"I’m trying to show how animal rights politics connect to human rights politics. Understanding my own marginalization has made me more empathetic to animals, as other sentient creatures we share the earth with whose voices are ignored."
Slater Stanley, 24, is a genderqueer vegan cook, queer performance artist, and makeup artist who lives in Brooklyn. Photos by Maggie Tauranac.
AT WHAT AGE WERE YOU AWARE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
It began in 6th or 7th grade. I was raised pretty religious. Like, church every Sunday, grace before dinner, “Just pray on it” if you have something to say or are dealing with something. I was pretty religious until my senior year of high school and was kind of a prude, but I was watching a lot of gay porn and I could not contest these feelings. My solution was to watch a lot of softcore porn, cause then, technically, I’m not going against God, because they have clothes on.
I would pray and pray and wish I wasn’t gay until finally I was like, Why am I doing this? When I went to college at NYU, I spent my first year studying abroad in China. I was still in the closet for most of the time there, but my best friend was this amazing bisexual woman who was very open about having mental and physical disabilities. She was Latina, Muslim, disabled, and queer. And very lower-class. She was very open about all of these identities. I had never met someone like that, so she was a catalyst for my own self-exploration. I came out at the end of my freshman year in China and it’s been all uphill since.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM ALSO LGBTQ?
I came out to my parents when I got back for my sophomore year. At that time, I knew that my parents had access to my Facebook—this is at the point when I still didn’t have any bodily autonomy and I didn’t know how to come out to them because I was so frightened. So, I just started sharing a bunch of pro-gay things on my Facebook and letting them see it that way. Eventually, my mom called me and told me, "I saw some things on your Facebook. Do you want to explain that?" and I was like, "Yeah, I’m gay." She said, "Let me get your father," and then I told them both over the phone.
My mom seemed shocked but my dad is just so stoic about everything, which is something I admire. He’s a lawyer, so I can just tell him things and he’ll absorb it. My mom is much more emotional. That’s just the characteristics of each of their identities and how I navigate them as parents, so sometimes if I want to get something through to my mom, I’ll tell my dad.
My friends have been inclusive and totally fine. Partially because I treat it like a non-issue. This is just how I go about my life, and I think people like that. I’m just trying to be honest in everything that I do, cause I don’t want to be apologizing all the time. Being my true self helps others feels more comfortable with themselves as well.
DID YOU FIND REPRESENTATION FOR YOUR IDENTITY?
I started going to the NYU LGBTQ resource center, and they had some good discourse programs about intersectionality, people with disabilities, people of color, and how those things are all related. I started taking gender and sexuality classes, social and cultural analysis, critique courses—like building up an academic understanding of my own experiences, and it turned out to be super helpful. Even when I didn’t do the readings, I could just speak from experience.
I ended up having a lot of problems with NYU’s LGBTQ center, though. At the time, their director was really problematic. A friend of mine with a wheelchair and a fainting disability was told they couldn’t come there because of a liability. I was also getting tired of it cause it’s like the "gay" trademark, and I can’t stand that. I wanted to get involved in the queer community outside of NYU, so one of my friends who was also going to NYU at the same time told me to volunteer at MIX, which was the queer film festival. This was four years ago. I met a bunch of fairies and was introduced to radical self-expression and revolutionary artwork. I eventually started taking it up myself and getting involved in drag, networking, performing, and meeting people.
"Being my true self helps others feels more comfortable with themselves as well."
DOES YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY SHAPE YOUR DAILY LIFE?
Men are upsetting me all of the time, that’s why I just couldn’t be one anymore. (laughter) I’m non-binary. I don’t identify as a man or a woman, so it’s equally problematic—the different sexes in sexism in our society. For example, what I worry about is maybe different from what a woman would worry about. Like, someone thinking that I’m a woman and being sexually attracted to me and catcalling me, then realizing that I’m not and becoming violent because it’s a threat to their masculinity and uproots their internalized homophobia.
I don’t have any preferred pronoun, and it’s exciting for me to see how people perceive me in any situation. For example, when people come up to me to ask me for directions on the street, if they approach me from behind, they’ll be like, "Excuse me, miss," and then I’ll turn around and be like, "It’s that way." They’ll apologize, but I’ll be like, "Why are you sorry? There’s no reason to be sorry."
I think it was Iggy Pop who said, "I don’t think it’s wrong to dress like a woman because I don’t think it’s wrong to be a woman." So, just through this existential performance, we’re dismantling misogyny. I do dress androgynously. I like to a be a feminine man or a butch, or whatever. I kind of go for a Clea DuVall look.
