"When you're queer, the process of self exploration and coming out makes you question the narrative about your future that you've been given. You begin to question many things about identity and dominant culture and oppression. You need to create your own story."
Jess Powers, 42, is a chef and writer. She is lesbian/queer/gay and part hispanic. She is a former vegetarian and eats a mostly plant-based diet. She lives in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Jess.
At what age were you aware of your sexuality/gender identity?
I knew that gender wasn't an issue for me at 12. I started dating girls at 15 without coming out, and identified as bisexual until my first serious relationship at age 18.
Did you have any support from friends, relatives, or mentors? were any of them LGBTQ?
I knew a few people who were out through the punk and activist community. Riot grrrl and queercore music provided role models and connection. Also, I read a lot of writers who were bi or gay.
In college, I had professors who were mentors and lesbian. Most of my friends were supportive of me, but my high school and home weren't safe environments to come out. I had fallouts with two friends who ridiculed me about being honest about my sexuality. One later apologized and came out as gay, and the other had a father who was closeted and HIV positive. Those were different times, the 80s and 90s.
Did you find representation for your identity?
Absolutely, through religion, books, films, and punk music. I was involved with my church youth group as a kid and believed without a doubt that all love was equal. When church leadership changed to more conservative pastors, I was becoming politically active in high school. I left the church, but started reading Quaker and other faith based literature that was open to homosexuality. I also read lots of female writers who were bisexual or who had what we now call "open relationships." I read Gertrude Stein while I worked at a men's suit store at 15.
Do you feel your sexuality is essential to your identity?
Absolutely. I think for white people, identify is assumed. You see representations of yourself in the media. You have privilege. When you're queer, the process of self exploration and coming out makes you question the narrative about your future that you've been given. You begin to question many things about identity and dominant culture and oppression. You need to create your own story.
Does your sexuality and gender identity shape your daily life?
Often, but I think it depends on my surroundings. I've worked in many male, heteronormative environments (restaurants, emergency management), so I've had to navigate that. It's always a part of who you are and your community.
Many of us were deeply affected by the Pulse shooting. I don't think my straight friends realize that we felt like, Wow, that could've been me. Many of my friends and acquaintances struggle with depression and financial stability. Suicides are a regular occurrence. There's a network of text messages and Facebook posts when someone from the community takes their own life.
I'm alert when I'm holding hands with my girlfriend. Now that I'm older and heavier, I don't get harassed as often, but there have been times when I was verbally or physically attacked. I don't draw attention through my appearance.
Have you been open about your sexuality and gender identity at home, at school, and in the workplace?
Yes, because I've always genuinely accepted my sexuality. I am lucky to not have internalized homophobia in ways that some friends have. I have often been a resource for people who don't know many gay people. They ask questions that maybe they were afraid to ask, and I believe this is a critical component in educating people and building social justice: not shaming people, being a resource when you are able. It changes lives. I've seen it.
At home, my parents never used racist language but they always used homophobic language. My mom is Spanish, so maricon was used, and my father would call people he didn't like a faggot or dyke. So I believed it was unsafe to come out as a teenager. I was harassed in high school by a couple of "mean girls" and even friends' parents, so no, I didn't think it was safe to come out, so I was private about it then.
Have you experienced homophobia, mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination because of your sexuality and gender identity?
Yes. I used to be verbally harassed fairly often. The last time I was physically and verbally threatened, I was with former colleagues [who were] all straight. A bouncer in front of a bar where we had just had drinks began screaming and threatening me. I was trembling. It was very violent, and one friend walked me to the train. My other friends spoke to the manager who didn't care. Two colleagues walked away. That told me a lot about their character.
At what age did you stop eating animal products And why?
At age 12, when I was visiting family abroad, I saw a pig getting slaughtered. I gave up pork for a year. Then I was vegetarian from around age 14 until my mid 30s for health reasons (everyone in my family dies of heart attacks) and because of factory farming and ethics, because [eating animals] wasn't necessary.
"My home became a battleground when I went vegetarian. My parents were angry, but I insisted that it was my body and I could do what I wanted. They threatened to kick me out of the house. It escalated because it was about a larger question of identity and questioning normative culture. It was about control, about being 'normal,' something so much bigger."
Did you have any support from friends, relatives, or mentors? were any of them vegetarian?
Just from friends. My home became a battleground when I went vegetarian. My parents were angry, but I insisted that it was my body and I could do what I wanted. They threatened to kick me out of the house. It escalated because it was about a larger question of identity and questioning normative culture. It was about control, about being "normal," something so much bigger. Years later, my mom apologized for her outsized reaction.
Did you find representation for your vegetarian identity?
A friend who was a vegetarian shared materials, and I was particularly influenced by Peter Singer, though his views on disability are highly problematic. I also read books to get recipes, and worked at a vegan restaurant at one point because I could eat healthy food all the time.
Do you feel being vegetarian is essential to your identity?
Not now because I'm not [vegetarian] anymore, but I still try to limit my consumption of animals, and my girlfriend is vegetarian. Now there are more options for grass-fed animals. It became an issue for me as a chef because I didn't eat everything. I thought about it for a long time, almost a year, before I started [eating animals] again. Also I hadn't tried lots of foods as a young person, and that was important as a cook.
When I became a vegetarian, I think it came to represent a core piece of my identity. I've always had a strong sense of justice and fairness. The same ethics that made me stop eating animals also made me understand that all love is equal.
Have you experienced mistreatment, mockery, or harassment because of your vegetarianism?
Yes. One time during Thanksgiving, I passed the tray of turkey and said, No thanks. My uncle freaked out and started ranting about how I thought I was better for not eating animals. Meanwhile, my aunt (his sister), prepared separate veggie stuffing for me. It was no big deal [to her].
Do you participate in LGBTQ or animal rights activism?
Yes. I think a sense of fairness and the activist punk community motivated me.
"When I became a vegetarian, I think it came to represent a core piece of my identity... The same ethics that made me stop eating animals also made me understand that all love is equal."
what effects Do your food choices have on your daily life?
I try to eat healthfully. I think it's challenging to maintain a vegetarian diet [because] it takes time and planning or resources.
Has being vegetarian functioned differently at home, school, and in the workplace?
Well, after my family got over it, it wasn't an issue. In school and professional settings it was never an issue, but then, I've always lived in New York or California. It was an issue sometimes when traveling, but awareness has changed so much.
Do you use food to better relate to people?
I think having been a vegetarian, I often make friends with people who are. I'm more aware of it.
do you avoid food to better relate to people?
Nope. One funny story: I went to a lesbian casserole potluck and made shepard's pie with grassfed, organic beef and lamb. I didn't grow up eating casseroles because my mom isn't American, so I decided to try something new. Because so many lesbians are vegetarian, the host said, "Lamb at a lesbian potluck? Bold choice."
So many queer people are vegetarian or go through a vegetarian phase. There's even a joke about it in But I'm a Cheerleader: her parents know she's gay because she eats tofu.
This interview was conducted in November 2016 via an online questionnaire and has been edited.