A Place To Breathe

The Toronto Veg Fest was this weekend and for the second year in a row I had the chance to volunteer with Mercy for Animals, one of my favourite animal protection agencies. They are organized, on-time, and they know what they’re doing. Not only does this appeal to the Type-A side of my personality but it also makes volunteering that much more fulfilling. When you can focus on the animals instead of whose supposed to be doing what, it’s much easier to remain positive and engaged with the task at hand and it removes unnecessary frustration and stress.

Toronto Veg Fest, like the Pride Parade, is a mostly celebratory event and people are relaxed and eager to be there. Even if people attending aren’t vegan, the crowd is much more receptive to hearing about animal rights within that setting. Handing out flyers at say, Rib Fest or another meat-centered public gathering is obviously a different tone altogether. But you can’t always sing to the choir or nothing would change.

But man, is it important to take those opportunities to be among “your people”. Just being able to exhale at Veg Fest and not have to smell the cooking body parts of animals around me and to see all these amazing organizations in one place – from Toronto Pig Save, to Animal Justice Canada, to vegan restaurants and dessert places – was close to being in my own idea of heaven for a while. I felt relaxed and confident, and being able to let my guard down for a few hours left me feeling invigorated. I got to be myself, expressing the most important part of who I am; the part of me that wants nothing more than to talk about animals and the conditions in which they are forced to live, the same part of me that spends most days being censored or dismissed by the very culture that oppresses animals in the first place.

Leaving the Festival was hard, as it always is. Twelve years ago I used to live near Church and Wellesley which is the heart of Toronto’s LGBTQI community. I remember one day walking down the main stretch and seeing several same-sex couples holding hands, relaxed and enjoying the stroll. I was walking a few feet behind one particular couple for several blocks and as we reached the end of the main road and turned onto the sidewalk that was no longer part of “the village” (as it was called at the time), they dropped hands. It may have been a coincidence that they stopped holding hands right at the same moment we turned onto a part of the city that was not as safe or comfortable a space for same-sex couples but that image has stayed with me for years.

As I left Veg Fest Sunday afternoon, glowing and relaxed from an afternoon of feeling accepted and being able to express my true self and not be judged for it, the other world – the one where animals are either pets, clothing, entertainment or food – began to seep in. The further I walked away from the festival, the stronger the smell of hot dogs and sausages from street vendors began to fill the air. I noticed people lined up outside of steakhouses and ice-cream parlours, and the obnoxious ads for animal flesh and products suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Someone tried to hand me a flyer for fishing lessons and I could feel the drawbridge that led to my heart, and my true self, slowly closing once more.

In no way do I wish to compare myself to what it must be like for a gay or trans person living in the world. I remain well aware that apart from having a vagina, I am the status quo: white, cis female, heterosexual. I am not comparing my experience of being vegan to that experience of the hand-holding couple from a decade ago. But I am comparing the feeling of knowing when you’re in a safe place, and knowing all too well when you’re leaving it.

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