Interview | PETA's Dan Mathews on animal activism and the gay-bashing that sparked his life's work

2016-11-13
“The ignorance and arrogance that leads somebody to beat someone up if they're gay… it’s that same ignorance and arrogance that leads people to be abusive to animals, either directly or indirectly.” For many, connecting the dots between a gay bashing and battery farming is a bit of a stretch. But in the eyes of Dan Mathews, Senior Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the parallels couldn’t be clearer. From teenage vegan to storming a Milan catwalk dressed as a priest to protest the fur trade, the 52-year-old has taken animal rights to the core of his being, and made sure the world couldn’t ignore how our furry – and not-so-furry – friends are abused. Describing himself as a “fat, gay punk” growing up, Dan’s childhood was spent as an outsider. He recalled one particularly viscous attack he endured during junior high school at the hands of homophobic bullies: "They slugged me in the stomach and it totally knocked the wind out of me. I collapsed to the ground, I looked up and I just saw all these faces looking down and laughing. I couldn't move. I was immobile because I was out of breath. Following that attack, a chance encounter with an underwhelming fish sparked a realisation that changed his relationship with animals. On a fishing trip with his father, he caught what he described as a "meagre catch". Still alive, everyone around him stomped on the fish, as it gasped for air. “These eyes were just looking up… and there were just all these people looking down and laughing as he was gasping for breath. I froze in time and I thought, ‘that’s me. Only now I’m the bully. I’m the one who yanked him out of his world and did this to him',” Dan recalled. That day, Dan stopped eating fish, and became a vegetarian soon after. For Dan, the meat and fur industries are examples of animals being brutalized by a power they can’t control, much like the power homophobes hold over LGBT people. That understanding, he believes, is “one of the reasons why PETA has always been a very gay organization.” From the 1980s, with supporters such as RuPaul and Boy George, to more recent campaigns with Alan Cumming, PETA has always had an affiliation with LGBT celebrities, believing “that gays aren't the vanguard”, but “the tastemaker”. But on top of what he perceives to be a natural affinity, connecting with LGBT people has also been a purposeful part of PETA’s strategy for quite some time, having cultivated a queer following “by participating in gay pride parades and festivals all over the world.” As Senior Vice President, Dan’s been responsible for some of PETA’s most successful, attention-grabbing, and controversial campaigns, from the iconic I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur (which he kicked off by walking through Tokyo wearing nothing but a banner) to confronting grooming company Gillette with gruesome footage of their own animal testing. Whether you agree with the message or not, it’s undeniable that Dan’s a man who will go where others won’t to get his message across. “My favourite one,” Dan explained to me, recounting one of his most infamous campaigns, “was dressing as a priest and going to Milan. We really needed to make a big statement in the fur capital of the world, and I speak Italian because I lived there for two years as a teenager, and actually modeled while I was there, so I snuck into a fashion show [dressed as a priest] and disrupted it.” After storming the catwalk, Dan unfurled a banner which read, “thou shall not kill, don’t wear fur”. “I had a dead serious demeanor and it totally ruined the fashion show. The models clogged up behind me, they had to kill the music and a bunch of security guards gathered around. They were afraid to tackle me because they really thought I might be a priest.” Even when they did eventually drag him off, old ladies began to hit the security guards, shouting “leave the priest alone.” Dan Matthews storms Gianfranco Ferré's catwalk in Milan, 2004 The fact is, shock tactics are successful. PETA’s 5 million members and $44 million gross income in 2015 are testament to that. But for many, animal rights are a nice-to-have addition to the struggles facing our own species. I asked Dan how people can be expected to support PETA when, as an example, the fight for black lives rages across the world. Surprisingly, the answer came from an encounter between black lives matter activist Deray Mckesson and Dan at a panel event in May this year. “Somebody asked that same question," Dan explained. "They said, ‘why should you care about animals, the fur and leather trade when there are so many issues?' Deray said, 'PETA shows that you don't have to be directly affected by an injustice to fight it, they do it for the animals.'" For Dan, there’s also a sneaking suspicion that some of the critique that PETA faces is whataboutery. “The only people usually saying those things are people that aren't involved in any issue whatsoever,” he suggests. Deray (2nd from right) and Dan (center) speaking at a panel in May 2016. Dan’s activism has spread right the way through his personal life (although he maintains that he will dine alongside meat-eaters). His 2014 marriage to partner of eight years, Jack, is testament to that. Having not been initially interested in it personally, he realised that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was also an attempt to deny LGBT people numerous rights that come with the ceremony. So, while getting stoned one day on their porch, Dan and Jack hatched a plan to have the tackiest wedding possible, to get the rights they were entitled to, and send up the idea of marriage. They waited until equal marriage was legal in Nevada (naturally), grabbed Pamela Anderson – a supporter of PETA and a friend of Dan’s – and set off to get hitched in “one of the tacky wedding chapels” Las Vegas is famed for. But with many chapels still refusing to wed two men, the couple decided to take their nuptials to the world-famous Las Vegas sign instead, leading to one hell of a wedding photo. Dan and partner Jack tie the knot in Las Vegas, 2014, joined by Pamela Anderson. “Instead of rice they threw casino chips, and it ended up being a massive national story. We were absolutely thrilled, there was a big vegan buffet at this woman’s house and it was really a blast out in the desert. The headlines were ‘gay PETA vegan wedding,’ and I thought ‘yes, that’s what I like to see, those four words. I’ll take that.’ That was a good use of our holiday.” Well, who says you can’t stick it to the man on the happiest day of your life? Today, Dan and Jack run a thoroughly modern family. The grand kids (the children of Jack’s children from a previous marriage), call Jack grandpa and Dan “Danpa”, and “they have no idea that there’s anything unusual about coming over the two grandpas’ place.” While Dan and Jack run a strict vegan household, the grandkids are only beholden to the rules when they visit. Dan assures me they’re big fans of the vegan grub. The shock tactics and determination to create political acts from personal moments all feed into Dan’s desire to show the world that “nobody is powerless”. He admits that sensationalism might not be “the most pure” form of activism, but in a world where people are drawn to entertainment news because, as he hypothesizes, “there’s such violence and so many troubling issues that feel beyond our control,” any opportunity to cut through the noise has to be taken. Whether it’s for animal rights or LGBT rights, Dan’s mission is simple: “To empower people to be creative and think of where they can make an impact, even if it’s just among their friends and family.” Far from the single-minded ideologue I had perhaps unfairly imagined Dan to be, he seems to be simply a man who wants as many fingers in as many good-cause pies as possible. “Our challenge as activists,” he says, “is to keep all these plates spinning, and look for opportunities and things that are happening in the world to, that people are thinking about, and what’s happening in society. Same goes for gay rights, you know." 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