When k.d. lang entered the world of the beef industry, she did so full on. A talented young girl from the little town of Consort, Alta., lang had grown up with cowboys, dust and the soothing voice of Patsy Cline. She originally played small gigs around Alberta and especially in Edmonton at the Sidetrack Café. The blue-collar haven loved her energy and outrageous fashion and she is especially remembered for her cut-off wedding dress and cowboy boots.
After teaming up with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 1990 with the Meat Stinks campaign she hit resistance and country radio stations stopped playing her music. The beef industry went on a rampage against her. She shocked carnivores by saying she was a vegetarian and the general public by coming out as a lesbian.
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The cattle industries rift with lang attracted attention to her music and was more costly to them than to her records. By going into the controversy on the defensive, it also gave PETA the momentum it wanted and Meat Stinks was consequently one of their most successful campaigns. But, it was lang who took the reputation hit for the campaign backlash. When her show in Owen Sound was cancelled in 1992 because of farmer protests, it was labelled a vegetarian controversy as though being a vegetarian was aligned with some sort of satanic cult. PETA sat back and let the donations roll in.
It is true that lang remains a vegetarian and that choice is hers alone. Industry does not have the right to tell folks what to eat. We don’t know what drives this desire or need in individual persons. It may start in childhood. Some children are sensitive to animals and cannot see themselves eating meat. Some have had a bad or traumatic experience. Some digestive systems don’t work and other bodies do not properly metabolize. The reasons for eating specific foods are private and the choice is simply that — a choice.
What began as a campaign for animal rights became an attack on an individual and took the heat off of PETA for scripting, filming and broadcasting the advertisement. Only 10 years old at the time, PETA was looking for shock value, an avenue they use to this day, and they got it with a rising star and fresh-faced country girl in lang.
I would imagine if one looks in their closet of skeletons we could pull out a time when we wished we didn’t do what we did or said what we said because we had not thought about the consequences to others, or expected a backlash to our personal beliefs. But these things happen and can cause regret and as lang expressed in a 1992 interview with the New York Times: “It hurt my mom and nothing is really worth that.”
To this day, lang has never lashed back at the industry who chewed her to bits. Rather she is a quiet person who goes about her business of writing and singing songs while being a human rights and animal rights supporter, raising awareness of AIDS and an advocate for the LGBT community. A proud Canadian, lang has sung at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and has earned both Grammy and Emmy Awards. Funny, quick and likeable, lang brought a new normal forward to rural Canada.
In 1992 when lang came out as a lesbian the New York Times branded her a “politically radical vegetarian lesbian defender of wildlife.” A title like that today might garner you votes and a huge Twitter account but in reality the descriptives of vegetarian and lesbian are not relevant to the talents or actions of the individual. In the 1990s this was a rude call that infringed on every aspect of her human rights, and which today is spelled out under the United Nations call for the end of discrimination based on gender and sexual identity. The press attention did open the door to the discussion of sexual orientation and lang stands as an instrument of change towards acceptance and has paved the way for our boys and girls to be free in owning their sexual identity.
The “meat-hating lesbian” as she was titled in Alberta was by the day’s standards outspoken and seemingly outrageous, but it led the industry to higher ground. Thank you lang for your voice: the voice that ignited the beef industry to better their message and consider the improvements we employ today with regard to animal welfare and handling. Thanks to lang, the beef industry ramped up defining the eating quality and nutritional attributes of beef and geared that message toward the urban consumer to which PETA was pitching.
As producers of food the goal of the beef industry is to do its job well so the PETAs of the world have nothing to say and stop exploiting people for their own cause. It is likely lang may have felt played in the end, but regardless of how she felt, in true Canadian fashion she exercised tolerance and grace against those who were so angry at her position, a position she has the right to express in a free and democratic country.
The wedding dress has been replaced by a black suit and she sports bare feet on stage — her voice is hauntingly sure. Recently back home — lang has been filling concert halls across the nation with her amazing gift; and by her presence lifting the veil of intolerance for those who eat differently, dress differently, believe differently and live differently.