"Being gay isn’t something that I chose, it’s just something that I am, whereas being vegan is something that I choose every day."

Ari Solomon (right), 40, is an animal rights activist and works at Mercy for Animals. He's gay, secular Jewish, and vegan. He lives in L.A. with his husband, Mikko (left) and their two cats. Photos courtesy of Ari.

 

at what age were you aware of your sexuality and gender identity?

I was in my mid-teens. In high school, I dated women but it never felt like the way my friends were feeling, which I knew just from talking to them. I had a girlfriend, and when she asked me to sleep with her, I said no. (laughter) I figured something was going on if I didn't want to sleep with my girlfriend, so I investigated that a little bit further. At the same time, I had some new friends in my life who identified as bisexual, so it allowed me to explore that side as well. 

Toward the end of my senior year, I realized pretty quickly that I was gay, but I waited to come out until after I graduated because I went to an inner city school, and this was like the mid-90s, and so if I had come out then I could have been in danger. I knew I was going to NYU in the fall, which is a very progressive school, so I literally waited until the day after graduation and came out to essentially all of my friends. I was pretty lucky: it was really well received. All of my friends and family were incredibly supportive.

 

did you have any support from friends, relatives, or mentors? were any of them LGBTQ?

My grandmother had always been friendly with gay men so I grew up around gay couples, which really helped me see that you could have a life and be gay. I mean, these men didn't consider themselves married (I don’t think it was even a consideration at the time), but they were life-long lovers. It's such an 80s term, but that's how they referred to themselves!

Seeing them happy and be friends with my grandparents was kind of cool because I was like, Oh, my grandparents love these guys so if I’m like them, they’re not going to hold that against me. It really helped me in my process, knowing that I was going to be loved and that I was going to be okay.

It's funny, when I came out to my grandmother, she started to cry. She was the only one who had this emotional response, so I asked her, "Why are you crying?" And she said, "I'm crying because everyone in the family's going to blame me because I exposed you to all of my gay friends!" And I was like, "Well, if anything, it helped me. Thank you for not holding back your friendships with these men from me because it really helped me in my process, and knowing that I was going to be loved and that it was okay." So yeah, she thought that everyone in the family was going to blame her for my homosexuality. (laughter)

 

did you find representation for your identity?

I didn’t seek out other gay people. There wasn’t really a way to do that. The internet at the time was basically America Online, and this was before Ellen, before Glee, before so many great, positive role models that are now in our pop culture.

I took a lot of solace in the pop stars of the day, like Madonna, who were speaking out about AIDS awareness, which related directly to the gay community. I remember watching her in an interview in the early 90s on like 20/20 or something, and she was just so outspoken that it was okay to be gay. I remember thinking, This incredibly successful woman who I love is speaking out for me! It was very influential in helping me in my process. 

Within a couple months [of coming out], I was living in New York City and going to college at New York University where like literally everyone was gay. It was amazing. Just in my first days there, I found about a group called Out Artists, which was a student group at Tisch. I went and met other people my age who were also gay and we quickly formed bonds. It was awesome.

Part of being what I consider a well-adjusted gay man, or not having some of the internal struggles that other people have had for so long, is because I was in a city where it was widely accepted and at a university where it was widely accepted. I got to meet other people my age and we got to share stories and hang out.

 

do you feel your sexuality is essential to your identity?

It's very essential. I’m married now, so it dictates what my family looks like. It’s also extremely influential in terms of my politics. I work with many other people in the LGBT world. I follow all sorts of LGBT issues and have been involved in LGBT activism here in Los Angeles, especially during the Prop 8 ballot measure when I was phone banking and going to rallies. I feel that it does affect my life and is an important part of my life, for sure. 

I definitely feel like me being LGBT directly affected me becoming vegan, and then an animal rights activist. Now, I work full-time for an NGO that advocates for animals. It’s a very important aspect of my life.

 

have you been open about your sexuality and gender identity at home, school, and in the workplace?

I don’t think someone like me has a choice. I’m very gay. Ever since I came out, I've lived very openly in my private life and in my professional life. I’ve always been very open about that part of me.

I've lived in New York City and Los Angeles, in big cities where it’s a lot more accepted, and I always worked in professions where there were other LGBT people, so I've never felt discriminated against in the workplace. It's been easy to be open. And my family has been very supportive since the beginning and continues to be, so I consider myself very lucky.

