The Migration to Intersectional Leadership in the Animal Rights Movement

By Rachelle DéCoud


There are a growing number of concerns regarding the animal rights movement which are entangled within a systemic structure of oppression.  The first problem we face is how to create a more accepting and accessible movement that can appeal to a broader audience. The second problem we face is how to be sensitive to multiple oppressed groups of people and how to acknowledge their struggles. Lastly, how do we reframe the movement by introducing respectful dialogues that recognize analogous injustices in the mainstream movement? This essay will give a brief introduction to intersectionality, where I will describe how intersectionalism plays an important role within social justice movements.  In addition, I will give a general overview of the intersections between forms of domination, discrimination and oppression against non-human animals and other forms of social injustices. Lastly, I will argue why the animal rights movement needs more intersectional leaders. Here, I will unveil what it is to be gained for the animal rights movement if we have more intersectional leaders.

Introduction to Intersectionality

“You’re an animal activist—so why do you hate people?” As an activist in the animal rights movement, I have had to answer this question on numerous occasions, yet it seemed to always catch me off guard. Before I was introduced to intersectionalism, I did not know how to answer this question. I found myself asking why I was involved with the animal rights movement. It seems the more I was exposed to the oppression of non-human animals, the more I wanted to be involved. Along with the question above, I was often accused of being a cultist and an extremist. Why do people have these assumptions about the animal rights movement? Is the movement in danger? It wasn’t until I participated in Gregory Mengel’s environmental version of the Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack exercise, when I finally realized just how important intersectionality is to all forms of oppression—including that of non-human animals. In this activity, the reader is asked to answer “yes” or “no” to a series of statements that unveil their own underlying privilege. One statement that really provoked me was:

Because my children attend a relatively safe school, and are not suffering from asthma due to poor air quality, and are not harassed by the police or surrounded by gang culture, I have the emotional space to feel agony over the imminent loss of iconic species such as polar bears, African lions, and dolphins. (Mengel, 2012)

This statement questioned my own activism within the movement. Am I privileged? If I were oppressed in other ways, would I still care about non-human animal oppression? In addition, this statement suggests that involvement with the animal rights movement is exclusively for the privileged. This exercise was my key to unlocking the answer to why people harbor the aforementioned assumptions about the animal rights movement. The animal rights movement is framed to be a privileged movement, made up of mostly white, middle-class, able-bodied and cis-gendered people.

These questions led to my own personal transformation in the animal rights movement—with the result that I now consider myself, along with many others, as an intersectional activist. So how does intersectionality play a role in unveiling one’s privilege? Intersectionality was a term first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. In a recent interview, Crenshaw said she created this term because she wanted “to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use” (Adewunmi, 2014). In her paper “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Crenshaw introduced intersectionality because of the discrimination black women faced—because of their gender and the color of their skin. Even though intersectionality has black feminist roots, the term is widely used today in academia and is used to examine all forms of oppressions. Intersectionality involves classism, ableism, genderism, and speciesism, just to name a few. We can broadly define the term intersectionality as referring to the ways in which oppressions are interconnected and cannot be examined separately. In academia, it is used on an interdisciplinary level, but what role does intersectionality play in the realm of the animal rights movement?

Intersectionality remains hidden within mainstream animal rights organizations. When we think of the animal rights movement, many people think of Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Other people may think of iconic documentaries such as Cowspiricy, Earthlings, and Vegucated. Intersectionality, though, is invisible within these examples. Intersectionalism is a form of underground activism, usually in the academy, where human oppression and non-human animal oppression collide. Spaces such as the Sistah Vegan Project, Institute for Critical Animal Studies, National Museum of Animals and Society, and Vine Sanctuary promote a holistic and intersectional view on non-human animal topics. Comparing the mainstream animal rights movement with the minority of ‘intersectional activists,’ we discover one key difference. The mainstream animal rights movement focuses solely on the oppression of animals. The latter organizations focus on the oppression of animals and how this oppression intersects with other forms of social injustice. If there are spaces in which intersectionalism is promoted, why is there a lack of intersectionality in the movement as a whole? Is intersectionality only used for the privileged in an academic setting? Maybe some people would claim that a more intersectional movement is doing too many things at once, and that we should therefore leave intersectional analysis to academia. I will address these questions later, but first I will give a brief overview of how animal oppression intersects with other forms of social oppression and the problems we currently face as a movement.

