Lady Gaga, Anti-Bullying Crusader

Can her Born This Way Foundation stop kids from hurting each other? At a launch event at Harvard, she was off to a good start.

Lady Gaga, seen here performing at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 12, 2012, recently launched an anti-bullying foundation

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

I confess that when Lady Gaga began talking about her commitment to stop bullying, I was skeptical. She first spoke out after the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who killed himself after he was teased about being gay. (Before taking his life, he’d posted on Facebook a Gaga lyric, “Don’t forget me when I come crying to heaven’s door.”) Gaga’s response to Jamey’s death on Twitter started with an understandable swell of emotion. “The past days I’ve spent reflecting, crying, and yelling. I have so much anger. It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someones life,” she wrote, linking to the “It Gets Better” video Jamey made before he died. Then Gaga latched onto a bad idea: “Bullying must become illegal,” she tweeted. “It is a hate crime.”

Maybe that’s an understandable reaction to a tragedy, too, but no thoughtful educator, psychologist, or bullying prevention trainer I’ve met thinks criminalizing bullying makes sense. Bullying, after all, usually involves kids taunting each other. However cruel and hurtful that taunting may be, do we really want to start hauling them before a judge for it? The law doesn’t normally treat nonviolent meanness as a crime. We shouldn’t start by making kids our guinea pigs.

Thankfully, a few months later Gaga dropped the hate crime idea and announced her plan to launch the Born This Way Foundation, which would aim “to reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.” I hate the word empowerment: It’s meaningless. But the rest of the Gaga’s ideals sounded lofty but good. And Gaga’s new foundation has been working with the MacArthur Foundation, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. It sounded like an intriguing combination: weighty institutional partners plus Gaga’s fame and credibility with kids.

But what truly won me over to Gaga’s anti-bullying work was the video she made about her own experience of being bullied.

With candor that crosses the line into self-exposure—in a good way—Gaga describes being thrown into a trash can by a bunch of kids in high school. She remembers how she laughed nervously in some weak attempt to please her tormentors, and how other kids saw through this pose. Gaga didn’t tell her parents or other adults what had happened. Nor did she allow herself to think about it much either, until the experiences of her teenage fans forced her to. “I think it took me to get to know my fans and to see similar struggles in them to access that wound in myself,” she says to the camera. It’s believable and it makes me think she just might stick with this foundation thing.

The next question, then, is what the Born This Way Foundation will actually do. I spent the day at a launch event for the foundation at Harvard, and the answer is: They don’t know yet. But they’re taking a smart approach to figuring it out, by bringing together some of the best thinkers about kids and conflict. The materials this effort has produced so far, which I’m looking forward to reading, are posted here.

Gaga has donated $1.2 million of her own money to the foundation, but her greatest contribution may be her star power. That power can accomplish a lot, as was clear in Cambridge on Wednesday.* She might not have been necessary to bring out the academics in attendance, but surely her cachet helped round up the unlikely combination of Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, and Kathleen Sebelius, who were also on hand. (Gaga’s participation also caught the attention of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.) It was the best mix of high, middle, and low I’d seen in—pretty much forever.

After Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust introduced Oprah to a standing ovation, before a not-quite-capacity crowd of about 1,000 in the university’s Sanders Theater, Oprah boomed “HAAARRVVAARRD!” Gaga laughed. “This might be one of the best days of my life!” she said.

Oprah leaned in for one of her trademark moments of intimacy, and I worried she might lose an eye to one of the black bat wings of Gaga’s headdress. (Oh yes, the pop star, as ever, was in costume.) The mostly adult audience was pleased and relieved to hear Gaga say later on, “There’s all this focus on the victims but victims and bullies are on the same playing field. They both need our help. So how do we not just save the victim but save the bully too?” That dovetails nicely with the expert consensus that bullying prevention shouldn’t be largely punitive. It suggested Gaga was absorbing the wisdom she is marshaling with her foundation.

Oprah had left the stage by this point, and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree was now monitoring a panel that included, Gaga, Chopra, Sebelius, University of Nebraska psychologist Susan Swearer, Alyssa Rodemeyer, the sister of Jamey, and a father whose kids had been bullied. When Gaga spoke, I listened for clues to her evolving thinking on bullying. I liked how she boldly repeated “We don’t have the answer” in response to various impossible how-will-you-fix-everything questions. I winced when she talked about how the Columbine school shooters were bullied, since that’s a myth long busted. And I was cheered again when she shouted out to the researchers in the audience, with a kick of her insanely high-heeled shoe: “Give me all your information! Use me. If you discover something tremendous help us figure out what we can do to spread the message.”

Gaga dissented from the gathered experts, however, when Swearer talked about the important role adults play in helping kids deal with bullying. “Can I push back on that?” Gaga said urgently. “I don’t think that works. I don’t think teachers give a shit a lot of the time. I want Alyssa and other youth like her to intervene. This problem has just been going on so long and what you’re trying isn’t working.”

This suggested to me that the Born This Way Foundation won’t be working closely with schools, which would be too bad, since schools could use the help. But it might also be inevitable: Just as the pop star is skeptical of adults, surely many educators would be skeptical that the girl in the meat dress can help them prevent violence in their hallways. But if Gaga’s edgy appeal has its limits, it’s also crucial for her crusade. She’s not trying to be mainstream, and that could be a good thing, if her foundation figures out how to deploy her at the right moments and in front of the right audiences. Gaga’s best moment of the day came in response to a question from a teenager named Zachary, who told her he was transitioning from male to female, and wanted to know what she would do to support programs that are already in place, “like the really strong Gay-Straight Alliance at my school.” Gaga said she and her foundation would do everything they could to support and learn from such efforts. “And by the way,” she added, with a melting smile, “You look great.”

Correction, March 2, 2012: The article originally stated that Lady Gaga has “put little or no money into her foundation.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)