 

 

"There wasn’t awareness at the time in schools about bullying and teachers protecting kids from attacks like that.There was nowhere for me to really go. I think that I just kind of endured it and tried to keep my head down when it happened and act like it wasn’t happening. Even now, when I talk about it, it bothers me."

 

have you experienced homophobia, mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination because of your sexuality and gender identity?

Aside from random people screaming faggot when you walk down the street? Which has happened many times! I've never been denied a job or haven't been able to rent an apartment. Nothing like that, just the usual verbal attacks that you sometimes get as a gay man holding another man’s hand, or just as a gay man walking down the street. I think I would call that garden variety homophobia. Discrimination is like, you were being held back because of your orientation, more than just homophobia. 

I think I started experiencing homophobia in middle school even before I knew I was gay. It seemed like everyone else knew and I didn’t know. Around 11 or 12 years old is when it started: being bullied in school, being called a faggot, being called a fairy, you know. I was never really physically assaulted, just verbally assaulted, but I think that, honestly, of all the experiences in my life, I would say that is the one that has stayed with me the longest and has been the most damaging.

At the time, I was being told things like, "Just ignore it," "Don’t let it bother you," and "Brush it off," because there wasn’t awareness at the time in schools about bullying and teachers protecting kids from attacks like that. There was nowhere for me to really go. I think that I just kind of endured it and tried to keep my head down when it happened and act like it wasn’t happening. Even now, when I talk about it, it bothers me. And I’ve been through 4.5 years of therapy and it still bothers me to talk about it because I remember how hurt that used to make me feel.

As I got older, in my late teens and early 20s, and I'd be walking down the street and someone would shout out faggot, I definitely would get a feeling but I can't remember one experience that disturbed me more than when I think about being 11, 12, 13 years old. 

 

when did you stop eating animal products and why?

I stopped eating animals products when I was 30 years old. So, 10 years ago. I was watching the View, and Alicia Silverstone was on as a guest. The first thing she said was that she was a vegan. I was like, I don’t care, but then Rosie O’Donnell asked her why she was a vegan and she said, “Well, I love my dogs and one day I was sitting on the couch, looking at them, and thought, if I’m going to eat animals why don’t I just eat my dogs? What’s the difference between a dog and a cow, or a dog and a pig?" And I was like, Wow. I never thought about that before. 

So, I went to my computer and Googled “Alicia Silverstone” and “vegan” and that put me on the PETA website. I started watching all of these undercover animal videos on factory farms. And I was like, Holy shit! I’m 30 years old and I’ve never thought about this before. I knew that meat, dairy, and eggs came from animals, but I never thought about the process of all of that happening, and no one had ever challenged me on it. I remember thinking, My god, how can I be 30 years old and not know about this? I had always considered myself an animal lover and I have cats. I run with a pretty progressive crowd. I’m liberal. No one had ever brought this up.

Basically, I was looking at these videos for a couple of hours, and my husband came into the room and asked if I was going into work (I had blown off work that morning). I told him, "I know this is coming out of nowhere but I don’t think I can ever eat animal products again. This is just insane and I don’t want to be supporting an industry that treats animals this way." He asked, "What are you talking about?" So I showed him the videos and he said, "Okay, we don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t want to see anymore of that."

 

So, you basically went vegan overnight?

Yes. In working with Mercy for Animals and talking with a lot of people, I learned that going vegan is usually a gradual thing, but for me it was overnight. I threw out all of the meat and cheese in my refrigerator. I was like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to eat, but I don’t care! Thankfully, my husband was on board with me. Honestly, because we were doing it together, it was fun. We were like, What do we eat now and how do we veganize that? We make this with chicken, so what can we do instead of chicken? We could use tofu or seitan (I don’t think there was any Gardein at the time). It became like a game of how do we figure this out?

As I read about leather, down, and wool, all of that stuff went away too. I still remember the day that I donated my Louis Vuitton messenger bag to Out of the Closet. I had this vision in my head of all of these queens ripping each other’s hair out over this Louis Vuitton messenger bag. (laughter). It felt really good to be doing it. It felt like I was taking my social justice activism to the next level. 

