Lady Gaga and the Boston Children's Theatre Preach Tolerance

If you weren’t under a rock or vacationing in Cabo this week, then you know it was quite the celebrity kumbayah moment here in Cambridge on Wednesday when Lady Gaga, Oprah, and Deepak Chopra convened at Harvard to launch the Born This Way Foundation, which aims to help empower teens and in particular support anti-bullying efforts. (And to add an extra frisson of starpower for policy wonks, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was there as well.) After hearing the testimonials of bullied people who had managed to come out the other side scarred but sane, you had to open your heart to these efforts. By the end of the day, if you still felt skeptical about its intentions, then you’re probably against kids, period.

Of course, many celebrities have been justly knocked in the past for testmarketing their charitable endorsements, and then dropping them magpie-style — but Lady Gaga has been markedly different and markedly involved. For Lady Gaga, it’s hardly just theater, as she’s reportedly launched the foundation with $1.2 million of her own money. And that’s the mere tip of her charitable iceberg which also includes helping raise $202 million for those with HIV/AIDS. On a broad populist scale, she wants everybody to be comfortable in their own skins, no matter their gender, orientation, race, or creed, but on the policy level she’s been a particularly laser-focused advocate for gay rights and gay marriage and with a forthrightness that bravely exceeds the polite and softly lit Spielbergian (or Oprahesque) approach.

Of course Howie Carr probably got his moonbat-sensors out when he read this quote from the pop star in The Washington Post: “I believe that if you have revolutionary potential, you must make the world a better place and use it. … I wish there was [a law to make people be kind to one another] because, you know, I’d be chained naked to a fence somewhere trying to pass it.” You can probably chalk it up to exuberant idealism, but hey, a quote like that certainly muddies the waters of the civil liberties debate, doesn’t it?

Still, sometimes a certain measure of tolerance has had to be mandated by a court of law, and we get a good education in it from the Boston Children’s Theatre starting this weekend. From tomorrow, March 3, through March 11, the theater is staging the world premiere of Reflections of a Rock Lobster, a play about a teenager who just wants to bring his boyfriend to the prom. Back in 1980, a 17-year-old kid named Aaron Fricke from Cumberland, Rhode Island, was regulary bullied in school and then was refused his right to his same-sex date to the big dance, an officially sanctioned rejection sent him into a tailspin that led to thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, with Fricke successfully suing the school, creating landmark case law for the rights of gay students, and most importantly with Frick alive today to see his story brought to the stage.

Because, yes, the play is based on a true story. Think about it: This was 1980. Fricke not only had to deal with the challenge of trying to bring his boyfriend to the prom or with the huge challenge of being openly gay at such a young age, but he had to so just seven years after the American Psychiatric Association finally declassified at as a mental illness. I graduated from a so-called progressive high school only nine years after that, and if memory serves, we had absolutely no openly gay students. My school wasn’t all that unusual in this regard; the general climate was still such that coming out would have assured mockery at best and bullying at worst. Fast forward to 2012, where an openly gay teen is no longer an anomaly and the Boston Children’s Theatre is staging this play with actual teens — both gay and straight — in the roles. And this from an organization better known for more traditional fare for the kiddoes. (Cases in point: The season closes out with James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables.) Sure, this is Massachusetts, but this play is going to move around the country, just like gay marriage.

So hey, we can all be glad that the country is more compassionate these days — at least relative to 1980 — but it’s hardly a done deal. Just before these happy moments unfolded this week, there were sober reminders of intolerance just the week before. There was the start of the cyberbullying trial surrounding the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who killed himself after his roommate allegedly broadcast his actions on a webcam. Closer to home, there was Destinie Mogg-Barkalow, the gay Bridgewater State student who was allegedly punched in the face for exercising her constitutional right of free speech — by writing an editorial supporting same-sex marriage in the school paper. I certainly would argue that we shouldn’t have a law mandating kindness, but it’s still the case the case that we need it to cope with people whose unkind actions infringe on the most basic rights of others. So while much of Lady Gaga’s dream is already being realized by the changing winds of history, her foundation is still as necessary as ever and should be heartily welcomed.