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Ethical Treatment: PETA, LGBT community share bonds
by Charlsie Dewey
2013-04-10

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It's long been a joke that one of the signs of lesbianism is a vegetarian or vegan diet, a point made hilariously funny by RuPaul's character Mike in the 1990s film But I'm a Cheerleader.

"In diet, watch for a switch to vegetarianism," Mike says, as he tries to bring main character Megan around to the realization that she is a lesbian by listing off her many stereotypical tendencies.

In fact, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has long seen the LGBT community at large as a strong contingent of its supporters, and many of its earliest volunteers were part of the LGBT community.

"I've been at PETA since 1985 and even back then a lot of our volunteers were gay," said Dan Mathews, senior vice president at PETA. "I think there has always been an affinity between gay activists and animal rights activists, because I think when you see the mockery that some people have about the rights of animals, gay people have that same mockery that we've faced ourselves, the cruelty and the indifference to suffering. At an activist level, I think we share that."

PETA also established an inclusive environment early on that no doubt helped it attract LGBT volunteers and employees. It hired out individuals like Mathews in its initial years, participated in Pride festivals, held events at gay clubs featuring well-known drag stars, and welcomed musician Morrissey as its first out spokesperson in 1985—and Morrissey's support continues to this day.

Mathews noted that 1995 Melissa Etheridge and her then-girlfriend Julie Cypher were the first gay couple to pose for the "Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" ad.

Additionally, RuPaul was on the cover of the organization's cruelty free cosmetics shopping guide during that same decade.

Despite occasional backlash against its use of LGBT celebrities, PETA has never backed down from being inclusive, and that decision has only helped it grow its membership.

"k.d. lang, when she fronted our 'Meat Stinks' campaign back in the early '90s, a lot of the meat industry response was really homophobic as well as anti-animal and that brought a lot of gays to our side as well," Mathews said.

The organization has continued to feature LGBT individuals in its campaigns throughout its history including Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, Alan Cumming, Lance Bass, Jane Lynch, Jillian Michaels, RuPaul, Tim Gunn, Sara Gilbert, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Boy George and Perez Hilton, to name a very small number of out celebrities who have been involved.

"We embrace both the edgier underground figures like Sharon Needles and Lady Bunny as we do the mainstream ones," Mathews said.

PETA's outreach to the drag community has actually provided the organization with a great opportunity to highlight its message through parody and entertainment.

Mathews noted drag celebrities such as Frank Marino, who impersonated Joan Rivers, and Flotilla DeBarge, impersonating Star Jones, as examples of how drag queens have really helped make the point of how outrageous and ridiculous some of the personalities are who are unwavering about wearing fur.

As an organization known for its edginess, the combination of mainstream and underground celebrities has helped draw a broad swath of support.

"We have kind of a radical image, which I think suits us very well, but it's nice when we can soften the edges through these many gay friends we have in these various industries."

For example, Mathews said that PETA's relationship with Tim Gunn has been particularly important. Gunn has been involved in numerous ways including hosting video exposes of what happens to animals in the various skin trades before they are made into products such as leather shoes, fur coats or wool jackets.

"He brought me in to speak at Liz Claiborne's headquarters and we worked with him to eliminate fur from all 21 fashion lines at Liz Claiborne."

To date, PETA has successfully convinced many within the fashion and cosmetics industries to reconsider their use of animals in creating their products.

"We pressured dozens of companies like Avon and Revlon and Estee Lauder to stop testing their cosmetics on animals," Mathews explained. "We stopped General Motors from using animals in crash tests. They had killed about 20,000 animals up until the time that PETA started targeting them in the '90s. We've convinced designers like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger to drop fur from their collections."

Mathews said that one of the reasons PETA has continued to succeed is because of its ability to evolve.

"You've got to reinvent yourself because society changes a lot, the sort of things people pay attention to changes every few years," he said. "I think if you don't adapt you become invisible, and we've always been very agile about reformatting new campaigns for new eras."

Currently, PETA's main focus is on helping people understand the benefits of a vegetarian and vegan diet.

"We are still getting a great response with the recent campaign we did with Sharon Needles, last year's winner of RuPaul's Drag Race. She launched a really grisly Halloween campaign which made the analogy of flesh-eating zombies and people who eat animals, as both being flesh crazed. It's been a really phenomenal campaign."

This year's winner of PETA's annual sexiest vegetarian contest will help the organization continue its focus on vegetarianism and fitness.

"We do a sexiest vegetarian celebrity and we also do a sexiest vegetarian non-celebrity, essentially the vegetarian next door," Mathews explained. "Interestingly enough, the winner of this year's sexiest vegetarian was Zachary Koval, who is an ex-trainer in New York and is gay. His work with us, after winning the contest, has led us to do vegetarian fitness outreach with gyms and lots of really wonderful positive campaigns."

PETA will also continue to show support to the gay community through participating in Pride festivals and parades this summer.

Mathews said that many people have become much more open to discussing animal rights issues and the health benefits of eating vegetarian or vegan diets than in the past, in part because of PETA's attention-grabbing ads.

"I think the biggest thing that we do is put animal issues on people's minds through a lot of the provocative things we do, many of which have been led by openly gay spokespeople, to get people thinking about animal issues and to reconsider their diet," Mathews said. "This is much more of a social movement than a political movement because it's about the products that people eat and the things they wear."

See www.peta.org .

Photospread here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/photospreadthumbs.php .


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