A lot of straight guys and bi-curious guys will not only flirt with me but talk to me because I’m someone who will listen. Maybe they also want to talk to me because I’m not really a threat to their masculinity. I will usually be the most feminine male-assigned-at-birth person in the room, so they don’t have to worry about that being them. They can come and talk to me because I’m going to be sassy with them, but I’ll listen. I won’t tolerate being fetishized by straight men and when that happens I’ll call it out to their faces, but usually when I explain it to them, they’ll be like, "You’re right. I’m not going to not say anything."
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
So much shit has happened. I’ve been physically assaulted and sexually assaulted. Someone even threw a glass bottle from their car as they were driving by me. Since I’ve become more androgynous in my presentation, I get catcalled sometimes, but that has helped me to become more informed and empathetic to what women and female-presenting people go through on a daily basis. At the same time, I still have male privilege. If at any time I really needed to escape a certain situation, I could just talk and people would know it’s a man.
A few months ago, I was walking past this house and a group of guys were outside barbecuing. They were making a bunch of steaks and I didn't want to make eye contact with any of them, so I was looking at their steaks. They were like, "You want a steak girl?" And I was like, "Nah, I don’t want no steak." And they all started laughing cause they realized that I was a guy. Then they said, "Should we beat him up?" I kept walking and then I just lost it. I couldn’t believe that something like that could happen. How can someone make a remark like that so off-hand? It was very upsetting, but it was a clear example of transmisogyny because I went from being an object of sexual desire to an object of violence. Most of these people are all talk, but it makes you think about how you’re presenting.
I’m very vocal about the discrimination that's happened against me, and I post about it because I want people to know what’s going on with me, my friends, my community, and in the world. I’m not exactly surprised by the things that happen to me, though. Part of being in a marginalized community is thinking about what you’re wearing and how you look every day before you go outside. When you go out at night, you have to think about what you need to bring and plan how you’re getting there and getting back.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU STOP EATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS AND WHY?
I became vegetarian when I was 13, around the time that I started to explore my sexuality. Thinking back on it now, I’m sure that my animals politics were parallel to my sexuality. I just didn’t like meat. I would look at a piece of steak on my fork and would see all of the sinews in it and all the crevices and be grossed out. So, the physicality of it spawned my interest in learning about where it came from.
I started researching a lot about the slaughterhouse industry and reading books, and was pretty into PETA at the time. Part of it was wanting to be different, but part of it was really believing in animal politics and animal rights. Another part of it was also like, moral, for me. Like how can we be doing this? Why are we eating this fast food? I used to go to McDonald’s a lot. At the time, my vegetarian politics were very whitewashed and not all that informed, but over time I started to learn more about the intersectionality between food and other identities and politics.
When I graduated from college at NYU, I started working as a cook at this franchise from Hong Kong. It was great because I had just finished my degree in Chinese, so I could speak Chinese with my boss and with the customers sometimes. This was when I was still vegetarian, and working that job made me realize I wanted to be vegan because I didn’t want to eat anything we were making. It was just gross. We got shut down by the health dept for rats and that kind of filth connected to all of the eggs and milk that we were using. Seeing it in mass amounts wasn’t flattering and made me question, "What else am I not seeing behind the scenes?"
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS, AND WERE ANY OF THEM ALSO VEGAN?
At first my mom was not for me being vegetarian, but I just didn’t want to eat meat. Eventually she became supportive and started making options for me. She tried to cater to me with my vegetarianism even though she was disapproving of it at first. Like, she would get Morningstar bacon, which my dad loves now, too. Eventually she came around and now makes things for me that are vegetarian or vegan. But it was a conversion process.
DID YOU FIND REPRESENTATION FOR YOUR VEGAN IDENTITY?
When I started teaching myself to cook, I wanted to cook in a vegan kitchen. I had been following the Mississippi Vegan, so I reached out to him on Instagram. I just DM’d him and was like, "I’m in Brooklyn too and would love to come work with you, to learn from you." I just needed to be in a kitchen. So, I worked one of his pop-ups and it was three fags in the kitchen cooking vegan food. You really couldn’t ask for something better. Now he’s become a good friend of mine and has been so supportive of me. And after that, I worked in a vegan cheese shop, Riverdel.
"Cooking has really elevated my own consciousness because I make sure to have a wide demographic of people over to my house for dinner so that I can hear about their experiences and expand my own mind, really. I’ve gotten to know a lot people very closely through cooking for them."
WHAT EFFECTS DO YOUR FOOD CHOICES HAVE ON YOUR DAILY LIFE?
Initially it was like, if I want to know what I’m eating, I should be cooking for myself most of the time. So I started experimenting with recipes and trying to figure out what I was doing. I tried to be easy on myself at first. I didn’t know if it was practical to go straight vegan right away, so I started cooking for myself, tried some vegan meals, tried to understand how food works and how to cook. It does take a little time to learn.
