Zane McNeill is perhaps one of the most determined young activists in the animal rights movement today. In their time as an activist, McNeill has built up quite a resume, working with Farm Sanctuary, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Animal League Defense Fund (ALDF), and Rights for Animal Rights Activists (RARA). Yet still, between all this work, McNeill has found the time to serve as editor of three different essay collections including Queer + Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, Vegan Entanglements: Dismantling Racial and Carceral Capitalism, and Y’all Means All: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia. McNeill’s writing is insightful, nuanced, and necessary.
How long have you been involved in the animal rights movement?
Zane McNeill: I have been involved with animal advocacy since I was 11. I went vegetarian after I realized that animals undergo truly horrendous and cruel treatment at factory farms and I felt like there was something spiritually wrong with my consumption of nonhumans and support of that system. When I was 14, I went vegan thanks to [Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine] PCRM’s 21-day vegan challenge. I used to have year long allergies and they went away after I switched up my diet.
In high school, I started a vegetarian awareness club that held a film showing of Earthlings, collaborated with the library on having an ‘anti-speciesist section’ that highlighted books like The Jungle, and volunteered at local shelters. During this time, I also conducted research on people’s consumption of animal products and found that a large percentage of female students wanted to decrease their consumption, but that their romantic partners wouldn’t let them. This led me to the work of ecofeminists like Carol Adams and my vegan praxis gradually expanded from a personal belief to a politics.
In college, I started a group called Compassionate Communities, which was affiliated with Farm Sanctuary. We collaborated with other progressive organizations on campus and lobbied the school and its partner Sodexo to increase vegan options for students. This campaign included leafleting, tastings, speaker events, and discussions with the President. After my freshman year, I was awarded a grant to intern with Farm Sanctuary as an education intern and lived in Watkins Glen for the Summer and wrote a blog about my experience. That Fall, I was onboarded as a campus coordinator with the Humane League who aided and supported the campaigns that I had started on campus.
After I graduated, I interned with the ASPCA and the HSUS in their public policy and government relations departments. The major part of my HSUS internship was campaigning for Prop 12, which passed and its legality is now going to be discussed in front of the Supreme Court. At the ASPCA, we worked with local partners on pit bull ban repeals in Kansas City and Cleveland. A lot of the work I did with these groups was phone and text banking, drafting op-eds and LTEs, and canvassing.
My first salaried job in AR was a paralegal position with the ALDF. I was able to work on cases that I had learned and written about in college, which I found really fulfilling. After the first interview for that position, I came out as trans (I hadn’t disclosed earlier because I was afraid that it would negatively effect my chances of getting hired) and it was the first job I had where I got to use the name ‘Zane’ and they/them pronouns. I was their first out trans employee, however, and the organization didn’t really know what to do with me.
My experiences there, as well as sexual harassment and assault that I had faced during my time at other organizations, inspired me to start a DEIJ organization called Roots DEI Consulting and Policy and get involved with the labor rights advocacy group Rights for Animal Rights Activists (RARA). I feel like, despite dedicating a decade of my life to AR, it just chewed me up and spit me out. I’m starting law school in the Fall to learn how to better advocate for workers in the AR sphere who, like me, have faced patterns of discrimination, exploitation, and abuse.
In Queer and Trans Voices you mention growing up in the Bible Belt of West Virginia. Has your upbringing impacted how you approach veganism? What was your experience like as a queer vegan in West Virginia?
ZM: It’s funny, because being queer in WV wasn’t a big deal, but being vegan certainly was. I’ve written that being vegan actually queered me more than being queer did. On Vegan Feminist Network, I wrote that: “Since embarking on the road to publish the queer vegan anthology, I found myself validated in both these identities—being vegan and queer—and in recognizing that they were always inherently connected to me, and that being vegan has informed my queer activism and vice versa.”
I think, specifically growing up in Appalachia, which has a more ‘queers do it in the dirt’ anti-capitalist and redneck radical culture, I’m more suspicious of vegan capitalism and ‘effective altruism’ frameworks. Growing up poor in a poor space that has been historically used as a ‘sacrifice zone’ for the rest of country and then having your culture used as a caricature that is used to justify Appalachia’s lack of capital changes your worldview. While there is a tangible anti-vegan vibe in many Appalachian leftist circles, I feel much more at home in those spaces then metronormative queer vegan spaces in LA.
Your published work on veganism is always very consistent about the necessity of liberation. Can you explain what the concept of liberation means to you?
ZM: Liberation to me is the freedom from the logics that inform and material impact of the oppressive structures that they uphold. It is imagining and creating existence outside of precarity. It is the dismantlement of concepts that both oppress and marginalize me, but also the disassembly of structures that provide me with social, economic, and cultural privilege at the expense of others (i.e. white supremacy). It is a reorganization of thought in which there no longer an ‘Other.’ It is a world in which the political needs of everyone, including nonhuman animals, is respected. It is a space of repairing harm and of being accountable and offering reparations. It is the tangible goal of ending the State and its’ exploitation and commodification and consumption of nonhumans, the Earth, and marginalized peoples.
Vegan Entanglements focuses on the interconnection between different oppressive systems, such as animal agriculture and the prison-industrial complex. As a writer, do you ever find it difficult to draw these parallels for readers? Have you received any pushback?