Considering myself a feminist, someone who cares about equal rights, fighting for LGBT equality, all that stuff, [veganism] naturally felt like a part of that and all of the things that I was already passionate about. In the months that followed, I devoured every book I could find on the issue of animal rights, and the more I read, the more I was like, Yes this is what I should be doing.

The more I read about how we currently live in a system that exploits and oppresses animals, the more I started to think about it. The power exerted over animals simply because we can reminded me a lot of what’s happened to LGBT people in history, what’s happened to people of color throughout history, what’s happened to women throughout history.

I don’t think I would have had as much sensitivity to all of that [abuse of power] if I hadn’t grown up gay. Maybe this is weird to say, but I feel like it’s been a privilege to grow up with this because it’s made me very sensitive to the oppression of other people, not just myself. But it’s a frustration I have with other people in the LGBTQ community. I want them to get it, too. And some people do. I think there are a fair amount of people involved in animal rights who are LGBTQ, but I also come across a lot of people who just don’t get it. Maybe they haven’t had the same experiences as me, but I definitely think that growing up with this awareness has definitely affected why I went down this path.

I read a book by the Vice President of PETA, Dan Mathews, called Committed. In the book, he talks about going fishing as a boy, and he remembers pulling the fish out of the lake or whatever. The fish was thrashing about on the dock and all of the kids were laughing and pointing, and he talks about how it reminded him of being laughed at and called names. He identified with the fish in that moment, and when I read that it really struck a chord in me. When you watch a lot of that undercover footage, it’s like, Yeah, these guys are just a bunch of bullies. It’s sad.

 

 

"The power exerted over animals simply because we can reminded me a lot of what’s happened to LGBT people in history, what’s happened to people of color throughout history, what’s happened to women throughout history."

 

 

did you have any support from friends, relatives, or mentors? were any of them vegan? 

No. Oh, no. In fact, when I told my father that I was gay he was totally accepting and said things like, I just want you to be happy. When I told my father I was vegan, he screamed at me for an hour. Well, first I had to explain to him what vegan was, and then he screamed at me for an hour. Like, he freaked the fuck out. He told me that California had gone to my brain. He told me that I had joined a cult. He told me that I was going to end up in the hospital. He told me that I was never going to be able to eat with the family again because I couldn’t eat anything that they were eating. It was this really visceral reaction.

It’s been 10 years, so it’s definitely calmed down a little bit, but he definitely doesn’t love the idea. He does try to be a little bit more supportive. When I come home, he’ll get me almond milk in the fridge or say, "I picked up a veggie sub for you," but I’m sure if I told him tomorrow that I was going back to eating meat, dairy & eggs, he’d be thrilled.

I do have a group of cousins who have all gone vegan. There are about 4 or 5 in that group, and their kids are vegan and their husbands are vegan. It’s awesome. I’m not really close to them, so once I asked one of them, "What was it that made you go vegan?" And she was like, "Honestly, it was just watching you over the years do you own thing. You were never judgemental about it, you just did what you wanted to do and if someone asked you a question about it, you kept it real." She said she started doing her own research and realized, "I want to do that, too. I don’t want to be contributing to animal suffering unnecessarily."

My immediate family, though, definitely not. Aside from my sister picking up some Daiya cheese for me when I come home, no. They're not choosing to cut back on meat consumption or to become vegan or vegetarian themselves, which is unfortunate. But you know, I guess that is what it is.

 

did you find representation for your veganism?

At the time we went vegan, I knew one other vegan couple, my husband’s lawyer and his wife. They were over the moon that we had gone vegan. Then we just gradually started getting involved with NGOs that were doing animal activism, and through those NGOs, we met some new friends and slowly kind of created a new community of people that we hung out with who were on the same page.

Now I have an amazing network of activists and friends who are involved in animal rights, in Black Lives Matter, in LGBTQ issues, and in trans issues. It’s an amazing group of people. Sometimes it feels like I live in a bubble, but it’s an amazing bubble that I live in.

 

Have you experienced mistreatment, mockery, bullying because of your veganism?

When we first went vegan, we had friends who gave some push back about where we wanted to go out to eat, about why we were doing what we were doing, and challenging us on it. Now I feel like we’re at the point where those friends just know that that’s the way it is for Ari and Mikko. A lot of them kind of accept that when we hang out, that’s going to be their vegan meal this week or this month. 

