of distance started long before the comments.

But what really separates you and me is this ideal "Britishness" that you have always embodied. It's a culture of "keep calm and carry on" which has become the token phrase of Britain, and which I have never subscribed to. It is the voice of the establishment, a big dominating voice telling us that whatever happens, we should just keep our heads down and get on with it like "good citizens". It's the voice that tells us that if only we kept calm we would get further in life, and climb society's ladder. It's the voice that tells us that if we ever are to protest, or make a fuss, or stand up for something we believe in, we should do it politely and in an orderly manner.

It's bullshit of course. Your activism involves going to dinner parties and mine involves breaking them up. You might be able to keep calm, but some people just can't. For those of us who see day to day the failures of the government, at home, at work, and everywhere we turn, staying calm just isn't an option.

The reason most protestors can't stay calm is because we're angry, stressed, and frankly pissed off at people like you trying to police how we should and shouldn't do things. You talk about getting rid of trigger warnings and the "ugliness" of self-pity as if you're an authority on the subject. But the only people who are authorities on these things are the people who live day to day with trauma.

I speak out about my trauma Stephen Fry. I speak out about what I have experienced because in a society that tells me to "keep calm and carry on" one of the most empowering things I feel I can do, emotionally and politically, is to talk about what I've experienced and how it has shaped my life. The personal is political. Being emotional is political. And admitting we are humans, who suffer and feel pain, is political too.

So please don't try to be all pc on us. We don't need your pity, or for you to tell us we don't have your pity. We just need you to be a bit more of an empathetic human being.

Best, Yas

Monday, 18 April 2016

A Turkish Wedding and a Bow Tie

This weekend I went to the wedding of two people I’d never met before. When I got there, I didn't want to go in. But I did, and by the end of the evening I'm ashamed to say that I was actually dancing to a remix of a Justin Bieber song. I can't believe I just wrote that on the internet.

Honestly, I'm not the biggest fan of weddings. I'm not the biggest fan of weddings, or parties, or anything that involves dancing or socialising really. Especially not weddings - marriage is an institution and all that. So when I got an invite to the wedding of two people I didn't even know existed before, I was reluctant to go.

Needless to say, my folks ticked RSVP anyway and dragged me along. The wedding was huge, and I didn't know anyone. It’s usually the case with Turkish weddings. My granddad had ten brothers and one sister, and that’s just one grandparent out of four… so you can only imagine how many cousins I have. Despite this we still spent most of the weekend trying to figure out whether the groom was actually related to us or not. Maybe he was a cousin, maybe he was a family friend, maybe we both just had distant relatives from the same village… who knew?

I rocked up in my usual "smart-wear" - a suit with a funky shirt and bow tie. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of guys outside smoking, all wearing suits like men are supposed to wear suits, joking around like typical "lads". I just froze and thought what the fuck am I doing? I can't walk into a space full of heterosexual people looking like this.

We entered the lobby. My sister, Leyla, was wearing a bright green dress and bright green glitter-eyeliner. I had glitter in my hair. I looked around at everyone else, looking traditional as ever, and I whispered to her stuff like this always makes me feel like a sore thumb.

I was mis-gendered almost immediately. "Sir" is a word I'm too used to hearing, but I'm not tough or smart enough to have come up with a good come back yet, so I just respond as if nothing has been said wrong. Most the time I don't even correct people. When I needed the toilet, I asked Leyla if she'd come to the ladies' restroom with me because I didn't want to walk in alone. The thing is, I'm all too aware that if one person misgenders me, other people will too. And I hate thinking that when I'm in a women's-only space. I hate feeling like I could be making other people there uncomfortable.

This is ridiculous, of course, because I have as much of a right to be in women's-only spaces as any other woman. Yes, my gender-presentation is more butch/androgynous. And yes, my gender-identity is fluid. But for the most part I am female-identifying, or non-binary but still feeling more like a woman than a man. Rationally, I know I have a right to be there. Emotionally, I feel invasive, uncomfortable and wrong.

After the horror of the toilets was over, I started to relax a little. A little while after that, they played a song we knew by a Turkish popstar, and me and Leyla sung along in the corridor outside the main hall. A little while after that, I was bored so I asked Leyla if she wanted to dance. So we danced. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not the dancy kind of person, usually I hate it. But right then and there I wanted to feel normal. I wanted to feel like I could do what everyone else was doing in that space, and I could do it just as freely as anybody else could. I got a few funny looks. I did notice them. But I had also stopped caring by that point. That's what lead me to the shame of dancing to Justin Bieber (also, who plays Justin Bieber at a wedding?!).

Having said all of this negative stuff, as the night wore on I actually felt quite excited to be there. I got the odd look here and there, but for the most part, people were chilled about me clearly being a butch lesbian. Nobody made any rude comments, nobody seemed to be dragging their children in the opposite direction, and nobody told me I should have worn a dress. They didn't even hint that I would look nicer in a dress/better in a dress/it was weird that I was wearing a suit etc.

