"Being vegan is definitely essential to my identity. My name, Pax Ahimsa, literally translates to 'peace' and 'do no harm.' I extend that ethic to our fellow animals as well as humans. I adopted the name Ahimsa as a literal, constant reminder to never resort to violence."
Pax Ahimsa Gethen, 46, is a photographer, writer, and educator on race and gender, in and outside of the animal rights community. Pax is a queer, black, agender trans male who is vegan and atheist. They live in San Francisco with their husband, Ziggy. Photos by Ziggy Tomcich.
AT WHAT AGE WERE YOU AWARE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
I first became aware that I was attracted to girls as well as boys around age 11 or 12. I didn't come out as bisexual until ten years later. After my gender transition at age 43, I decided that "queer" was a better label for my sexual orientation.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM ALSO LGBTQ?
I didn't talk to my parents much about my sexual orientation as I was away at college by the time I came out as bi. I knew my father was somewhat homophobic, but I never talked with him about it directly. My mother thought bisexuality was "just a phase," especially after I married my first husband. This was all before my gender transition, and I haven't spoken to my parents since that time (for unrelated reasons).
I've had a ton of support from friends since moving to the queer-friendly San Francisco Bay Area after graduating from college. As a bisexual I fit in easily, and coming out as trans was easier than I expected within my social circles. I'd say the majority of my friends identify as one or more of the letters in the LGBTQ acronym. :-)
DID YOU FIND REPRESENTATION FOR YOUR IDENTITY?
I was active in bisexual groups when I first moved to the SF Bay Area. I had no trouble finding lots of bi people. When I decided to transition, I also had no trouble finding lots of trans people and support groups. I'm privileged to live in one of the most queer-friendly cities in the country.
DO YOU FEEL YOUR SEXUALITY IS ESSENTIAL TO YOUR IDENTITY?
My sexual orientation is much less important to my identity than it used to be. I went through a period of time where I was very active in the polyamory community, dating multiple people at once, going to parties, etc. Being open to dating and having sex with people of multiple genders was important to me, and it was mandatory that anyone I dated be accepting of that.
Since my gender transition I have kept much more to myself for various reasons, and haven't been seeking out any new romantic or sex partners. I still feel it's important to acknowledge that I'm attracted to people of more than one gender, but I changed my label to "queer" as I felt better about using that term than "bisexual" or "pansexual," because queer is an umbrella term that can refer to gender identity as well as sexual orientation, which can get confusing to explain sometimes.
DOES YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY SHAPE YOUR DAILY LIFE?
Before my transition, when I was still living as a woman, most people didn't know I was bi unless I told them, as I mostly dated men. The impact was mostly felt when I was actively dating and going to parties frequently, and was positive.
Since my transition, the impact is somewhat different since I'm now in a (legal) same-sex marriage. Even though I identify as agender and my husband is genderqueer and often wears femme clothing, we're both legally male. I'm still frequently misgendered as a woman, but when out in public, even in San Francisco, sometimes I feel hesitant to hold hands or show other signs of affection for fear of homo-antagonistic attacks.
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO BE OPEN ABOUT YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY AT HOME, SCHOOL, AND IN THE WORKPLACE?
I was in my final year at college by the time I came out as bi, and I didn't talk about it much there. I was definitely out as bi when I was working full-time, but I worked in a very LGB-friendly environment (I don't know how trans-friendly my employer was as I left several years before I started my gender transition). Since my transition, I've been self-employed, so it hasn't been an issue. My husband, if it isn't obvious from my previous responses, is fully aware of my sexual orientation and no one else lives in our apartment. :-)
"My biggest day-to-day fear is getting called out for using men's restrooms, which I must do if I can't find a gender-neutral one. I did have someone call out after me once when using a men's room in a public park. It scared me, especially since the lock on the stall door was broken, but I convinced him that I belonged there, and fortunately he didn't call the police on me or anything."
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
I've been fortunate not to experience obvious discrimination for being bi or queer (in terms of sexual orientation). In terms of gender identity, I am hampered by our binary society that does not currently allow me to be accepted, legally or socially, as agender. I am content to be gendered as male, as that is where I've transitioned for medical and legal purposes, and for the most part, I've been able to get access to the necessary paperwork and medical help I need, thanks to my partner's insurance.
It's important to re-emphasize that I have been self-employed since my gender transition, so I have yet to experience the workplace discrimination against trans people that is sadly commonplace, even here in the SF Bay Area. Many insurance companies also do not provide any or adequate coverage for hormones other transition-related treatments; my partner's insurance just started covering cross-sex hormones the year I transitioned, fortunately.