If you want to be a successful vegan, you either have to have a lot of money and buy all of your meals, or you have to learn how to cook for yourself. I can’t see any way around it other than that. I noticed that once I started putting better things in my body, I started feeling better. A testament to that is my roommate who has gone vegan since I moved in. I was like, "I’m going to show why you wanna start doing this." I always cook big meals, so I would feed her and she was feeling great. Now, she cooks meals for herself and her body has totally changed. She says, "I don’t feel like I have lost weight, but I hold weight differently in my body and the weight is spread out is better. I shit better. I have more energy."
I try to cook a wide variety of things that I like and I eat when I’m hungry (the whole three meals a day thing is a construct). This is what I try to tell people about veganism and cooking for yourself: when I cook for myself, I let myself eat as much as I want and not feel guilty about it. If I want to have thirds, I’ll do it. Like, these are vegetables. I’m not going to feel guilty about this. It’s a bunch of cauliflower! Some days I’ll eat one meal, and some days I’ll eat five meals, depending on my energy level.
We need to get out of this idea that everyone’s body is the same and needs the same things. Everyone’s body is different. This thing that we’ve internalized as what a proper diet is just feels capitalistic to me. It’s another way of delegating our productivity, and I don’t like that. I’m trying to combat that with my cooking show and create a space where, regardless of your class and your gender or your experience, you could find something that might work for you.
It’s also karmic in terms of who is being killed, the environmental impact of veganism, and hunger in the world. If we could divert the resources we’re using to grow cattle and pigs, that’s so much water and grain that could be used to feed people. We don’t need to do this third party route, to grow animals and torture them to feed people.
DO YOU USE FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
We have no Home Ec in this country. Growing up, my grandma instilled a love of cooking in me and always had me in the kitchen, but we mostly did baking. I was never really taught to cook. My mom cooked really amazing food, but I didn’t really help with it because I went to a prep school, so I was focused on school.
A lot of my friends don’t know how to do basic cooking. I taught myself how to cook, and now I’m teaching them. Like, this is how you use a stove, oil a pan, chop up some things, and stock your fridge. I’ve been happy to see them start to try or to be interested in it. Even my brother is like, "I feel terrible all of the time. I don’t feel good cause I eat cereal and that’s it." By having my cooking show, I just want to be honest, like, this is how I cook at home with my friends: in my thong, smoking a joint, using these pretty basic ingredients. A lot of it's resource-based. Like, if I have these ingredients, what can I make with this? What can I cook on a budget? How can I do something different from last night but using the same resources?
Cooking has really elevated my own consciousness because I make sure to have a wide demographic of people over to my house for dinner so that I can hear about their experiences and expand my own mind, really. I’ve gotten to know a lot people very closely through cooking for them. Now it's evolved to the point where I try to have as many people over as I can for meals. More importantly, I’m trying to show how animal rights politics connect to human rights politics. Understanding my own marginalization has me more empathetic to animals, as other sentient creatures we share the earth with whose voices are ignored. Similarly to the way that I want my voice to be heard, I think those animals should be heard. That’s what I’m trying to call attention to through my cooking show and through my daily life. It has to be a daily practice.
It’s taken me a long time to get to this point of articulation and confidence about it. At this point, I’m proud of what I’m doing even if no one else likes it. It’s taken me a long time to understand that even the things that I don’t understand are okay about myself and others. I just try to be really being patient with everybody and to get on people’s level when I'm trying to learn about their experiences.
Food has historically always brought people together, and yet we’re so separated from that. In a capitalistic economy everything is about rationing people’s productivity, and I think that’s separating us from the things that are important and from one another. Now more than ever, we need to be closing that gap, reconnecting, and finding ways to combat the political and social environment that can be so divided.
"I want to show them how weird and fun vegan food can be, and make it interesting and taste good."
How do people respond to your cooking style?
Usually they’re just like, "When is it ready?" (laughter). When I cook for people, it takes like two hours because I want to make something elaborate. I want to show them how weird and fun vegan food can be, and make it interesting and taste good. I roast a lot of things—it's so easy, but people have totally abandoned their ovens. Just throw some vegetables in the oven and then go do something. Like, go do your makeup or something. I have made the mistake of trying to cook my friends dinner while getting ready for a gig, and running back and forth between the kitchen and opening up the oven and the heat coming out and my face be like, "Oh my goddess." Or like oil spurting out of my pan on my face and I’m like, "Concealer, concealer!"
I make it a point to not start cooking until people get there. Like, my house is not where you just show up and the meal is ready, and then you eat and leave. Like, you’re going to sit there while I’m making it. People always offer to help but I never want them to. I want people to be observing like it's a performance piece. I like showing people the ingredients and showing them what it’s going to turn into. It’s more fun. It’s not a restaurant.
