"Coming Out" as Vegan to Family and Friends: It's a Process, Not Just an Announcement
by Sherry Jeppson Zitter
"It's so hard to be vegan in this culture!" is one of the most common feelings I hear expressed by fellow vegans.
Many of us have sought vegan Meet-Ups or other groups as a way to find support and not feel too isolated or weird. As a clinical social worker/psychotherapist, I've worked with vegan clients to help them combat the barriers they often feel in a non-vegan world, the emotions that arise when around those enthusiastically eating meat, and how to handle their own reactions.
Some considering a vegan lifestyle may be daunted or deterred by these many challenges. Perhaps some of the strategies below, and those shared in response by readers, may give you hope on your own personal journey toward a more plant-based diet.
My goal with this column is to begin a dialogue within our community, a sharing of ideas, approaches and stories about what has worked for a variety of vegans -- as well as experiences that have not been so successful. We are a diverse bunch, so what works for some of us will not be the right approach for others. By brainstorming together, we may come up with a continuum of self-care and responses and learn where each of us fits best at a particular time in our vegan journey.
ROSE AND HER NON-VEGAN FAMILY
Rose (not her real name) comes from a large Jewish family that loves to eat. Most of their gatherings focus around Jewish or secular holidays that serve traditional non-vegan food. Thanksgiving (centering around a dead turkey) and Passover (involving a roasted lamb shankbone) are the most challenging holiday meals for her.
Rose's family's reactions when she "came out" to them as vegan ranged from "Why would you want to do THAT?! Aren't you taking things a bit too far?" (her older sister) to "Honey, that's so unhealthy! How will you get enough protein?" (her mom) to mocking from her younger brother: "Oh, here comes the lofty animal hero! Look, Rose, you're too late to save this meat loaf!!"
At first, Rose felt so isolated and judged by her family that she found herself making excuses to skip family gatherings. But she soon missed the warmth of her close-knit family and searched for ways to overcome this sudden barrier to connecting with them.
Rose sought out resources that explained the health benefits of a vegan diet clearly and simply, and brought them with her to the next holiday. She also offered to bring a vegan dish full of protein to add to the meal, and made sure it was an old family recipe adapted with delicious vegan ingredients. She found quotes from prominent vegans who various family members would respect: Albert Schweitzer for her scientific dad, Paul McCartney for her Beatles-loving sister, and Dick Gregory for her civil rights activist mother.
Connecting with vegan friends before and after this event was a crucial part of Rose's strategy. She knew which of them were around over the weekend so she could text or call them for support. She tried not to expect too much change in attitudes, and resolved not to offer any of her materials unless she was asked.
AT THE FAMILY GATHERING
When her mother and sister separately brought up concerns for her health or welfare, Rose responded in a loving way, thanking them for caring about her and giving verbal responses about ways she manages her health well. Her explanations were brief, focusing on the specific concerns expressed, and she was careful to avoid a proselytizing tone.
Rose then offered written materials in a low-key way, which they each accepted. She asked if either of them had read or heard about any benefits of a vegan diet, and mentioned how heart problems (her mother's concern) and weight issues (her sister's) could often be improved just by eating a few more plant-based meals per week.
Her mother was still skeptical, but later raved about the vegan version of the family's chili recipe Rose had brought. Rose resolved to keep adapting superbly delicious dishes she knows are favorites with her clan. When her sister expressed more interest, she added a bit about what had brought her to this decision from an ethical and philosophical standpoint, stressing her love of animals that her sister shared.
Her prankster brother was more challenging for Rose. When he began his perennial teasing, she took a deep breath and teased him back gently: "So are you the marathoner-wannabe who hasn't even heard of all the Vegan Ironmen?"
"Really!?" he said, suddenly interested, and she texted him the link to Brendan Brazier's and Doug Graham's sites. For the next hour he was reading testimonials by vegan athletes on his phone.
