What Gaga's Oscar Performance Meant to a Queer Rape Survivor
I'm not an entertainment person. Despite managing The Advocate's website over Oscar weekend, I wasn't anticipating the 88th annual Academy Awards producing much in the way of emotions for me.
So while I appreciated Chris Rock's monologue and the myriad discussions of diversity — except that painfully uncomfortable Stacey Dash moment — I wasn't moved or even surprised by anything I saw in the first two hours of the show. It was, in so many ways, business as usual.
And then Lady Gaga took the stage to perform her nominated song from the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground.
The goose bumps started with the first haunting notes played on the all-white piano Gaga's fingers graced. I haven't always been a fan of Gaga's pop-heavy hits, but she has an unparalleled voice that has long commanded my respect, and hearing her, quivering, lament that, "You tell me it gets better, it gets better, in time," demanded my full attention.
As "Til It Happens to You" builds, there's no doubt about what the "it" referenced in the song is. Without forcing survivors to relive their trauma with graphic descriptions, the track resides squarely in the aftermath of a violation. If you've ever found yourself in that space, mired in doubt and shame and pain and isolation, then you know just how hard it can be to "hold your head up."
When dozens of survivors emerged from the shadows to take the stage alongside Gaga, I was shaking. I saw words of empowerment and the absolution of guilt written on countless outstretched arms, on the same skin that too many of us have drawn razors across when we too were at the end of our ropes. I saw visibly queer people placed front and center — men, women of color, people who look like I used to, and some who look like I do today. It was clear from the stoic expressions and several sets of moist eyes that everyone on that stage knows how it feels.
I too know how it feels. Because it happened to me.
It didn't happen to me on a college campus. It didn't even happen anywhere that some kindhearted bystander who had taken Vice President Joe Biden's pledge to "intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given" would have made a difference.
It happened when we were alone in a basement. He turned up Mindless Self Indulgence, and I can still hear the lyrics shrieking "Take me now, fuck me later." I didn't remember, until writing this piece, that the song is called "Faggot," but I will never forget the way it sounded.
Like so many young people with whom I share this dark history, I never reported my rape. I was 16, stoned, and had said yes before; I figured no one would believe me, and I convinced myself that maybe I really had wanted it. I was blowing things out of proportion. He probably didn't hear me saying no.
I told only a few friends, and when I told my then-serious boyfriend, he suggested we take a break. (It took the better part of a decade before he acknowledged that was the wrong reaction to have.)
Well-meaning friends, colleagues, and strangers have said to me each of the platitudes Gaga belts out in this powerful song. She sings that "it won't be real" until it happens to you — but for years, it hasn't felt real. I learned to tell myself it's simply a part of my sordid past that, most days, I'm grateful for because those experiences have allowed me to live my dreams.
But watching Gaga on stage, hand in hand with other survivors — with other queer survivors, specifically — made it real for me. I felt less alone. For the first time, I felt that Gaga was an advocate for me, that she was fighting to defend our basic humanity, our right to decide who we let near our bodies.
When I went to work the next day, a coworker and I knew exactly what we meant when we exchanged glances and simply asked each other, "How old were you?" We talked about how it never really gets better, it just gets lesser. And we learn to shut up about it.
Because for so many of us, this is a silent secret that we share, that we keep tucked away in the dustiest, darkest corners of our hearts. Besides, there's no way to casually drop into a conversation your history of sexual assault.
As queer women, we occupy a distinct space in this conversation — when we let ourselves take up any space at all. I know that my experience isn't what made me queer, though it did contribute, for a while, to a default distrust of most cisgender men. I've never been able to articulate the precise ways this trauma has shaped my understanding of the world or the way I relate to it.
But as the prolonged standing ovation and countless tearstained cheeks at Sunday's Oscars performance show, no one really knows how to talk about this. We don't know how to start the conversation, but never were truer words uttered than "I don't want to hear a thing from you, 'cause you don't know."
There's no right way to respond to this kind of revelation. I didn't (and still don't) want pity. I don't need a hug that I didn't ask for, and I don't want you to look at me with eyes damp with tears for what you presume was my lost innocence. I don't need you to tell me what you would have done if you'd only known, how badly you would have hurt him.
What I want, what I need, is to come together with my own people and speak our truth. Or maybe not even speak it — just sit together in the knowledge that we share something that fundamentally changed us, but which we refused to let break us.
I want to revel in our resilience. I want us to join together, clasped hands connected to scarred wrists connected to unstoppable hearts, and say what we need to say. Even if it's as simple as "You don't know how I feel."
I don't have the magic solution for how we dismantle a culture that so glorifies violence and sexual dominance, that tells the powerful they are entitled to the bodies of those they view as lesser. I don't know how we finally do away with rape culture.
But I do believe that those of us who "know what it's like" will be the ones to carve out a new way of being. I believe we will find partners and friends and family members who will listen to us, stand beside us, and fight for us. I believe we will raise our children to understand the importance of consent, even when asking for something as simple as a hug. I believe enthusiastic consent can be sexy, and that we can position such affirmation as the ultimate demonstration of love.
Thanks to Lady Gaga, her cowriter Diane Warren, and much to my surprise, the 88th annual Academy Awards, I feel like we may finally be ready to listen to the people who do know what it's like. Between Best Picture winner Spotlight, which depicts the team of investigative journalists who uncovered decades of abuse within the Catholic Church, and Brie Larson's Best Actress win for her portrayal of an indefatigable rape survivor in Room, Hollywood seems almost ready to shatter the veil of silence that surrounds sexual assault. But that's only the first step.
Because you don't know — and you can't know — how to move forward until it happens to you. And when it does, you're the only one who knows what's right.
So let's take a hint from Lady Gaga and the filmmakers behind The Hunting Ground (which arrives on Netflix March 14), and put the people who do know what it's like at the center of the conversation. Let us link arms and say unequivocally, "We believe you. We are here to listen. We've got your back."
SUNNIVIE BRYDUM is the managing editor of The Advocate.