I try to use minimal ingredients and whip stuff up out of nothing, and it usually goes well. A lot of them are not vegan, and I only cook vegan, but I’ve never had any complaints so that makes me feel good. You can usually disguise a lot with nutritional yeast. And people don’t add enough salt usually. That’s what people don’t understand: when you’re cooking and following a recipe, you have to taste the food along the way. Cause people make these things and then it doesn’t turn out well, but you need to be checking it as you’re making it. I rarely follow recipes, though. I’ll look at the base ingredients and then adjust it to how I want. And I don’t write my recipes down, they’re just in my head.
I try to cook in bulk a lot because I can make food for a few days. For people with time restraints, you can can designate Sunday nights and just roast a shit ton of things and then eat them throughout the week. Usually the food I cook in bulk I give away right away. I have people over usually every day. Sometimes I’ll tell people to pick up onions or wine, but I try to make it like an if-you-can thing. I try not to ask too much of trans people, but to the people that I know have jobs I ask, "Can you bring something?" cause I don’t have a lot of money either and it would be helpful.
I really feel like most of the problem is that people don’t know how to shop and don’t know about farmers markets. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of farmers market take EBT/food stamps, and lot of it’s reasonably priced. It's important because within marginalized communities, health is a big issue. Plus, you’re supporting local farmers, which are a lot of people of color, and the food is usually organic. If you go once a week and stock up, you can make everything.
I think especially as we’re approaching Trump’s inauguration, there are going to be visible cuts to healthcare and job security, and I think we need to take more proactive measures to protect our health. And one of the ways we can do that is knowing what we’re putting in our bodies and cooking for ourselves so we don’t have to rely on healthcare so much. Things like that. I know it’s not always easy, but there are small steps we can take, and doing this cooking show is one way I want to help.
DO YOU AVOID FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
I don’t buy or order things that aren’t vegan, but I make it a point not to hold myself guilty if someone makes me something and I eat it and it has milk or egg in it. I am very much always vegetarian. I won’t eat meat or fish.
Veganism is a lifestyle, it’s not a diet. Because of our situation, the people in my community are all lower class and queer people. I’m pretty poor, so if someone makes me something or invites me over for a meal and it has egg, or it’s like a wedding, I’m not going to pass it up. I don’t want to be rude to people who go out of their way to make something for me, and that’s a meal I don’t have to buy. My roommate articulates it really well: shame is a useless emotion. Shame and guilt are not productive. I’m more concerned with the impact that I’m having, and that’s more consciously in the things that I buy and order, and the food I make for others. I’m not going to make something for my guests that’s not vegan.
Perfection is unrealistic; I think it’s classist and unproductive. The greatest impact you have is in your daily life and not in little gifts that people give you sometimes. Like, you don’t need to be hurting people’s feelings over this. You don’t need to be wasting food. Someone left a bunch of molasses cookies at my house and no one was eating them, and I was hungry so I ate them. I don’t have to tell anyone about it and it doesn’t make me a fake vegan. Like, that’s just it. It’s the same resolution I have in my sexuality, in terms of being non-binary. I don’t need to resolve myself to one side. I don’t need to fit into some label.
does autonomy over your food mimics autonomy over your body?
Yes, and I think people will actually find that cooking is cathartic. Taking that time to cook for yourself, like maybe it’s an hour or two hours a day. Like, that’s how much time people used to spend in the kitchen—if you think of I Love Lucy (Lucille Ball is one of my icons), she was so dissatisfied with her role in society and she was upsetting it within those constraints, constantly satirizing what it is to be a housewife and constantly having to give up her talent so her husband could succeed. And I mean, there are so many parallels that we could draw to today, the roles that we’re delegated in society and how we can work within the system to get what we want.
Like, I had my tattoo artist friends over for dinner last night. My friend Mariah in Bushwick has this little studio called the Opal Room. All my tattoo artists are queer and usually work out of their homes, and you can barter with them and pay in installments. For this tattoo, I did her makeup. That was the exchange. Another tattoo on the back of my leg, I did he and his partners makeup for their wedding, and the exchange was this tattoo. And that’s what I try to do, as a self-taught makeup artist and self-taught cook, I know that I can offer these things that people need. So, bartering is a way we can exist outside of capitalism through skill trade. I’m working to create a queer directory where queer skill holders and businesses can find each other, work together, or swap skills. People have so many marketable skills but don’t fit into a hegemonic, capitalist workplace and that’s just a waste.
I’m also super pro-weed. I’m not going to apologize for something that helps with my anxiety, makes me more patient and kind-hearted, and brings people together. I think that the stigma around it is totally unfounded. This is all so intersectional, as we’re approaching the legalization/decriminalization of weed, we have to think about who is impacted. Most weed dealers are people of color, lower class, the investors who are getting stock in these companies are mostly white people, so they’re benefitting off of the fact that for years, young kids of color have been getting locked up for petty drug crimes. So, now these white business people are profiting from that. And who is going to revisit all of these cases? Weed doesn’t kill people. Booze kills people.