Dan Mathews Fights For Bears, Critters

Dan Mathews isn’t your typical activist.

This fun loving rabble-rouser regularly humiliates himself for his cause, gets arrested and finds himself under fire from flying beef. No, he isn’t a gay activist – well, he is gay and an activist, but Mr. Mathews spends much of his rabble-rousing energies fighting for furry friends. Yes, that’s right, Mathews works for PETA.

Say what you will about the vegetable loving organization, but you can’t deny that they’re effective, making headlines and grabbing ink left, right and center.

The model turned activists’ memoir, Committed, just came out in paperback, so our meat loving editor took some time to pick Mathews’ brain on the evolution of his work, what makes his organization so effective, how to use “impure” allies and what gay organizations can learn from PETA’s sensational ways.

Read all about it, after the jump.

[Image by Todd Oldham]

Andrew Belonsky: What was your mission in writing this memoir?

Dan Mathews: I’ve always written as a moonlighting job – I’ve done it for years, I wrote columns for magazines, like Genre and Out. People just seemed to be more and more interested. It wasn’t something I set out to do – it just sort of evolved from the column. The overall motivation is to get people who are involved in any cause, not necessarily animal rights, to lighten up a bit. Since I’ve been involved for 23-years full time at PETA, I’ve seen so many great people who come and go because they get so overwhelmed by the cruelty involved or by the odds – which any advocate faces, whether it’s for gay rights or women’s rights. Human ignorance or human apathy can be quite off-putting!

AB: I’m sure.

DM: I think that when you decide to devote yourself to something, it’s really important to lighten up about things and be in it for the long haul. I am a focussed person who cannot resist a good diversion and I think that’s why I’ve been around so long as an activist. The other part of writing this book, of course, is to reach the people who might not want to read a dull philosophy or religion book about why we should be kind to animals – they like a romp! We live in very escapist times and I think that there was certainly a place for a book that takes a more light-hearted look on the whole thing. We know about the issues, but I think how PETA deals with the issues and the oddball campaigns involving costumes and the interesting personalities appeals to a wider crowd than one that would just be interested in animal welfare issues.

AB: Do you think that PETA comes off as a light-hearted organization?

DM: I think sometimes, yeah. One of our most popular things we do every year is our worst dressed celebrities list, which came out last month and was the homepage story not only on People and Us Weekly, but also Yahoo! and MSNBC. I think that PETA – we use sex to sell our message, we use celebrities to sell our message and we use snarky attacks on celebrities as well to get the message to the masses. And I think that those – in conjunction with our progressive protest tactics – makes it one of the few punk charities out there.

AB: And that was one of the first –

DM: And I think that’s provocative and that keeps people interested. Even if they don’t agree with what we do, people know that whatever we do is bound to be fairly interesting, whether it’s because of an interesting personality we’re working with or a bizarre personality that we’ve targeted.

AB: Activism as entertainment?

DM: Yeah. It’s sad. I remember in the 80s when we could take our videos of cruelty to 20/20 and 60 Minutes and have really serious meetings about violations about federal law and guidelines, but now those shows are doing hour long pieces on Britney’s latest incarceration or Whitney Houston’s drug problems. It’s like we’re living in a giant high school! When you’re a charity and rely on the media to get the message across – obviously we don’t have an ad budget that’s anywhere near even one of our adversaries, so we just have to be creative to try to get the message out. I’m the first one to admit that it’s pathetic that the debate’s been reduced to this celebrity obsessed tabloid element, but it’s better than being invisible.

AB: And, as you say in Committed, the activist message relies – at least on some level – on how it’s perceived: how people will react.

DM: When you’re a pressure group, you do not want to be really popular. You are doomed to failure if you exist to make people like you. Our currency is being obnoxious and being a thorn in the side of the companies we target, whether it’s KFC or Ringling Brothers’ circus. If we were just asking nicely all the time – first off, no one would know we existed and, second off, our adversaries would not take us seriously. I think the fact that we’re willing to be as ruthless as any of our targets is what makes people respect us, even if they don’t always agree with us. We certainly never set out to be the largest animal rights group in the world, but now we’ve got about two million members and we’ve done it by keeping a hard edge, rather than by diluting it.

AB: Speaking of activist movements – what do you think that gay rights movements can do better to make them more effective?