Problems in the Animal Rights Movement

The mainstream animal rights movement faces multiple problems. Addressing these problems is the first step the animal rights movement must take in order to become a more intersectional movement. First, the animal rights movement is often called the ‘animal whites movement’ because of the lack of diversity within the movement. Being called the ‘animal whites movement’ is due to a presumption of colorblindness, a term coined by Julie Guthman, which can be described as the “absence of racial identifiers in language [which] are seen as nonracist” (Guthman, 2008, 390). The mainstream animal rights movement rejects the idea of racism within the movement, creating an entirely new violence by “erasing the privilege that whiteness creates” (Guthman, 2008, 390).  In addition to colorblindness, the concept of universalism, which is “the assumption that values held primarily by whites are normal and widely shared,” also creates a radicalized situation that is unattractive toward groups of marginalized people (Guthman, 2008, 391). The animal rights movement expects others to feel empathy toward non-human animals in the same way, and those who do not feel the same way as we do must become enlightened or be labeled as closed-minded. Colorblindness and universalism are the two main problems the animal rights movement faces, and without acknowledging these problems, the animal rights movement risks rooting itself deeper in the main dilemma it is fighting to dismantle—discrimination and domination. If the animal rights movement fails to address the problem of racism, it will continue to be a privileged space that rests upon hierarchical thinking. In order for us to challenge discrimination within the movement, intersectional leaders are needed. Intersectional leaders are people who possess the quintessential attribute of selflessly supporting all social justice movements outside of their own, for the opportunity to learn and reflect about all forms of oppression, thus creating a more aware movement that promotes intersectionality.

Here is one example of a marginalized issue that activists face within the animal rights movement that includes both colorblindness and universalism. Many animal activists are vegan and promote veganism within the movement, often claiming how easy it is to become a vegan without acknowledging their own privilege. Many people in low-income areas and communities of color do not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, let alone vegan products, and “their health is also often compromised due to a lack of access to healthy foods in their neighborhoods” (Food Empowerment Project, 2015). The mainstream animal rights movement does not usually address food deserts or the underrepresented communities that have them. Food deserts are defined as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers” (Nutrition Digest, 2011). Whether animal activists lack knowledge of food deserts or refuse to engage the problem on other grounds, activists’ inactivity on this front creates a barrier between the privileged white communities and the groups of marginalized people.  Expecting all to have the privilege of being able to sustain a vegan diet, as well as failing to acknowledge the different struggles experienced by communities of color, will only continue to intensify the stereotypes that people have about the animal rights movement. Universalism plays a major role in education within the animal rights movement, and activists should seek another route to educate the public. For example, many people respond better to the argument for veganism when it includes an acknowledgement of other oppressed groups. Activists’ arguments about factory farming mostly consist of the inhumane treatment of non-human animals. Activists must accept that not everyone feels the same way about non-human animals as they do—so the best alternative route is to introduce the cruelty of animals and how it is intertwined with the oppressions of others. So how do we, as animal activists, go about this form of education? In this next section, I will give a brief overview of intersections among the oppressions of human and non-human animals, and give an example of this form of intersectional education.

Intersections of Oppression: A Brief Overview

The intersections of sexism and speciesism have become a focal point for many ecofeminist and critical animal studies scholars. Feminist theory explores issues of representation of women, sexual violence, and reproductive rights, which are issues that intersect within the animal rights movement. For example, women are often represented as ‘pieces of meat’ or portrayed as particular non-human animals. We see this through advertisement, pornography, and the social constructs within our food system. Carl’s Jr. is known for their sexual commercials, where women are exploited with their female nakedness and are seen erotically eating a burger. These commercials have elicited many negative reactions, but Carl’s Jr. continues to produce new commercials with the idea that ‘sex sells’—which it does in this case. The idea that men have appetites for both meat and women’s bodies has been ingrained in our minds for decades. As Carol Adams claims, “masculinity appears to require satisfaction and beef,” which is exactly what the Carl’s Jr. commercials are aiming to provide (Adams, 1994, 30). This is not a singular case, and it’s not just in mainstream advertisements; it is also performed at the local level. In a restaurant in Fort Worth, one of the menu items was called the “Hillary Dinner: two big thighs, two small breasts, and a left wing” (Adams, 1994, 31). In addition, factory farmed animals, like women, are often labeled as reproducers, and men have long worked to control their reproduction. Female non-human animals are constantly forced to become pregnant, give birth, and continue this cycle until death. If a female non-human animal is not capable of reproducing, she is seen as useless and sent to slaughter. The reproductive cycle of a non-human animal under man’s domination is cruel and inhumane; there are even platforms within factory farms called ‘rape racks’ where the female non-human animal is forcefully inseminated.  The babies from these female non-human animals are often taken away from their mothers at a very early age, degrading the very meaning of motherhood. A major reason for this way of thinking, as Karen Davis explains, is because “farm animals are feminized and therefore trivialized in our cultural iconography” (Davis, 1995, 6).  Wild animals are then perceived as “masculine, and therefore wild animals are seen as having higher status” (Davis, 1995, 6). These are just a few examples I have chosen from the intersection of sex and species to unveil the interconnectedness between them.