In the very beginning, my father would say antagonistic things about my food being disgusting and gross. One time they were eating duck and he made some sort of remark about shooting ducks or something. But whenever that stuff happens, I just school them. I’m like, You call my food gross but you’re eating a bunch of fucking stuff that’s contaminated with fecal matter that comes from a slaughterhouse that’s filthy. I’m very honest with them when they make remarks like that, kind of just speaking the truth about what happens to animals and leaving it at that. I don’t want to come across to my family that I’m always preaching or that I’m always bringing it up (I mean, they know how strongly I feel), but when they ask me questions, I’m open to the conversation because it’s another opportunity to speak about what happens.

I don’t think I’ve experienced any discrimination based on my dietary choices, but it is frustrating when you go to a fundraiser for an LGBTQ cause and there’s nothing you can eat (or nothing you want to eat, I should say). Aside from that, no. It doesn’t feel as personal. I can talk to people about animal issues and remain calm and level-headed. I don’t think I can sit across an anti-gay bigot and have that conversation and stay so level-headed. I think that I would get very heated and upset because the LGBT issue feels so much more personal because it’s actually talking about me, whereas when I’m talking about animals, I really care and it upsets me, but it’s not me. I’m not the one in a battery cage or a gestation crate or whatever. So, it’s different and I’m able to keep my cool a little more. 

There was a time when we broke a dairy investigation in Wisconsin and I flew to Milwaukee to do the press conference. I had a very angry dairy farmer call me (because my contact was on the press release) and he told me that Mercy for Animals was just a bunch of faggots that want people to eat trees and that Nathan Runkle (the founder) was a faggot and I was a faggot. He was really extremely homophobic, very upset, and sounded a little drunk. So yes, I've been on the receiving end of that a little bit, but not from people who I have personal relationships with, only people outside of my social circles.

 

 

"The LGBTQ issue feels so much more personal because it’s actually talking about me, whereas when I’m talking about animals, I really care and it upsets me, but it’s not me. I’m not the one in a battery cage or a gestation crate or whatever."

 

do you participate in lgbtq or animal rights activism?

I think I’ve always had that activist spirit. I feel like it’s so important to speak up while I’m here. I want my life to mean something, and so, activism gives my life meaning. It’s so important for me that anyone growing up LGBTQ not be treated the way that I was treated, that the law respects them in every aspect. I want to be a part of that, I want to use my voice for that. Similarly with animals, I feel that it’s so important—even moreso with animals, because LGBTQ people can speak out for themselves but these animals, they can’t advocate for themselves. It’s so important for those of us who care about this issue to speak out for them. 

I got involved very early on in activism. It’s one of the only ways I can think of to magnify this issue and to make other people aware of it so they can make changes in their lives. The animal issue is also something that literally something that all of us can do something about. You know, with the LGBTQ issue, we can vote for politicians who support equality, we can speak out about why we think it’s important to be equal under the law, but in our everyday life there’s not so much that we can do in terms of voting with our dollars, whereas with this issue [animal rights], we can. I mean, the animal agriculture mega industry wouldn't exist if people weren’t buying meat and eggs and dairy and leather and fur and wool and going to the circus, so I feel like we have the power to end that. It’s important to empower people to enact change, and one of the ways to do that is through activism.

I see animal activism as a social justice movement, and so I think it’s important for us, as animal activists, to really investigate the whole concept of intersectionality and building bridges with other communities that are doing similar work but for other groups. And that is definitely something that I try to foster at Mercy for Animals. 

One of the things that I've been trying to investigate is my own privilege as a white-appearing man, and how that makes me blind to certain things. Yes, I’m gay and I’m Jewish (not religious, that’s just my heritage), so I have these things in my life that qualify me as a minority, but I’m still male and people perceive me as being white. I wonder if being white and male allows [some vegans] more of a privilege to be able to speak so loudly about [veganism] more. I’m interested in that whole conversation.  

 

what effects do your food choices have on your daily life?

I do tend to mostly go out to eat to vegan restaurants just because I’d much rather go to a restaurant where I can choose anything rather than go to a restaurant where there might be like 1 or 2 options on the menu. My friends in Los Angeles are very open to eating vegan food and there are so many options. We’re very spoiled here. In terms of work, Mercy for Animals has a vegan workspace.