DM: I think that they have to give – as you’ve seen, my book is also very gay because I’m out in everything I do and I am involved in gay organizations, I’ve always been a supporter of GLAAD, I’m a member of the gay and lesbian journalist’s association, the Matthew Shepard Foundation. What I’ve seen as the gay movement has matured and we have gay ghettos now, it seems to me that the leadership can lose touch with what mainstream, ignorant Americans feel about the issue. That’s why I feel it’s a real mistake to make the priorities gay marriage and gays in the military. I remember at the HRC dinner in Los Angeles when they announced those were the initiatives and everyone was applauding, I was sick to my stomach! I live in Norfolk, Virginia, which is a military town near where Pat Robertson is based and everyone in this town would support an initiative against gay bashing, against violence, but nobody would support marriage and military. They’re trying to ice the cake before it’s baked.

AB: Yes, that’s been coming up a lot in my recent interviews.

DM: And now there’s a constitutional amendment to ban marriage here in Virginia. While personally I think marriage is a little pathetic to strive for, even in the straight world, there are so many more issues that effect every gay, not just ones who are afraid they’re going to lose the Lexus if their lover dies and worried about taxes. What’s less romantic than worrying about how you’re going to file your taxes? Jesus Christ!

AB: I made a similar joke about autopsy laws.

DM: It’s embarrassing! And that’s why I love the Matthew Shepard foundation – things like gay bashing affect every body. People are committing suicide because they can’t handle the way they’re treated at school or at home. In places like Germany, although they have their big gay pride day, the most important thing is the National Coming Out Day. I mean, look what happened when Ellen came out. If we put more focus on encouraging more people to come out, you’d have a much greater impact on the lives of gays than by having a drug-fueled circuit benefit or something that preaches to the choir. We have to consider what the mainstream is like, rather than just how things sound in our ghettos.

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  • Charley

    Gay Marriage is about the constitution, “Equal Justice Under The Law”. Legal issues are probably boring to this attractive entertainer/model, but discrimination in marriage is at the heart of injustice and that includes gay bashing. To be treated as equal in the eyes of the tax law is to send a message that we are first class citizens, like everyone else.
    It’s great that he goes along with Pam Anderson to save the chickens, and supports The Matthew Sheppard Foundation. But there are deeper subjects, beyond Elizabeth Taylor and her thoughts on marriage.
    He might find the book, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene interesting. That is what PETA and alot of us artists are following.

  • afrolito

    I fucking LOATHE PETA, and everything they stand for. They are insane nazi wackos, with a distorted view of reality.

    Dan Mathews is sorta hot though.

  • blackiemiko

    kudos to PETA. They are a wonderful organization. I respect their work. :)

  • Matt

    Here is my whole issue with Peta. Animals eat other animals in the wild and it’s probably not a pleasant experience for the ones that are being eaten. So why shouldn’t humans eat meat? I mean weren’t we eating meat as cavemen. Isn’t it in our evolutional development to eat meat? I just think there are more pressing issues in the world than what one chooses to eat. To say eating meat is cannablism is just retarded.

  • Ken

    He comes across as an insensitive idiot. Because gay marriage is not “his issue,” he derides it as being about inheriting a car. Um, Dan, how about “I’m worried about being able to visit my dying lover in the hospital”? Does that do anything for you?

    By a similar logic, PETA is all about luxury condos for chickens.


  • akaison

    He should really stick to the activist work he knows. Going into the ramifications of the marriage issue comes across , well , a bit clueless.

    For example, the fact is, it wasn’t the national organizations that pushed for gay marriage, it was couples experiencing the issues of having live their day to day lives. The national orgs wanted to hold back.

    It wasn’t gays who tried to make marriage illegal or legal in Virginia. It was conservatives trying to help Bush win in 2004. Nearly every case of gay marriage in conservative states has been conservative activism, not gay. His comment on gay marriage is a little like pointing at Matthew Shepard to say “what did you do to lead them to beat you up?” In fact, it’s worse. Not all of us have been gay bashes or subject to violence or can expect to be subjected to it. That’s a bizzare thing for him to say too. But all of us can and probably do at some pt expect to have people in our lives with whom we may want to share property, etc, and want to control our own affair. I can only hope he really hasn’t fully thought about the implications of his arguments.

    I think he needs to realize that efforts such as marriage can take decades to happen too. It seems his core argument is we must wait until society is ready? But, that’s not how progress works or happens.

