Until every cage is empty…

People always ask me why I’m vegan. My brief and polite explanation of ethics is usually met by an in-depth inquisition based on “what if” scenarios featuring utopian animal welfare standards. I usually manage to end the discussion by concluding that in an ideal world – whatever that is – I wouldn’t have to be vegan, but that I’d deal with that question when I found myself in that situation.

I don’t often like talking about my ethics and philosophies, because it’s really no fun for anyone else. You’re either preaching to the choir or you’re browbeating your fellow interlocutor. And I don’t like that, because to me being vegan is about respecting your fellow human as well as non-human animals.

So why am I writing about this today? Well, lately I have been twisting my mind around a bit of a conflict of interest – an identity crisis, or maybe a quarter-life crisis if you prefer. I wanted to keep it all off the blog, mainly to keep this a positive space, partly to avoid spewing my guts out on the internet, and also to stay well away from making this conflict a personal one. However, at this point the whole thing has taken up so much of my time and mental energy, and has begun to make me question my values and how I live my life to the point that it really does come down to the core of why I am vegan.

I think it’s important to this blog that I talk about my experiences without naming or shaming, because they are forming and reinforcing core parts of my personality, and therefore that of this blog.

I used to be happy to simply be vegan – in fact, I deliberately avoided being one of those “hippie vegans”, and tried to stay as mainstream as possible. I do think there is merit in that, and I try to keep a healthy balance. But I have been slowly drifting towards trying to support all-vegan or more ethical businesses wherever possible, paying a little more if necessary but still within limits. And yet for years I blindly continued to support and promote a business that was so unethical on so many levels, and I want to talk about that.

Many people thought the amount of gym membership I paid was ridiculous, but it was somewhere I spent pretty much all of my spare waking hours, and that I got a lot from – plus, I didn’t spend money on going out, drinking, eating meat, or buying fancy clothes. Of course, the amount I was paying started to get ridiculous when the showers wouldn’t be working, when equipment wouldn’t be fixed for weeks on end, when it was obvious that mats and fixtures never got cleaned… And then more ludicrous again when I started going out with Ben and being promised my membership would be reduced for months before it actually happened… Then teaching classes there, and taking personal training clients there, and paying them half my earnings as rent. Along the way, there were shoe discounts for the staff when I worked in a shoe shop – and I would buy the shoes and pay for them in advance, before carrying them into the gym myself to be paid back. I would make healthy treats that Ben would take in to share.

Out of the three years that I frequented the gym, I was in a serious relationship with Ben, a member of their staff, for over two and a half years. I was paying a full membership of £90 per month for over two years, then a reduced rate membership of £55 for about six months. I finally stopped being charged about two months before Ben and I stopped working there. I don’t even want to do the maths. A week or two after Ben left, I trained once. Seven weeks after Ben had cut ties, I swiped in as normal only to be told that I hadn’t renewed my membership. I offered to pay for a single class, I got waved through; “Don’t worry about it“. Minutes later, I get approached whilst warming up, and asked to pay at the end. When I go to pay at the end, it is pointed out to me that I attended for free a few weeks ago. I am charged £30 for the two classes (most of which won’t even go to the instructor) – the full non-member rate. Someone who has worked, paid, supported, and promoted the establishment for over three years. Someone who was told that she was a member of “the family”.

Now that I have been pushed to the outside of “the bubble”, as we are now referring to it, it is so obvious how much they exploited those who poured their heart and soul into the team. Athletes – the young and promising as well as the aging and disintegrating – are bled dry until they become too injured to win competitions, then discarded and forgotten. Those who choose to pursue their training with a gym more suitable to them and their needs are wiped from the record in a fashion that would have made Stalin proud. Women, especially, are discarded when they stop being attractive enough to attract media attention. Staff are given no say, no security, no recognition, no dignity. Words like “family” and “team” are tossed around, when the only relationships to be seen can only be described as “master and servant”.

I know many people won’t be surprised. It is hard for people to see MMA, or cage fighting, or any sort of combat sport as legitimate sports. It won’t help that less than two weeks ago, Georges St.-Pierre, one of the greatest fighters to have fought in the UFC made an emotionally-charged declaration that he would be taking time off for personal reasons, only to be met with threatening assertions from the president of the promotion that the athlete (read: employee) would return to the sport sooner than he had implied – he didn’t say “or else”, but he didn’t need to. I have never liked the men in suits who make money off athletes, but I was still sickened that an athlete of such a high level, who had worked hard and brought in unimaginable amounts of money, should be spoken about publicly in this way with not even any pretense of compassion.

Mixed martial arts can be a legitimate sport. Mixed martial arts gyms can be centres of elite athleticism and sporting excellence. Mixed martial artists can be respectful, cultivated, disciplined individuals. And it can all be compatible with an ethical, compassionate lifestyle. But for that to happen, we need to stop accepting the machismo, the bravado, the pissing contests that are so often associated with the sport. I already feel so much better for taking a step back from that world, from being able to live without biting my tongue, without always having something to prove, without smiling at people who don’t deserve my respect but who somehow seem to genuinely believe they do. I miss my sport of Brazilian jiu jitsu, which unfortunately got embroiled in it all, but I will find somewhere else to train where I am respected, and where I can show my respect to my peers.

This is my plea, as a vegan, for us all to stop putting up with behaviour which we would not put up with out on the street, in any other establishment, or in our own homes. Life is too short, etc etc. I will not support businesses which, directly or indirectly, harm other living beings – and certainly not those which make my life more difficult. I am dedicated to my sport, but in the long run, I need to prioritise my dedication to being a good person. Whether I am on or off the mat, I will keep fighting.