I do feel like being vegan dictates where I eat which has created a whole community for me through food. I mean, vegans get really excited about food. It’s crazy. I never got this excited about food before I went vegan. In the beginning, I would go to all of these vegan potlucks and people would talk about what they made. Even now, people will bring stuff into work that they baked. Or like, next week I’m doing this sausage party with my friend from work. She’s going to come over and we’re going to make homemade vegan sausages from scratch!

Thankfully, for my friends who aren’t vegan, they’re totally cool with it. They get it. We have these two friends, Jen and Cora, and every year we do this harvest dinner before Thanksgiving. They’re not vegan, but Thanksgiving dinner is always vegan because they know Ari and Mikko are vegan, and it’s not an issue. It’s never like, "Do you mind if we have some steak?" It’s never like that. It’s always very respectful. I think part of it is that they know what an outspoken activist I am and I don’t think they want to be eating that stuff in front of me. (laughter) But yeah, I feel very lucky.

 

Has being vegan functioned differently at home, school, and in the workplace?

When I'm with my family, I encourage them to try what I’m making. My mother is very open and loves vegan cuisine, but going out to eat is very challenging. My family does eat meat around meat—a lot of it. We always go to places that will have options for me, which is great, so I usually find something I can eat. My father will ask me, "Do you care if I order (blank animal product)?" and I’m like, "Yeah I do." There are some things they won’t order in front of me, like veal or lobster, but they’ll still order chicken and pork. I mean, it’s all bad, but it is what it is.

When I’m out with my family and they order meat, I consciously tell myself to not think about it and to look the other way. So much of my work is looking at undercover footage of animal abuse, so when I see them eating chicken or pork, I’m thinking of those images that I’ve seen. I have to consciously be like, I’m not going to think about that right now, I’m just going to concentrate on my family, I’m not going to look at what they’re eating, I’m not going to think about where it came from so that I can get through this without being angry or talking about it or whatever. And so that’s what I do. I actually try to disassociate the food from the animal.

As someone who has been vegan for a little while now, and as someone who primarily eats in vegan restaurants and does live in this bubble, there is this feeling when I go to a traditional restaurant where they serve meat. It’s almost shocking when you walk in and look down at every plate and literally everyone is eating animals, and you go, Wow. This is crazy. You totally take it for granted before you’re vegan, but now it’s shocking to look at a menu and everything has animal flesh or something that comes from an animal. You start thinking, Wow, we live in a culture that is just so blind to it. It makes me understand why people think it’s so difficult because they just don’t know anything else. It’s an out of body experience when I go home and go to those restaurants. In LA, I’m very fortunate. I don’t need to go to places that serve meat so I don’t see it very often. I’m surrounded by all of these vegans, so I never see it. 

 

Do you use food to expose people to veganism?

Definitely. When I’m home, a part of it is just so that I have something to eat, but I do make it a point to make my favorite dishes when I’m home, to show my family that the food is delicious, I’m having awesome stuff, look how easy this is, and you can make it too.

I think that making good vegan food is one of the best forms of activism. In my research, one of the main reasons that people go back to eating meat, dairy, and eggs is accessibility and a loss of community, so it’s important to show people how easy it is and how tasty it is. It’s definitely a part of my intention.

 

what does it mean to you to be gay and vegan?

Being gay isn’t something that I chose, it’s just something that I am, whereas being vegan is something that I choose every day.

You know the saying, "How do you know someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you." I totally am that vegan, even after ten years. I have a lot of t-shirts and I talk about it a lot, but that isn’t so that people will identify me as a vegan; it’s an opportunity to talk about the issues.

When we first went vegan and told the only couple that we knew who were vegan, the floodgates opened up about veganism. And when I had first met them and asked them why they were vegan, the wife just said it was a personal choice. Later I asked her, "Why did you just say it was a personal choice when you had all of these strong feelings?" She was like, "Well it becomes a contentious issue. Some people get really offended and upset." And I was like, "If you had told me all of these things 3 or 4 years ago when we met, I might have gone vegan 3 or 4 years ago." So, I feel like that’s always stuck in my head.

I don’t want to shield people from what happens. I don’t want to preach or go into some long diatribe, but if people want to have a conversation with me or simply just ask me why I’m vegan, I tend to keep it very real and try not to sound too judgemental, but at the same time, the truth is the truth. I don’t want to stop anyone from learning that just because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

 

This interview was conducted in October 2016 via video call and has been edited.