My biggest day-to-day fear is getting called out for using men's restrooms, which I must do if I can't find a gender-neutral one. I did have someone call out after me once when using a men's room in a public park. It scared me, especially since the lock on the stall door was broken, but I convinced him that I belonged there, and fortunately he didn't call the police on me or anything.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU STOP EATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS AND WHY?
The short answer is age 41, after 19 years of wavering between lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan, for ethical reasons. For the longer answer, I just happened to write about this subject on my blog today.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS, AND WERE ANY OF THEM ALSO VEGAN?
I had always had a number of vegetarian friends since moving to the SF Bay Area, but few were vegan. I met a lot more vegans after I became interested in animal rights activism at age 44. I also lost some friends who didn't appreciate that kind of activism.
DID YOU FIND REPRESENTATION FOR YOUR VEGAN IDENTITY?
I made a lot of connections with other vegans online and with some local activist groups. As veganism became more important to me as a social justice issue, it became important for me to find others who advocated for the animals through that framework. I also became more and more uncomfortable being around people eating animals in front of me.
DO YOU FEEL BEING VEGAN IS ESSENTIAL TO YOUR IDENTITY?
Being vegan is definitely essential to my identity. My name, Pax Ahimsa, literally translates to "peace" and "do no harm". I extend that ethic to our fellow animals as well as humans. I adopted the name Ahimsa as a literal, constant reminder to never resort to violence. Some feel that adopting the name Ahimsa is appropriative, and that might be a valid charge depending on who's making it.
"I was motivated to start doing gender education because of my experience as a trans person, and specifically as a non-binary person of color. I wanted cisgender people to see that not every trans person is Caitlyn Jenner."
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED discrimination BECAUSE OF YOUR VEGANISM?*
Being vegan is a conscious choice, not something inflicted upon me by birth or circumstances. As such, I don't feel that it's possible for me to be discriminated against for that choice. The worst that could happen is that I'd go to an event where I couldn't eat anything served, and would have to miss a meal.
I might feel differently about the possibility of being discriminated against if I were allergic to animal products or if I were vegan for religious reasons, but neither of those is the case for me. Ultimately, I see ethical vegans as allies to our fellow animals; we are advocating for them, not for ourselves. I have definitely gotten a lot of pushback for advocating veganism, and some of it has been quite rude, but I wouldn't describe that as discrimination.
*After Pax's interview, this question was modified. "Discrimination" was replaced with "mistreatment," to reflect more appropriate language given the subject matter.
DO YOU PARTICIPATE IN LGBTQ OR ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISM?
I have been involved in both. I was motivated to start doing gender education because of my experience as a trans person, and specifically as a non-binary person of color. I wanted cisgender people to see that not every trans person is Caitlyn Jenner. I've given public talks on gender identity on several occasions now, and they have been well-received.
I have done animal rights activism in several forms, including tabling, blogging, and a few disruptions. I was motivated by my desire to liberate all animals from property status. Right now I'm focusing on occasional blogging and helping promote Black Vegans Rock on social media. I've also combined my gender and animal rights activism by giving talks on gender identity at vegan and animal rights-oriented conferences.
WHAT EFFECTS DO YOUR FOOD CHOICES HAVE ON YOUR DAILY LIFE?
I am fortunate to live in a city with an abundance of vegan-friendly food. I am impacted more by the overabundance of vegan junk food, that (along with lack of exercise) has expanded my waistline!
HAS BEING VEGAN FUNCTIONED DIFFERENTLY AT HOME, SCHOOL, AND IN THE WORKPLACE?
I didn't go vegetarian until my senior year of college, and was living off-campus by then, so I didn't have much trouble; I could buy and cook my own food. After graduation I moved to the veg-friendly SF Bay Area, and had little trouble finding vegetarian food at and near my workplace. Going vegan took more of an adjustment, but it was more mental than practical; I still had plenty of options.
By the time I was fully vegan I was self-employed, but during periods of time when I was vegan and working full-time, it was sometimes a challenge at the workplace when we had food brought in (which was almost always non-vegan). It was more of an inconvenience than a real bother though.
At home, my husband and I committed to having a fully vegan kitchen (other than honey, which he still eats) when we moved to our current apartment 13 years ago, even though we weren't fully vegan ourselves yet. That has worked out well. I honestly don't think I could live in a non-vegan household again. I don't ever want to see flesh, dairy, or eggs in a refrigerator that I use daily.
DO YOU USE FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
When I was rehearsing with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco, I always brought homemade vegan baked goods whenever it was my section's turn to provide snacks. Most people seemed to like them, even though I was probably the only vegan in the chorus. It did irritate me that one person kept confusing "vegan" with "gluten free" though. I tried to explain to her that I was vegan for ethical, not dietary reasons, and gluten had nothing to do with being vegan regardless.