There was a time before when I would wear dresses just to fit in, or because someone else told me to. And there I was, at a huge family wedding, hanging out in my suit, and dancing with my sister, and having a good time. My mum, dad, grandma, aunt and the few other people I actually knew, were totally cool about the way I chose to present myself. And nobody thought I was spoiling the wedding simply by being there.

There came a point in my life a while ago when I had to decide between wearing what people expected me to wear and "fitting in," or wearing what made me comfortable and being that "sore thumb." In other words, choosing between accepting myself for who I was, or having other people accept me for someone I wasn't. In recent years I've chosen the loud and proud thing. It's a shame that wearing what I want automatically makes me loud, but that's the world we live in right now. The point is, I went to that wedding, and I rocked glitter, and I showed off my rainbow heart tattoo, and I had the gayest haircut in the world. And I wore a suit and I was happy. And people were nice to me.

I'm always on edge, but it's nice when something surprises you. People can be more wonderful than my anxiety gives them credit for. And that makes me happy about the world.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Why I'm vegan, but not a vegan activist

Content note: homelessness, death, racism, holocaust, cannibalism, war

It's no secret that I'm vegan, so people often ask me why I'm not an animal rights activist. After all, the arguments for veganism are clear: it's better for the environment, better for our health and better for the animals at the receiving end of our quest for meat and animal byproducts. I'm an activist, so why don't I fight veganism's corner? Why don't I do more animal rights activism in any sense of the term?

I'm walking down a busy street in central London, when I bump into a friend of mine. Carrie* is homeless, and has been for about six months. I ask her if I can get her something to eat, because I know the local cafes and restaurants throw her out if she enters to buy food, some bullshit about her homelessness "upsetting other customers." She says to me that she'd like a chicken burger.

I have never hesitated in buying Carrie a chicken burger. But I have thought about how this aligns with my principles.

Principle 1: Kindness. I try to support others where I can, particularly those who are in a situation that makes them vulnerable.

Principle 2: Veganism. I decided to become vegan because I never again wanted a penny of my money to go towards the exploitation of another life.

If I was to buy Carrie an avocado sandwich, or some falafel, or a veggie burger, I would be adhering to both of these morals. But I always buy her what she asks for, therefore consistently disregarding the first. I know that vegan food can provide every nutrient and every ounce of protein that a person possibly needs. So why don't I ever suggest buying her something vegan?

The answer for me is easy: because although I fully support animal rights, I think human rights are more important.

This is not to say that I am not a supporter of animal rights, or that I've never participated in animal rights activism. I often speak to people about my veganism, and up until recently I helped run a stall for animal shelters and animal rights charities in my local area. I promoted petitions against cruel sports like horse-racing, talked to people about snares, and gathered petition signatures against repealing the hunting ban. I wouldn't call myself an animal rights activist, but I've definitely participated in that kind of activism.

So where do I draw the line? Some animal rights activists, particularly vegan activists, have compared the exploitation of animals to eating children, racism and the holocaust.** I just find it all a bit unacceptable. I believe in showing love and acceptance to all forms of life, and I wish I could also believe that all life is equal. But when it comes down to it, if I had no choice but to choose between saving a baby's life or a chicken's life, I would save the baby. And if I had no choice but to choose between a cat's life or a baby's life, I would still save the baby.

I am what some would call a "speciesist" because I value human life the most. This doesn't mean that I think human beings are good for the earth, or good for other animals, or good for anything. In fact, I think our evolution was possibly the worst thing that ever happened to this planet. But I will fight for equality amongst all human beings before I would fight for equality between my sister and a chicken. I'm being a bit silly here, but you get what I mean.

I'm a believer in fairness and kindness between all species through and through. That's why I eat a meat-free diet, and am trying to eliminate all forms of non-vegan products from my life, from soap to medicine to the shoes I wear.

But let's go back to Carrie for a second. She's cold, she's got an infected wound on her hand, the police keep moving her on and she doesn't know if she'll have somewhere to sleep tonight. For me to go over to her and tell her that a plant based diet is what's best for her, and sorry but I don't buy meat, would be, in my opinion, just wrong. I would be taking away her right to decide what food she puts into her own body, and that would be completely dehumanising.

Some vegan activists would argue that I've used an extreme case, that those who aren't homeless could all make the effort to be vegan. But let's not forget that veganism is a privilege in the UK, where meat is so readily and easily available, and we've all been socialised into eating it. Such a big dietary change requires a lot of effort, a lot of time, and a lot of money. There's no point in a middle class kid like me telling other people that "it's so easy" and you "just do this." There's no point in me investing in clothes that were made without any animal by-products, if those clothes were made in some factory in Bangladesh which used child labour and paid the workers 3 pence an hour. And although I never agreed with what happened to Cecil the lion, I am disappointed in every person who signed that petition without giving a second thought to all the human beings being killed right now, from Syria to South Sudan.

So yeah, I'm vegan. And yeah, I love animals. And yeah, I'm proud of it. But there's only so much time a person can give to campaigning for change, and my time will go to human rights first.

*I've used a fake name to protect the identity of the woman I'm writing about
**This is not a representation of all animal rights or vegan activists, or all those who believe in animal rights or a vegan lifestyle. It represents a minority.