Marlon Reis, Colorado’s first gentleman and father of two, is the longtime partner of Governor Jared Polis. Polis became the nation’s first openly gay man elected as a nonincumbent in Congress nearly a decade ago and is now the first openly gay governor of Colorado (second openly gay person elected to governorship in the U.S.).
But Marlon Reis is much more than a first gentleman and father. He is a vegan animal rights activist who has made animal welfare a main priority in his current role. Reis also enjoys writing, his pieces having been published by USA Today, Politico, CNN, and The Washington Post.
From lending his time and support to legislation for farmed animals, animals used in circuses, and endangered species to attending the CLAWS caucus meetings, Reis is truly fighting for animals in his state.
In an exclusive interview with Mercy For Animals, Reis talks about veganism, animal rights, and being the first gentleman of Colorado.
1. You and your husband are the first gubernatorial same-sex couple in the country! How does that feel?
It feels amazing and perhaps a little too good to be true. There is no easy way to describe the happy responsibility you take on as a public figure working to make the world a better place. On the one hand, you are emboldened to push the envelope more because you know so many are counting on you to be their representative voice.
Yet that responsibility can be frightening, and I often wonder if I am doing enough with the platform I have. But the truth is that change happens when people decide to be themselves. It’s not how many appearances you make, whether you are a good public speaker, or even how long you stay relevant. What matters most is simply being there. The time-honored institutions of government can’t ignore you if you hold your ground. Good or bad, government must acknowledge your presence, and it must adapt. Government cannot be static. It must always be the reflection of the people it serves.
As a same-sex couple, I like to think that Jared and I have pushed open the door to public service just a bit wider so that more people feel running for office is not merely possible but worth undertaking. By and large, people in public service want to leave the world better off than they found it. While they may disagree about what “better off” means, I think most would concur that excellence in serving the people comes from a fundamental belief in the value of selflessness.
I read a spectacular bit of wisdom many years ago, and it has remained with me ever since: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
2. You’ve been outspoken about your passion for animal rights and your veganism. Will they inform your platform as Colorado’s first gentleman?
Being vegan is core to who I am, and the way I want to represent myself to the world. In my experience, the best persuasion is simply setting a good example. If you live according to your values and you accomplish good things, people will naturally wonder about what you are doing and be more willing to try it themselves.
I’ve been vegan for 15 years after being a vegetarian for two, but prior to changing my diet, I felt out of alignment with my convictions. In my early 20s, I decided that I could no longer continue telling the world how much I love animals, then sit down to a hamburger for lunch. To be honest, it was an easy transition for me. I think that is how you know you’ve found the perfect fit.
Things come easily when you live with sincerity. It’s a personal choice to be vegan, but I think treating animals in a humane way—even when they are raised for food—is something that most people can get behind. I am still learning about the possibilities afforded me as Colorado’s first gentleman, but helping animals is my platform as first gentleman, and it will inform most of what I do in that role.
I am excited to begin by making my way around Colorado and drawing attention to good work where it is being done. I want to serve as a go-between in bringing together the many diverse groups within the animal welfare movement, offering public education outreach so that Coloradans can better understand the important role they play in making life better for domestic, wild, and farmed animals.
3. Can you tell us how you went vegan and became involved in animal rights?
It became more and more difficult for me to reconcile eating dairy and meat with how much I enjoyed spending time with animals. You might say it was inevitable that I would eventually begin to question why cows were any different than the pets who slept at the foot of my bed and greeted me every morning when I woke up.
Why is it OK to eat one kind of animal but unspeakable to eat another? The double standards I had to defend eventually became too burdensome for me to argue. For two years, I ate a vegetarian diet that included dairy products, and I felt much more like myself. Then, one day, a friend was asking me why I am vegetarian, and I answered, “because I love animals too much to eat them.”
Being quite savvy, my friend pointed to my belt and shoes and said, “But you don’t love them so much that you are willing to give up leather.” That was a decisive moment for me. I realized I was still being hypocritical, and I reasoned that I did not want to be an animal lover with exceptions.
I wanted to be 100 percent on the side of animals, and that meant giving up animal products and byproducts across the board. Once I made that distinction, I never looked back. Being vegan has brought me a sense of fulfillment that was frequently lacking in my formative years.
