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.