WHEN WE FIRST COME OUT, MANY OF US ARE INCLINED TOWARD ALL THINGS GAY: gay friends, gay rights, gay pride. Like adolescents who have just discovered sex, we giddily cling to the culture--becoming schooled in the merits of circuit parties or revving our engines at our first dyke march.
And then teen angst sets in. Without batting a false eyelash, we become gay activists--whether we're arguing our rights to more conservative family members, attending our first HRC dinner, or penning impassioned editorials on the necessity of an all-inclusive ENDA. We live and breathe gay rights. Perhaps this urge stems from an innate sense of social responsibility or a personal reaction to the injustices we've faced. Whatever our motivation, most of us jump into the parade.
But at some point some of us grow beyond LGBT. We realize that the letters on our jacket do not necessarily encompass our whole identity. We reach a third dimension, often called post-gay--assimilating into a welcoming post-Stonewall society. In a post-gay world, activism reaches beyond the LGBT realm.
Meet Dan Mathews, Anthony Romero, and Connie Wolf--three gay comrades heading up advocacy organizations that have (almost) nothing to do with being queer. As champions of nongay issues (animal rights, civil liberties, and the arts, respectively), their existences beg the question: Have we achieved a postay world? (Mathews answers with an enthusiastic "yes," while Romero says he's just "really happy being gay." Wolf, somewhat refreshingly, would like you to repeat the question.)
Still, wherever we register on the full-color spectrum, these leaders prove that LGBT is no longer--or perhaps never was--a single-issue acronym. Even though their groups do not focus on a gay agenda, all three agree that being gay has flavored their work: Wolf threads an inherent interest in identity throughout her museum; Romero has found motivation in tragedy and in our continued struggle for justice; and Mathews is driven by a flamboyant sense of drama that is just. so. gay.
Despite their unique perspectives, the trio has a thing or two in common: Each knows what it's like to be an outcast, and each has become a holistic individual in old-fashioned bootstrap style. That sometimes sour start to life has equipped them with a flair and tenacity for leadership that's often out of reach to more privileged hands.
Activism seems as natural to the LGBT community as bikes to dykes. Some of us are born gay; others become gay. But as gay people, are we natural-born activists? Dan Mathews, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says, "Definitely."
"We experience injustice throughout our entire lives, and we're often painted into a corner," he says. "But at some point we have to break out of that mold."
Mathews should know. While he was growing up in California's Orange County, being gay and being an animal advocate were practically inseparable burdens. In his book Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir (rereleased in paperback this spring), Mathews recalls having been the butt of a gym class prank called "bag the fag." Once he was at home, his cat Harvey licked away his tears. Harvey was one of more than a dozen strays that Mathews's cash-strapped family had rescued; when they were evicted for harboring illegal pets, the family moved all their belongings in borrowed grocery carts--like a rolling Noah's ark.
Both an instinctive protector and an irreverent agitator, Mathews could have become a gay fights champion rather than a notorious animal activist and it wouldn't have seemed a stretch. But, he says, "the people who beat me up were the same people crushing cats' skulls in garbage can lids; the cats had it much worse." Still, he says with a laugh, "most of what I do is a direct consequence of being a homo"--pointing out that a straight guy might have had a tougher time convincing Melissa Etheridge to strip for PETA. …