    Think of it in terms of the African American Civil Rights movement. It took from the 1910s when the NAACP came up with the legal civil rights strategy to 1955 (Brown v Board) for there to be a total overtturning of the Jim Crow and legalized discrimination. There were a lot of skirmages a long the way. Indeed, there was a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban marriage between blacks and whites at one point. There was even the missengenation laws– believe Loving v Virginia. So it’s ironic that he would mention Virginia. This was a process that was on going. Its a strategy that many, including the environmental movement, have adopted.

    He also doesn’t seen to fully understand how these things are connected. Matthew Sheppard is connected to gay marriage is connected to gays in the military. Its about changing the mainstream perception rather than waiting for it to change. Again, change doesn’t happen on its own. Don’t get how a PETA activist doesn’t get that.

    Its this pushing of the envelop which makes gay ghettos not as necessary. That makes the need to create laws to protect us from bashing less necessary.

    It allow him, despite the fact he may not fully appreciate it, to live his life in whatever fashion he wants. The point of pushing the envelop can be summed up the concept some of you may know called the overton window:


    Each time we push over time, the more acceptable it becomes. We lose in the short term, but we gain much more in the long. 15 years go, civil unions were unthinkable. Gays could be attacked without backlash in the media. Things changed because of the continual push to change them. I don’t understand how he as an activist can’t appreciate this.

  • M Shane

    It’s fortunate that Dan can work at something which is worthwhile, and he sounds dedicated and knowledgable. J.M Coetzee wrote an imncredible book called “The Lives of Animals” were Ithink he expressed the feelings that I have, and they come from the experience of being with animals and with compassion, which is not a part of most peoples lives- We have become such rabid consumers that we are only aware of the end product of what we get, not how it comes to us
    In the same way we want gasoline with no consideration to how many innocent people are tortured and murdered to get it. I think that we take for granted that kind of learned coldbloodedness,

    As far as the marriage issue goes, I don’t think that he speaks up against marriage, rather he
    seems to think that there are more important things that we could be concerned with. Lately I’ve been hearing from more gay people whio were in the midst of “horrible” divorce proceedings . I think that marriage is ok but by no means do I think that it should be a central concern, unless you’re despirate to find legitimacy by being like mom and dad.

    There are a lot more imortant concerns, is what he is saying, and I agree. We have really failed sadly at employment rights, finding a place for young people to be nurtured, and for older people to find friendship and belonging.
    I think that something like civil unions are much more realistic, with flexability for different kinds of relations-maybe with more than one person. Gay people have traditionally been able to develope more sophisticated relations.

    I think that some people percieve marriage as being the be all and end all of gay rights, and they are wrong- too much Sullivan and Bawer
    (acceptablity with heterosexuals).

    I thought that the interview was great, Andrew.

  • akaison

    The last post is example of what I mean by short sightedness speak. You think its great he’s work for the rights of animals,but only think its okay, and somewhat necessary to work on the rights of humans? Look, you can say that’s not what you mean, but your word choice as with his points out your priority. Animals- important work. Humans, no so much. Compassion begsins be understandin not everything is about you and your friend, or what you do or think about gay marriage. Rights aren’t about that. if they were, then black people would still be sitting in the back of the bus because some black people didn’t see it as that important. It’s a silly argument to argue rights based on that. If you want to use that kind of logic, you need to realize th same can and is said of animal rights causes.

  • Charley

    M. Shane
    It’s a complex issue. Some people think I am for gay marriage because of the federal tax benefits that automatically come with civil marriage. Not so, it is mostly psychological and will boost the self esteem of millions of LGBT’s to know that they do have the same civil liberties and rights as other citizens. Under Civil Unions as it stands now, we can’t get Federal benefits, like social security for your spouse, because of DOMA.
    It is discrimination in the tax law. It is worth fighting for when gays pay taxes, and religions pay none. Underlying issues about seperation of church and state which our forefathers fought for. Many a gay man was hung in the Massachusettes Bay Colony for having sex with another man. We have come a long way, and we can’t give up. As a card carrying atheist, I know about Sullivan and Bauer, but their resoning in my opinion, is based on supernatural nonsense.

  • Charley

    P.S. There is another Matthews, a porn star that looks very much like this stud from New Orleans. He is hung like a horse. Haven’t seen him in many movies lately. Hope he is well.

  • Jimy

    While I am a huge animal rights activist, I draw the line at medical research.

    PETA has slowed down medical research for AIDS and other life threatening diseases and that aint cool.

  • hells kitchen guy

    Matt – go to a slaughterhouse and then tell me that it’s like the wild. Tolstoy said anyone who eats meat should have to kill the animal he eats. THAT’S the way it’s done “in the wild.”

