Windy City Times’ Yasmin Nair recently talked with Dan Mathews, the openly gay vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) about his new book, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir, punk rock, and celebrities.
Windy City Times: In your book, you draw connections between gay-bashing and cruelty to animals, writing that those who engage in one usually inflict the other as well. Let’s turn that around a bit: do you think there’s a possible connection between being gay and marginalized and the need to pursue social justice?
Dan Mathews: I’ve always looked at life as a big dark comedy. Even [with] horrible things, I find amusing elements in them—maybe because of the absurdity. I think because of that, even though I’ve been at the front lines of the animal rights movement for the past 20-some years, I never feel dispirited or down. I’ve maintained a light-hearted outlook about that. But I think what compelled me to get involved at an early age is that I grew up in a trashy neighborhood and I was beaten up for being gay, for being a punk rocker, whatever.
The same individuals who were pummeling me were hurling new-born kittens against the wall. These horrible things happened every day and so, for me, at a very young age, I saw cruelty as cruelty—not as cruelty to me or to somebody else.
When people go fishing, that’s sadism. It’s people getting their rocks off in having caught some innocent creature, yanking them out of their world. Even if you throw them, it’s horrible and it’s violent. I was just talking to someone at a radio show and they were just shocked—they couldn’t understand why there was anything wrong with fishing.
WCT: Well, we are in Chicago, heart of the meat-eating Midwest.
DM: Yes, exactly. When I learned more and more about what was happening to animals... Even though I was very sympathetic to the plight of women, to civil rights issues, gay rights issues— when I saw how animals were being mutilated in laboratories; how they were being dismembered alive in slaughterhouses and electrocuted; skinned alive in the fur trade—I realized at a young age that I was some sort of do-gooder and that I only felt that I had a productive day when I did something to push the world.
The animal cause seemed to be the biggest emergency because of what’s going down—the sheer number of animals and the intensity of the cruelty that’s being inflicted upon them. And I think that PETA has always had a lot of gay supporters because gays, to a different degree maybe, have had similar experiences... I think gays have a higher sensitivity.
WCT: PETA uses a lot of celebrities. That’s obviously very useful in terms of getting attention, but have there ever been drawbacks to this strategy?
DM: If we were able to get across intellectual messages in our really tight cruelty cases, and in a lot of our campaigns in which there is no celebrity or no shebang, then I would say that there are drawbacks to using celebrity. But what we’ve found [is that] for every 10 solid, serious stories we want to promote, cases we want to highlight or campaigns we want to launch, the total lack of interest in them vs. what we get when we get a celebrity—there’s no question, we get the world’s attention. It would seem like there would be drawbacks, but it’s better to be taken less seriously than not be taken at all, not be seen at all.
WCT: And you’ve never had an experience with a celebrity whose presence has been counterproductive?
DM: Naomi Campbell. Naomi Campbell came to one of our anti-fur photo shoots and was all excited about being in the “Rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. Then she went back on her word when her career stalled and started doing fur ads again. We had to officially fire her as a spokesperson and tell her not to mention that she was involved with PETA. We told her that there’s actually a heart and soul to this; it’s not just something you can frivolously get behind. But I was young at the time—it was 15 years ago—and I was still learning my way around. I didn’t realize that what they say about models is often true: “Lights out, no one’s home.” I found that’s true of Naomi Campbell [and] Cindy Crawford. But there’ve been a lot of other models who’ve been terrific. Although it’s generally true.
WCT: Let’s talk about recent issues around ALF (Animal Liberation Front). The group is known for its intense animal activism and its work has led to recent legislative efforts to classify its work as “domestic terrorism,” which causes a lot of concern for those concerned about the infringement of civil liberties—especially in the wake of post-9/11 surveillance tactics and the infiltration of anti-war groups by undercover agents in New York. What’s your sense of these new trends of classifying certain forms of activism as domestic terrorism?
DM: Right. We are an above-ground non-profit organization that doesn”t participate in any illegal activity. But we don’t condemn [ALF] either because we understand what drives people to those extremes. What’s happening in the last few years is because everyone’s so excited about anything with the word terrorism in it. There’ve been some congressmen in states with a lot of animal industry, like Colorado, Wisconsin or Texas, who’ve tried to use this mindset to make it illegal to take pictures of anybody’s animals, to stifle our investigations. They’ve tried to classify animal activism as domestic terrorism. They have not had a lot of success, [but] they’ve gotten some attention. So we try to hire lobbyists on both sides of the political spectrum to look behind these things; we keep an eye on it.
WCT: Can you talk about your interest in and the influence of punk rock on your politics? It seems that you’ve clearly been influenced by punk, in terms of your activist methods, in adopting a mode of confrontation and rebellion.
DM: Punk sort of deviated in the ’80s, but when it first started in the ’70s, it was a complete U-turn for culture. It’s hard for people to imagine now, because we live in a time where you see a lot of irreverence in the press and you see people being opinionated and not apologetic. [However,] back in the late ’70s, this was brand new—not like peaceful hippies putting a flower in your rifle barrel. It was people who were going to take that rifle out of your hand. That was the sort of attitude that I loved about the punk scene. Also the calling attention to the hypocrisy and the frivolity in society, but with a sense of humor as well—I’ve always been attracted to that.
WCT: About the “Rather be naked than wear fur” campaign: what do you say to those who argue that it’s sexist?
DM: I think what happens in America is that some people confuse sexy with sexist. And we, in America are a very puritanical society and that carries over into some of the feminists as well—it’s almost as if they want everyone to wear a burkha, which I think is really damaging. For some people, their sexuality is their best card to play. For other people, perhaps it’s their sense of humor, or they are really smart. We are all born with a different set of gifts.
I think that to tell people that they shouldn’t use their gifts because it’s offensive—that attitude is old-fashioned and offensive. We have always involved men in the naked-fur campaign. It doesn’t get as much attention because people want to look more at naked women. Even women prefer to look at naked women than naked men a lot of times. … Gloria Steinem agreed…that as long as we use men as well as women, we can’t be accused of being sexist about it. At the same time, I understand people’s concerns—we are puritanical in America.
WCT: Do you see PETA changing in five years, in terms of acceptability?
DM:Certainly. We’ve had major victories in getting McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s to upgrade their humane standards—which is a huge step in alleviating a lot of suffering. We’ve finding that we have a foot in the door now. We spent many years kicking the door open and now we’ve got a foot in it. I wouldn’t say we are inside it but we have a lot more clout in the industries we are fighting, especially the fashion trade. And the meat trade, even. So that’s exciting.
Everything we do, we do for the younger generation. Those obnoxious stunts we do that piss people off who are in their ’40s and ’50s inspire kids in their teens who haven’t had their sense of justice corrupted yet. And we are doing everything to create a generation that’s more sympathetic when they are in positions of power. And that’s what we are starting to see now—now that we’ve been around for a while.