Rose realized two essential truths about family dealings for vegans:
1. I can't change their reactions, but I can change my response to their reactions; and
2. I won't expect to change anyone's viewpoint right away; give them slow, gradual information respectfully over time. Some will adjust; others won't. She also did her research, exposed them to vegan food that was close to what they loved, not out of their experience, and lined up support before, during and after her experience. This enabled her not to get into a war of words, where there are winners and losers and where people's minds close rather than open.
TIM AND HIS BASKETBALL FRIENDS
Tim's friends were laid-back, preferring pick-up games of basketball to philosophical discussions. When he encouraged trying a new restaurant after a game, rather than their standard hamburger joint, they shrugged and agreed. But once in the restaurant, several of them began reacting to the large vegetarian portion of the menu: "Sprouts?! Yea, man, I love 'em - NOT!" "Hey, this place doesn't even have a bacon cheeseburger!" and "So Tim, where's the real food?!"
Tim realized he had made a mistake. Since they hadn't ordered yet, he suggested they go back to their old haunt, and he ordered a salad. His friends were puzzled and he told them simply that he wasn't eating meat or cheese anymore. When they asked why, he told them that cows and chickens created global warming and used up a lot of land hungry people could use for food.
John was amazed: "You mean you're becoming a Leftie? You really think skipping your chicken wings will save the world, huh?!" Mike wrinkled his nose: "You're getting soft - your jump shot will suffer soon. C'mon, just one bite of my burger ain't gonna hurt ya!" He led the table in a cheer of "Without meat, your meal is not complete! Yum, yum, yum!!"
Tim tried to laugh this away, but his stomach was churning with anger and frustration. How could he possibly make his friends even begin to understand? No clever retort came to mind. After a few minutes, he managed to change the subject. Somehow, he made it through the meal and went home to think.
NOT-SO-INSTANT REPLAY, WITH CARE
Tim began to realize he would need to see his change through the eyes of his friends in order for them to understand. He printed out some stories of vegan Ironmen to bring to the next game, and a few of his friends were curious when he showed them in a casual way. He brought ripe avocados to their usual restaurant, adding one into his salad but also passing some around to the guys. After attending some vegan Meet-ups and getting support and advice, he found some jokes that poked fun of people who were too zealous about one way of eating. During the next wave of teasing, he was able to laugh at himself with them without altering his decision or his eating. Without any reaction from him, the teasing gradually diminished.
After a few months of developing a plan, the next restaurant Tim suggested -- he had tested it first! -- had thick mouth-watering portabella burgers with "analog" Daiya soy cheese and Lightlife tempeh "Fakin' Bacon" on it. And after one game, he invited the group back to his apartment to have snacks and watch a movie. Before the film, he showed a trailer on "The Engine 2 Diet," authored by vegan fireman and athlete Rip Esselstyn. Rip had helped a co-worker at the firehouse avoid a heart attack or stroke by lowering his dangerously high cholesterol with man-filling vegan food. He tells the story of how everyone at the station had changed to a plant-based diet, lost weight, felt stronger and healthier.
That night, Tim served vegan snacks from Rip's creations and got very positive, although still bantering, responses. It's a process, he kept reminding himself. When he casually offered to lend anyone Esselstyn's book, 3 guys got in line to read it.
Tim learned several crucial approaches to dealing with in-your-face friends:
1. Have patience. Ask your friends to make small steps; respecting where they are starting from and offering them ways to laugh with an open mind assists in accepting different ways of thinking.
2. Give them knowledge that meshes with their interests and intrigues them.
3. Be able to laugh at yourself, respectfully.
4. Offer resources and yummy food they are somewhat familiar with, or mimics what they are familiar with, in laid-back ways.
5. Expect attitude change to be slow and don't push.
Many of us live in areas where we know few other vegans. We work to find ways to get support or to feel accepted for who we are and what we believe -- as well as what we eat and do not eat. Change is slow at times, in ourselves and others; we can find ways to deal with the "two steps forward, one step back" experiences that life presents to us with grace and courage. Our dilemmas are made so much easier through community, and we want Vegan Villager to be a source of ideas and inspiration for all our readers.
First printed in Vegan Villager 2013: veganvillager.com