    For civilized, urban man to eat meat is barbaric, cruel, wasteful and unhealthy. It also makes you smell bad and fat.

    Bottom line: It’s just gross.

  • Charley

    Hell’s Kitchen
    But Wooley Mammouth meat was a good source of protein. See 10,000 B.C. They (we) wouldn’t have survived without it. Nothing (plant life) grows in the winter. They depended on meat to survive. The earlier settlers to this country salted meat and ate it with beans while crossing the ocean. Otherwise they would not have had any strength to build a new settlement in this country. USA was built on big meat. Don’t forget it.

  • M Shane

    Then we don’t disagree. My presumption is that the same legal options sould go with “civil unions”. i always think of marriage as being more of a religious distinction.

    Re; eating animals: One of the best “animals rights” films I saw was someone cutting up a kitten. Imagine cutting up and eating your cat or dog.

  • Jason

    I think the work he does in defense of animals is laudatory. These gay people who only see the gay issue could care less about anything other than their self interests. The true test of a human being is when they can emphathize with people not like them. For example when Jews defend Muslims, Whites defend Blacks, Straights defend Gays and when Humans defend Animals.

    Bravo to you PETA!

  • Jennarator

    No. 4 – Animals eat animals in the wild sure, but breeding billions of animals each year, confining them, torturing them, and eating them instead of spending 16 times fewer resources on plant foods and eating those – which hurt no one – is deliberate cruelty and wasteful. Plus, we are closely related to primates, who eat mostly plants. Try Gardenburger riblets – you’ll see.
    No. 11 – PETA has not stalled AIDS research. Animal testing has a failure rate of more than 9 out of ten of tests. Computer simulations, tissues grown in labs, and human studies are more reliable, less expensive, FAR more accurate, and do not involve say, drilling holes in monkey’s skulls or electrocuting cats. Tylenol kills cats, and we all remember Tholidomide and Vioxx, both worked wonders in animal tests and caused serious repercussions once applied to humans. Don’t ask PETA, ask a researcher at Harvard – animal tests stall science, they don’t further it. stopanimaltest.com has more. Peace!

  • akaison

    Actually the last poster is inaccurate. There is no way to test drugs using just tissue. The issues often raised are systemic- as in entire organisms. There is also no way to model that. Believe what you want to believe, but don’t make up facts.

    Aside, I also find it odd that we are suppose to be sympathetic to animals, but according to one poster, not to ourselves. It’s not either/or. Setting it up as such is your issue.

  • Jennarator

    No. 17 – Please do some research, this isn’t a debate, this is a comments section for Mathews’ book. I suggest you start here: http://iccvam.niehs.nih.gov/methods/pyrogen/pyrodocs/supp/IVPT_PR_12May03.pdf (Hint – the title is “Fewer tests on animals and safer drugs: new EU
    tests save 200,000 rabbits per year” and the tests use human blood cells; it goes on to say innovative research will replace existing animal-based test methods with in-vitro tests that are more accurate, quicker and more cost-effective.

  • akaison

    Key word “fewer” and “will” not is now replacting animal research. It doesn’t say that they can replace animal studies with present science, the topic of my post.

  • M Shane

    One of the only memories that I hold onto is that of when I worked, as a studemt in an amimal lab where they did brain research. I don’t know how really important it was, but I was in charge of aneasthtizing animals, helping operate etc. what they did still remains with me as an ugly sense of cruelty that I can’t really shake.

  • akaison

    Try going to hospice, and see whether the new images will change that.

  • Charley

    M Shane. I don’t disagree. What you call it. It could be called civil Federal Unions as long as we get the same benefits. Call it union of cocksucking pagans, I don’t care. It’s the benefits or lack of them that make us a second class citizen, and cause such damage to our self esteem as American citizens, and because we don’t get the same shake as other citizens, this creates protests.

  • M Shane

    I don’t understand why people don’t discuss the issue on those terms. I believe actually that they should eliminate “marriage” legal classification and establish a universal status free of any religious connotation for any two or maybe more people. Isn’t thier something like that in some European countries.
    I think that it gets a little confusing where I currently live because gay people have always sought to live in arrangements like straight people. There are a lot of gay people but there has always been little gay life outside of these unions, which just mirror straight families for family approval. Strange but true. Fortunately I havn’t lived here all of my life. I always assumed that it was an option to have civil unions with all of the rights invoked by marriage.

