Over the years I've often pondered the links between my decision to become a vegan animal-rights activist and my experience growing up gay, so when I found out that an openly gay man had been chosen as PETA's 2012 Sexiest Vegetarian Next Door, I couldn't wait to chat with him. When one thinks of a vegetarian or a vegan, I don't think they envision the Adonis that is Brooklyn-based actor/performer Zachary Koval. After reading his insights, it's clear he's not just a pretty face, either.
First, congratulations on being PETA's 2012 Sexiest Vegetarian Next Door! How does it feel?
It feels great. Such an honor. The competition was all very sexy, as well. It's wonderful to have this platform to share information about veganism and help inform people about animal rights.
When did you first become vegetarian? How long after that did you become vegan?
I first became vegetarian at age 10. I couldn't stomach the thought of eating animals. I couldn't understand the difference between "pet" animals and "food" animals. Why eat one and not the other, when both are living creatures with personalities, capable of feeling both pleasure and pain? It wasn't until college that I learned the term "vegan" from my close friend. At the time I was convinced that I would never give up dairy and eggs. Scrambled eggs with cheese was one of the only three dishes I knew how to make. I reasoned that I wasn't killing any animals by consuming these products. Veganism seemed so extreme, even from my already vegetarian perspective. It took a while, but one day I was glancing through a PETA pamphlet and realized how wrong I had been. I did more research and discovered I was still contributing to animal suffering by consuming eggs and dairy. By eating dairy I was supporting the veal industry, and despite buying "cage-free" eggs, the chickens weren't really any better off. I knew I could no longer consume with a clean conscience. It took me about year to make the full switch as I gradually eliminated milk and then slowly eggs. I've been vegan now for two and a half years, and it's been very easy. Now I see the idea of continuing to consume animal products as the extreme.
Do you feel that growing up gay informed your decision to stop eating animals?
I think growing up with an inherent sense of "otherness" gave me a different perspective on the world. While many people can take things in life for granted, I had to stop to see how the rules applied to me and figure out how I wanted to relate to the world. Eating animals, despite being something rarely questioned in our society, was something that didn't align with who I was or what I believed.
Many leaders in the animal-rights movement, from Nathan Runkle to Dan Mathews, happen to be gay. Do you see any connections between gay rights and animal rights?
All rights movements seem to based in seeking acceptance and compassion, and in that sense gay rights and animal rights are no different. As part of a marginalized population, I identify and emphasize with all sentient beings when their rights have been stripped and perspectives invalidated. I feel called to give voice to those who have no voice, or who do but whose voice is ignored. Oppression is oppression, no matter who it's against. When one starts cultivating compassion, for anything, it can only grow exponentially. So by caring for animals, I begin to see how we're all connected to each other and to the Earth.
You're obviously in amazing shape. Many gay men like to stay in top form. Can you tell our readers how your vegan diet keeps your body looking so great?
By avoiding animal products my diet contains very little saturated fat and no cholesterol. I'm a slight a heath-food junkie, and nothing makes me happier than a full grocery bag of fresh produce.
Many guys feel that in order to build muscle, you need lots and lots of protein in your diet. Can you tell us what are your favorite sources of plant-based protein?
I love tempeh, tofu, and seitan. Quinoa is my favorite grain -- cooks up as easy as rice and is a complete protein. I'll start my day with a juice and then a big bowl of oatmeal with soy milk, hemp seeds, and peanut butter. After working out I'll generally have a shake with raw sprouted protein powder; Sunwarrior and Vega are probably my favorites. Vegan protein powders are taking off, and there are so many new options available now.
Do you feel that being vegan affects your dating life? How do guys react when you tell them you don't eat animal products?
It definitely makes thing interesting. I never know how or when to "come out" as a vegan. I'll often just casually mention something about veggie options when picking a place to eat. Some guys get strangely defensive, even if that's all I've said, and start listing off the reasons why they could never give up meat. While a vegan partner would be ideal, as someone who would share my ethics and lifestyle, I'll happily date open-minded omnivores as well. What it really comes down to is compassion. If a guy can see beyond himself, have some understanding of how his actions affect the world, and have compassion for others, then I'm interested.
Any advice for guys out there who are veg-curious and looking to take the plunge?
I'd say if you're interested in becoming vegetarian or vegan, start slow. Explore restaurants around your city. Start experimenting with new foods. Maybe do one veggie meal a day (chances are most people already do this without thinking about it), working your way up. There are a growing number of gay vegan and vegetarian meetup groups that have potlucks, parties, and events often. Read books, watch movies, and do research about the food industry and health and environmental benefits of going veg to get a well-rounded picture of thousands of reasons to stick with it. There are countless vegan starter kits with menu plans available online, PETA and 21daykickstart.com being a couple resources. And most importantly, make it fun: Explore new foods, have potlucks with friends, enter sexiest vegetarian contests, etc.
What are some of your favorite restaurants around New York City? When you eat in, what are some of your favorite recipes?
At home curried lentils with a side of rice and sautéed kale is my staple -- simple and healthy. Since becoming vegan I've explored so many more flavors and foods than I ever knew existed. There's a vegan alternative to pretty much everything one could crave. I've discovered a love and appreciation for all foods as my tastes have grown and expanded. As long as it grows from the Earth, I'll eat it. That being said, I'll often go to a new, fancy vegetarian restaurant and despite having a full menu that I can order from (I'm not sure how meat eaters do it -- so many choices!), nine out 10 times I'll get the veggie burger.
There are so many vegan options in New York City. I've been here over three years and still haven't been to them all. If I feel like treating myself, I'll go to Pure Food and Wine -- what they do with raw vegan food is amazing. Favorite everyday restaurants include Blossom, Candle Cafe, and Sacred Chow.
Keep up with Zachary via Facebook at facebook.com/officialzacharykoval.
Follow Ari Solomon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VeganAri