When deciding on a meeting place for our interview, animal rights activist Dan Mathews and I first considered one of those ubiquitous corporate coffee shops. (You know — the ones that are so plentiful they need not be named because you can probably see one or two of them from whatever window is nearest you.) We settled on a regional chain instead — it seemed a more rustically appropriate place to eat our raw organic strawberries and trail mix.
After a few minutes on the cell phone navigating yet another lost visitor through the Queen City to the appropriate location, I was standing face-to-face with the energetic and likable gay man who works as the vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
He was wearing a comfy T-shirt, loose jeans and canvas sneakers (no, they didn’t have any leather on them… I looked). Talking to him, Mathews came across as being even-tempered, friendly, alert and charming — not at all the screaming commie-pinko bastard I was almost hoping for.
Jack Kirven: I’ve read that you began championing animal rights when the bullies in your neighborhood started mutilating alley cats — were they bullying you for being gay, and if so, did your empathy for animals come to the fore because of your own experiences with cruelty?
Dan Mathews: Definitely. Absolutely. Everyone else knew I was gay before I did. I was appalled by the kids who were bashing in cats’ skulls with dumpster lids just for the laughs they got from it. These were the same kids who were gay-bashing me and harassing other people.
I think a lot of people have inferiority complexes and that they strike out at others to feel empowered. Whether it be girlfriends, gay people or animals, it seems to come from a place of self-loathing. Recurring violence often grows out of animal cruelty — animals are such easy targets.
Have you ever been criticized for focusing on animal rights rather than human rights? For not pouring your talents and energy into the LGBT community?
I have found that most criticism about my activism comes from people who do none. I’m friends with many LGBT activists and they’re ecstatic about my work. No one who is involved in a cause has ever tried to divert me. I should note that I have used PETA to promote LGBT visibility.
How do you think the liberal and compassionate attitudes expressed by PETA have had a butterfly effect throughout the broader culture that may have created an environment more open to dialogue about LGBT rights?
It’s all part of social progress. In places where people are concerned about women’s rights and LGBT equality you also find people engaged in animal rights advocacy. Animal rights exist in places where human rights are respected. It’s all connected to social evolution. We can live without killing anyone or causing suffering.
As someone who has appeared on Out Magazine‘s list of the 50 most influential LGBT people in America, what is your responsibility to the community?
As I said before, I use PETA as a means of promoting LGBT visibility. I have folded my gay perspective into the work I do with PETA. I try to encourage people to be out as much as possible — be visible. Visibility is essential.
I have coordinated several campaigns that make use of LGBT public figures. I myself have been out for a long time. I’m never closeted. I think that’s why Pamela Anderson likes having me around so much. I’m the one guy she doesn’t have to break up with.
What was it like being at PETA in its infancy, when you were starting as a receptionist, and how has the organization changed as you’ve moved up the ladder?
It always feels the same! They have to tell me what my title is. I always do the same sorts of tasks. I end up asking, “Do I have to get new business cards printed up?” I’m involved at all levels and I don’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. Whether I’m answering phones, writing letters or attending presidential inaugurations, I’m completely involved.
As vice president of PETA have you collaborated with any LGBT groups like HRC? If yes, what are the uniting issues between PETA and these other groups?
We have deep roots across organizations that are subtle. People who are affiliated with multiple groups. One example: We are very much involved with law enforcement. We work with local authorities when kids are caught abusing animals and we ensure that they receive severe penalties. This helps prevent later outbursts of violence. Almost across the board, adults who are violent start their patterns of abuse by tormenting animals.
We are connected loosely to Judy Shepard and GLAAD. Their work fighting against defamation and hate crimes is refreshing — they keep an eye on broader issues than gay marriage. IÕm not a big proponent of that. I’m more concerned about immediate needs like job protection and housing rights.
Is there anything specific to the LGBT community that we can do to support PETA? I mean, are there any specifically LGBT cultural or economic choices we can make as a community to support PETA and its allies? Are there any LGBT businesses or popular gay destinations that agree with your policies concerning animals rights?
Gay Rodeo — it’s pathetic. Cool macho simulation? Hardly. No, it’s cruel, especially when the calves’ legs are broken during the ropings. I know some men get off on having leather straps tied around their balls and getting them yanked, but when you do that to an animal to control their bucking, it’s sick. It’s sadistic.
It’s really pathetic to see a bunch of pretentious gay men trying to pursue an out-moded pseudo macho image that denigrates animals. Just wear the clothes without going to these events. Have the look without the cruelty.
LGBT people are often more likely to be vegetarian for health and aesthetic reasons. Veggie-friendly restaurants tend to be gay-friendly too. People could adopt healthier eating habits.
As far as businesses and destinations go: West Hollywood is animal friendly and Calvin Klein has eliminated all fur from his line. Other gay designers have as well. There are some to avoid though.
Many celebrities advocate for PETA — are many of them LGBT individuals? Who are some of them?
PETA is a breeding ground for yet-to-come-out lesbians! We have so many lesbian women involved. Melissa Etheridge did the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. How awesome to see two naked women hugging! Lady Bunny, Boy George, Tim Gunn, k.d. lang, Sandra Bernhard, Ellen DeGeneres, Erasure… they’ve all done events or campaigns for us. Also there are gay-friendly artists involved, like Pink. She’s a bit of a gay icon.
I was really surprised to see the Trent Reznor video decrying the Chinese fur trade. Nine Inch Nail’s music is so visceral. So violent and angry. I’d have expected Trent to grind up animals alive and eat them raw. It was nice to see him in one of your videos.
Yeah, he is so awesome. A lot of people who do harsh music have a very compassionate side. I myself grew up in the punk scene in Southern California. People vent all that anger into their music and they’re left with a lot of humanity inside their hearts.
Do you find that LGBT people have been more sensitive to animals rights, environmental issues and human rights? Does it ever seem to you that heterosexuals are only just now catching up to LGBT people in this regard?
Absolutely. We’re always at the vanguard, as far as social evolution goes. As outsiders we recognize injustice and we are more ready to accept, advocate for and promote change. We have a need for compassion ground into us. We have no choice but to be empathetic.
What about the criticism that PETA only helps the cute animals?
Oh, please. Not! We’re currently trying to force KFC to stop boiling chickens alive to deplume them. We’re trying to force the U.S. to adopt European chemical testing processes that don’t involve animals. We advocate for chickens and rats! We jump in feet first to help the ugly animals too. Cruelty is cruelty.
You must stay incredibly busy. Do you work more freely being single, or do you prefer the support and stability of a partner?
I’ve tried the partner thing, and I found it was a drag. My boyfriends would get upset if I was arrested somewhere or they’d get annoyed if I was going to Monaco for the weekend with Pam and not coming home to see them. It was too much of a hindrance. I prefer to date guys that aren’t right where I am.
Tell Pam I said hello.
I’ll do that!
No! No, no, no… I know who I want you to say hello to for me, and if you don’t I’ll come find you.
Janet Jackson. I love her.
I met her a couple times. Last time was at an album release party. I asked her if she was still furless and she said, “Oh, god yes! I hate it when they try to make me wear that stuff at photo shoots.” I was so happy to hear her say that.
Dan Mathews’ “Committed” is available at White Rabbit in Raleigh and Charlotte.