  • akaison

    The concept of marriage involves legal rights at the international, federal, state, local and interstate levels. Marriage is a legal relationship, and always has been. Sadly, many of you don’t know this. Take a basic course in property law and you realize this. There are laws at each of those levels affecting everything from immigration rights to federal taxes to state and local taxes to visitation to disposition of property between the states (ie, if you own property in VA, but you live in VT, or whever they have Civil Union, does VA recognize any relationship at all legally ? THe anser right now is no). The concept that you are creating out of your own mind doesn’t have any legal definitions at any of those levels. More importantly, you aren’t fooling anyone. Indeed, much of this is already known. Conservatives, christians and all those pesky people making those laws would still vote against it because as has been seen- they still frame it as marriage no matter whatyou call it. You are reinventing the wheel, and achieving nothing.

  • akaison

    Incidentally- to have a legal consequence at all the levels I describe above, you would have to pass laws at those levels and then wait for case law to develop over decades to replicate what marriage already does in terms of accepted law. Rights regarding divorce, addressing children during divorce, and a million other things that are all well defined, LEGALLY, not religiously for a very long time. This isn’t a matter of gay versus straight. It’s a matter again of what you are suggesting the law creates all for the purpose of not using a single word, marriage. The fact that civil unions aren’t equal to marriage as was recently discussed in the press to me at least isn’t a surprise. It never could be because of the structure of legal issues being addressed by the legal construction.

  • Matt

    Hell’s Kitchen Guy. I have been to a slaughter house. I was raised on a farm. I never said it was like the wild. I feel bad for you living in a world that to you is gross and where people smell bad. Perhaps you should offer these people some old spice.

  • degan22

    Wow…a heated discussion on queerty. I’m riveted.

  • Traffick

    I loved how you guys skipped over the whole story of how 2 PETA employees were charged with animal cruelty for driving around picking up animals, killing them then dumping their corpses in garbage pails at various grocery stores in the area.

    Another thing the public should know, Mathews said that Andrew Cunanan was one of the most influential people of 1997. Why you ask, because he stop Gianni Versace from using fur. Nice

  • Antonio Pasolini

    Peta’s job is not to judge the media culture we have now, but to use for its purpose so it’s absolutely right to use outlandish tactics to highlight the pain inflicted on animals by humans. The message is important and that’s what matters. Long live Peta!

  • Jennarator

    No. 28 – They were trained vet staff euthanizing dying animals in horrible conditions. They were acquitted of all charges except littering. The animals were humanely killed. Their alleged littering was not authorized by PETA. Several thousand animals are killed in shelters every year nationwide – some by crude methods like gunshot or vehicle exhaust poisoning.
    And does it matter? This isn’t a PETA interview. Animal cruelty is no more acceptable just because not everyone agrees that Mathews has an amazing story to tell about his passion for animals’ rights, and how everyone has an interest in having rights, animals and humans alike.
    No. 30 – So true! Social progress doesn’t come about by sitting calmly. It takes an entire social movement to ask for change.

  • Gerardo Tristan

    Some people here talk as if we were not animals! We are just another species on the earth; hello!! Biology 101!! As for all the crap about eating animals like in the wild, prefering non human animals over human animals and all the crap about medical research, bla , bla, bla;people is very missinformed and ignorant ..
    Please do your homework before posting about these issues because many of you come across as very ignorant and bias.

    The day you hunt with your very own hands a non human animal then you can eat it. Factory faming is BAD for non human animals, human animals, the environment and the poor people of the world( not every one is a fat american eating a hamburger and fucking up the environment and stealing resources from other countries).Meat is NOT sutainable for this world. Do you all think that all 6.3 billon humans can eat that crap? Do you think meat grows in trees? Think about all the energy and resources involved in growing, killing and transporting non human animals.

    About medical research; the animal model is irrelevant and has proved to be bad for science progress and for finding cures, including AIDS…that’s why we still not moving forward!!

    The truth is that we all all interconected and what happens to non human animals afect us. We should try to think in a more hollistic way about these issues.Thanks to wester compartimentation of reality and western stupid antrohpocentric thinking we have fucked up our planet and we have global warming among many maladies…human superiority is BullShit!!

    If yo want to help human animals that’s great but dont be an idiot and demonize those who are doing something great for ALL (humans and non humans) by helping others species and promoting their rights and spreding compassion.

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be seen in the way that nation treats the animals”
    Mahatma Gandhi.

    P.d My english is bad as I speak french and spanish as first lenguages..sorry.

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