ZM: The only pushback that I have received has been from single-issue vegan organizations who have built their organizations on the belief that ‘if you hurt an animal you go to jail’ and have partnered with police departments to make this a reality. However, the bigger issue for me has been platform. Most vegans have just ignored my work because they do not think that animal advocacy has anything to do with larger movements for social justice. Or advocates may say that they appreciate the work that I do, but then don’t financially support me or my collaborators.
I was on Twitter the other day and this PhD student was talking about how they can never find funding for their work because, at the end of the day, institutions (whether universities or non-profits) are not going to support work that actively works to eradicate the systems of oppression in which they are profiting upon. Funders fund groups that will aid their PR but won’t actually endanger the systems in which they have made their social and economic capital off of. This ends up translating to white rich funders centering whiteness and funding white organizations. The money stays in the same communities and the status quo isn’t really effected.
What has your experience been like as an editor of multiple essay collections (Y’all Means All, Vegan Entanglements, and Queer and Trans Voices)? Is the experience often the same or has your experience with each collection been unique?
ZM: While the editing process itself is very similar and gets easier with every new collection I work on, the micro-communities for each project are all different. I see editing as a form of archival advocacy and community building. While I am proud of the books themselves, my main interest is on the process not the finished object. I really enjoy putting people in conversation who may not have met each other and inviting contributors from folks who are from historically marginalized groups and have had their voices actively eclipsed from the archive. The majority of people I invite to my books are queer and trans folks, whether or not they’re writing about LGBTQIA+ issues. Queer and transness still informs their chapters. When you compare the books I’ve edited to other collections, which includes majority cishet contributors, you will fine that their positionality effects the tone and content of the work.
What vegan writing have you found most poignant, both personally and as a scholar?
ZM: Everything that Sanctuary Publishers has done. I am indebted to Julia Feliz and their collections for articulating how systems of oppression are interconnected.
Most of your work thus far has been scholarly writing. Do you have any plans to eventually branch out into fiction? Are you currently working on any writing projects?
ZM: I am currently shifting from activist scholarship to more investigative journalism and creative nonfiction work. In every collection I work on, we are adamant about making the book accessible for non-academics. However, we think there is value to include theory and utilize scholarship to inform our advocacy. For many of us, we went into academia in order to better learn how to be better activists. My shift in writing styles is, unfortunately, mostly driven by my economic situation. Publishing journal articles and other academic writing doesn’t pay, and I can’t afford to do it as much anymore. While working on these collections, I worked full time as a paralegal and volunteered with a ton of AR groups. It’s a lot of labor to get a book done. I’ve started to get better at freelancing, though, and so I’ve moved more into labor writing for leftist publications.
I’m working on a few other book projects, however. I have two academic collections that are about to start the peer review process. One is an anthology under contract with Routledge on performance studies, socially engaged art, and embodied politics. This collection theorizes the value of reconceptualizing social movements and public protest as a form of art. The other is under contract with University of Kentucky Press and is sort of a spin-off more-academic version of Y’all Means All. Both projects started about the same time in 2018. That collection invites contributors to think through Appalachia itself—geographically, culturally, symbolically—as a queer space. It is really inspired by Cate Sandilands’ work on queer ecologies.
I am just starting two other projects on labor and AR. One is an anthology tentatively titled Labor, Animals, and Collaborative Advocacy: Building an Animal Rights Movement in Solidarity with other Social Justice Movements which aims to provide a liberatory labor framework for animal advocates as individuals and as a movement. The collection is made up of four sections under the thematic umbrella of labor and animal rights: (1) Nonprofit workers; (2) Meatpacking and Slaughterhouse Workers; (3) Nonhuman Animal Labor; and (4) Bringing Labor Rights into Animal Rights. The first three sections introduce readers to some of the intersecting labor issues that currently exist in the animal movement. The last section invites readers to imagine how animal liberation can be predicated on, as well as inform, the labor rights movement. I just submitted a proposal to Haymarket. I originally sent the proposal to AK, but the topic was too specific for them, and they rejected it. I’m hoping to publish with an indie publisher instead of an academic press for it, but I’m not sure where it will land. That will probably be out 2024.
The other book would be my first actual totally authored by me book which I want to write during law school. It would be sort of all inclusive handbook for animal activists regarding their labor rights. So I’ll be asking questions like what can an AR advocate due if they’re hit with an Ag-gag suit or a SLAPP suit? What protections do nonprofit workers legally have from race and gender discrimination and what avenues for relief do they have if they’re discriminated against? What can workers do to strengthen their protections—what are the steps to unionizing? I’m imagining this book as a mix of case law and other legal research, interviews, autoethnography, and case studies.
Any advice for fellow vegan writers?
ZM: Writing and/or editing a book is a ton of work but when it is out in the world and someone says that they found value in it, that makes everything worth it. So when you’re overwhelmed, think of the people who will be thankful that you finished and published your work.
Zane McNeill is a scholar-activist with a BA in History and MA in Political Science. He is an experienced organizer and has worked in the spheres of public policy, government relations, and animal law in the non-profit sector. They are the co-editor of Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression and are currently working on other projects concerning queer liberation in Appalachia, anti-carceral veganism, choreopolitics, and socially engaged art. You can contact him at email@example.com