Like intersections between sexism and speciesism, we can acknowledge the emerging field of genderism and sexuality in relation to speciesism.  Genderism and sexuality play an important role in dismantling our social construct on what it means to be “different.” In a recent interview with Jasmin Singer, co-founder of Our Hen House, she stated that she “believe[d] that the fundamental connection between gay rights and animal rights, as well as countless other rights movements, is the mindset of the oppressor, which is always based in the thought that, I am better, and more important, than they are” (Chen, 2012). We can acknowledge that both animal activists and people from the LGBTQ community are stereotyped. Singer claims that “to identify as both in many ways epitomizes marginalization” (Singer, 2007). Singer gives an example and describes how John Phillips, Executive Director of the League of Humane Voters of New York City, experienced both of these stereotypes: “I came out and went vegan at the same time. Some family members worried I would die of protein deficiency and AIDS. They’d wonder: Which is going to kill him first?” (Singer, 2007). Again, these are only a few examples of the intersections of gender, sexuality, and species.

One oppression that often goes unnoticed, especially in the mainstream animal rights movement, is the issue of ableism. Sunaurua Taylor, an animal and disability activist, recently presented a paper at the Society for Disability Studies titled “Animals and Ableism.” Taylor opened with a story that linked her disability to one with a non-human animal:

A few years ago, I found a story about a fox with Arthrogryposis, which is my disability. The fox was shot by a hunter because ‘it had an abnormal gait and appeared sick.’ The animal, who had quite significant disabilities, had normal muscle mass and the stomach contained a large amount of digested food, ‘suggesting that the limb deformity did not preclude successful hunting and foraging.’

Her story was an example of mercy killing, where humans kill non-human animals because of our anthropocentric stereotypes of disability. Taylor then goes on to explain that the fox was actually healthy and in no pain at all. It was the hunter’s overall assumptions about the disability that resulted in needlessly taking the fox’s life. Taylor then explains that our anthropocentric assumptions run deep, “so deep that we project this human ableism onto other nonhuman animals” (Taylor, 2012). Taylor claims that it is from the ableist paradigms where our cultural norms on animal suffering are born. Taylor explains how “we have continually judged nonhumans through an ableist and particularly neurotypical lens, the same lens that has often led people to discount the abilities of those with mental and physical disabilities” (Taylor, 2012). Ableism and speciesism intersect through a wide range of oppression, which further research in this field is still uncovering.

Lastly, racism and classism also intersect through speciesism. Consider the following example from my own experience. I was giving a presentation to my peers on veganism. At the end of my presentation, I showed a clip from the documentary Speciesism: The Movie, where a drone flew over a factory farm. The drone showed a few seconds of the cruel practices on non-human animals inside the factory farm, but the video unveiled more than that. The video showed the environmental impacts of factory farms, and also included interviews with local community members. The narrator claimed that factory farms had a major impact on the local community (Devries, 2012). These factory farms are “disproportionately located in communities of color and regions of poverty” (Mirabelli, Wing, Marshall, and Wilcosky, 2010). These oppressed people are affected by the factory farm’s negative externalities, which cause “irritation to their eyes, noses, and throats, along with a decline in the quality of life and increased incidents of depression, tension, anger, confusion, and fatigue” (Wallinga, 2013). In addition, the factory farms expose humans to dangerous chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, which cause “noticeable increases in respiratory ailments near these sites, and because of the location of these industrialized farms, those affected most are low-income communities of color” (Food Empowerment Project, 2015). We can identify this exposure as environmental racism and classism, because of how these oppressions dovetail and are simultaneously exploited through factory farm practices along with cruelty to non-human animals.