4. MFA focuses on advocating for farmed animals. What do you think are the most pressing issues farmed animals face in your state?
I think it surprises people when I tell them that I want to help ALL animals, but that’s the truth. I consider my role as one that advocates for the animals we keep as pets; those with whom we share the planet; and, particularly, those we raise for food.
But if we are talking about animals that need our help most desperately, I think those living on commercial feedlots take precedence. I think it is vitally important that we educate consumers to look at food as the end result of a process, and we need to make that process as humane and healthy as possible. My goal is not to frighten people. I want to find ways of providing consumers with information they need to make thoughtful decisions.
As I work towards educating Coloradans, I will be thinking about the fact that different arguments work on different people and that we all bring value sets and perspectives to the table. It doesn’t matter to me that people care about animals for different reasons; what matters is that they realize animals need our help and they are empowered to engage through public advocacy and their own personal spending choices.
5. Looking to the future, what gives you the most hope with respect to animal rights?
In the past 15 years, I have been astonished and delighted to watch as more and more Americans have asked the question, “How did this end up on my dinner plate?” To me, questioning is where it all begins. And we are living in a time when information is easily accessible. The more we know, the more we wonder about ways we can work to make life better.
At the same time, I am heartened by the rise of documentary films and the publication of groundbreaking studies that dare to question old science or conventional thinking in favor of new findings. I think there is a natural inclination to ask why or how and to demand more in the way of creative problem solving for the challenges we face. With that combination of questioning norms and discovering answers in new places, there is a greater opportunity than ever before to “connect the dots.” Good environmental stewardship and better treatment of animals absolutely lead to improved human health outcomes. We need to look at systems with an eye for interconnections. How do reforms in one area naturally improve productivity in another?
The fact that companies are advertising better living conditions for animals shows that public consciousness about animal welfare is becoming more and more mainstream. We can find those connections and package them in ways that all people can understand and use.
6. Shifting gears a bit, what is your favorite vegan spot in Colorado?
In my hometown of Boulder, there is a wonderful restaurant called Leaf. The menu is seasonal and accommodates vegetarian and vegan diets. I love going there for a nice sit-down meal with friends and family. I highly recommend the vegan crab cake sandwich. I am also a fan of Native Foods and was over the moon a few years back when they opened a location here. It never ceases to bring a smile to my face when I go there and every table is taken. I’d be willing to bet most of the people who go there are not vegan, or even vegetarian, but they are curious to try new things. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and good food is simply good food.
I’m spending more time in Denver these days, and I love Watercourse Foods. It offers a dazzling selection of vegan versions of dishes normally loaded with animal products. Again, Watercourse attracts a diverse clientele, and I’d wager many of its regular customers are not vegetarian or vegan. They are open-minded and want to make choices that improve their own health, as well as the health of our planet.
7. For people that want to help farmed animals in Colorado or anywhere in the U.S., what tips can you give?
I’ll return to this idea of figuring out nonconfrontational ways of sparking interest in anyone who is toying with the idea of switching up his or her diet. Though it has never been my style to be “in your face” with facts and figures about factory farming, there was definitely a time when I was more forceful in trying to convince friends to give up animal products. As I grew older, I came to this simple but important realization: When you walk into a store to browse, you don’t want a salesperson hounding you with questions. You want to take your time and look around. You don’t need to be peppered with questions: “What brings you in today? Can I help you find something? That product is good, but this one is better.” In the same way, how people eat is extremely personal and requires willingness to let everyone come around on their own time. If they have questions, they can always ask. And you can always put yourself forward as a person with answers. Once you let go a bit, you will find people are, indeed, curious. It sounds silly to say, but it starts when they notice that you are living happily and healthily. The next thing you know, your friend asks to try a piece of your veggie burger. Next, they’re ordering it for themselves. And all you had to do was give them space to breathe and the open invitation to ask questions. That’s how it works.
8. Anything you’d like to add?
I would like to add that I am a great fan of Mercy For Animals. I love your mission and how you go about bringing real change. It has been a pleasure answering your questions. And I look forward to collaborating with your organization in my new role as first gentleman of Colorado.
To keep up with First Gentleman Marlon Reis, follow him on Facebook.
To learn more about a compassionate vegan lifestyle and how to get involved in animal rights, click here.