This example of different oppressions being affected by factory farms had a major impact on my audience. My peers were more willing to accept veganism and the animal rights movement because of the intersections with other oppressions, which in turn created a safe dialogue in which the entire class engaged. Just like the example of the many intersected oppressions that are linked to factory farms, we can create a more dynamic lens for the entire animal rights movement that can be linked with all forms of systemic oppression. We can do this in part by having more intersectional leaders in the animal rights movement.

Intersectional Leaders in the Animal Rights Movement

Many critics may argue that intersectionality is too complex for the animal rights movement. The complexity of intersectionality may seem as if the movement is trying to accomplish too many things at once. We are often asked: “how can we justify such diversions? How can we devote our attention to animals when there is so much human suffering?” (Adams and Donovan, 1995, 3). The framework that suggests that the animal rights movement and other social movements are opposed to one another “arises from the dualistic premise that humans’ and [non-human] animals’ needs are in conflict. It also implies that human needs are paramount, reinforcing a status hierarchy” (Adams and Donovan, 1995, 3). Critics might also charge that we would gain very little by having intersectional leaders within the movement because advocates from all movements, including the animal rights movement, need to solely focus on undoing oppression in their own realms. In addition, critics might claim that intersectionality would undo the animal rights movement’s coherent identity because we would be taking on far too many problems at one time. In this section, I will respond to this critique and explain the benefits of having intersectional leaders within the movement. Lastly, I will reveal my foundational criteria for all animal rights leaders to possess in order to become a more accepting and effective movement.

Having intersectional leaders in the animal rights movement will create many positive outcomes. First, the animal rights movement will have more reasonable activists who will not value one oppression over the other but will instead embrace action for all forms of injustice. Imagine a movement where we would have more educated, accepting activists with the ability to think critically. Having rational activists who understand the importance of intersectionality will break down barriers and erase misconceptions the public has about the animal rights movement. Consider again my classroom presentation on veganism. Unveiling all forms of injustice to a person who does not normally value the life of a non-human animal will be more likely to lead audiences to accept the activist’s position on meat-eating, because they will recognize that the activist is fighting against all forms of oppression.

In addition, having intersectional leaders will create allies. Allies are important because they allow us, as activists, to acknowledge all forms of injustice—unveiling the underlying construct of domination. Allies create a space where we learn to recognize our own privilege and choose voluntarily to step aside when a marginalized group of people needs to be heard; thus more groups will appear: whether on-campus, in the community, or through social media, these newfound animal activists will create a space in which they will feel accepted and reassured that they are being heard and acknowledged. For example, many activists are currently in a social media group called Intersectional Vegans. This group provides a safe space that gives voice to marginalized members who often feel like outcasts within the current mainstream animal rights movement. These types of groups are all interconnected within the animal rights movement, and having intersectional leaders will create more of these safe spaces.

Lastly, having intersectional leaders will create a more accepting and aware movement. If such leaders join the animal rights movement, they will help in developing rational activists and allies, as well as giving voice to the marginalized. In doing so, they will help win a newfound public respect. Rather than trying to take on too much at once, the animal rights movement will become a vital ally for other movements. We will no longer be labeled as a ‘cult,’ but recognized as another movement fighting to dismantle the politics of domination and discrimination. This could possibly lead to other movements looking at the animal rights movement as a model intersectional movement, and thus create more intersectional leaders in other movements. Imagine a protest where allies come from all different backgrounds, bringing different experiences and knowledge into the fight against domination. If we do not become intersectional, we risk losing the opportunity to expand the compassion and knowledge within ourselves and others around us.

I suggest four criteria that can serve as a foundation for intersectional leaders in the animal rights movement. First, all leaders should be able to self-evaluate and recognize their own privilege as well as acknowledge their positionality. Second, they must be able to create and maintain respectful dialogues. Third, leaders should be able to recognize other forms of injustice and become allies in the fight against other forms of oppression. Fourth, they should understand and promote intersectionality. We should not offer leadership positions to any single type of person. Even if this person is a white male, as long as they accept these criteria, they can be accepted as an intersectional leader.  Nor do I imply that in order to become an intersectional animal rights leader one must be in the mainstream, but leaders in every platform are needed. We need intersectional leaders as scholars, community organizers, college campus club members, as well as social media group organizers. If we create intersectional leaders on all platforms, the animal rights movement will be transformed into the ideal movement for fighting against domination. The next time someone asks me: “You’re an animal activist—so why do you hate people?” I will gladly explain to them that I am an intersectional activist, fighting to dismantle the politics of domination for all forms of injustice.


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Wallinga, David M.D. “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: Health Risks from Air Pollution.” Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy.  November 2, 2004.

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