Born What Way?

Lady Gaga’s mom sent me an email last week. “We’re moving towards a braver and kinder society, Beth, and it’s all thanks to you!” she wrote.

I probably need not clarify that Cynthia Germanotta doesn’t actually know me. She got my name when I surfed over to the website of the foundation that she and her pop-phenom daughter are launching today at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. The site had a place to type in my name along with a button that said, “was born this way.” As in, “I, Beth, was born this way.” Born what way?

Like Lady Gaga’s hit song and 2011 album of the same name — and, like Gaga herself — the Born This Way Foundation is clearly queer without being exclusively gay. Pink triangles open and close the song’s freaky futuristic music video, and lyrics like “don’t be a drag, just be a queen” are side-by-side with lyrics that include anyone who might at some point have been “outcast, bullied, or teased,” like “black, white, beige, chola descent, / You’re Lebanese, you’re orient.” Lady Gaga has built her career on not being pegged or boxed in or predicted, and it seems her foundation plans to similarly spread the message to be yourself, no matter who you are. The website speaks of individuality, self-expression, bravery, and empowerment without ever actually saying the word “gay.”

The Foundation has partnered with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to learn what the data say about bullying and other issues affecting young people. “The Born This Way Foundation is trying to ask the hard questions about how they can be most helpful to youth, and to try to ground it in what the data say, and trying to do their homework before they jump in,” says John Palfrey, faculty co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-author of the book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. “When a celebrity of Lady Gaga’s stature weighs in on an issue, it has a large impact, and I’m really impressed that they’re taking the time to learn so carefully about the issues before they make large moves.” Palfrey insists that “we on the research side have many ties to the LGBT community and that’s certainly a big piece of the research that we’ve been doing.”

Still, there were some hurt feelings on the Harvard campus in the weeks leading up to this afternoon’s high-profile launch, which, in addition to Gaga herself, will feature Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Members of campus LGBTQ groups like the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, the Queer Student Alliance, the Harvard Trans Task Force, and LGBTQ Student Life had no hand in the planning, and when the LGBTQ Student Life asked that the Foundation set aside a block of tickets for LGBTQ students or groups, the request was denied. Members of an organization called Their Day in the Yard are planning a demonstration at Sanders Theater today, timed to coincide with the launch. The group, which seeks amends for nine students who in the 1920s were expelled from Harvard for being gay, does not mention the Foundation in any of their press materials, but the group’s founder, a Harvard alum who asked not to be named here because her work is tied to the University, says, “they have ignored and snubbed the very population here on campus that I thought they were supposed to be reaching out to help. The queer community here on campus is going to show up and we’re going to raise our issues that day. They’re planning this launch here at Harvard for a reason and we’re going to be out there too.”

Spokespeople from the Born This Way Foundation’s press organization did not respond to questions, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which is co-hosting the event, did not respond to emails and phone calls.

Yesterday morning, Palfrey invited about a dozen LGBTQ student leaders on campus to a meeting to discuss the research that Berkman is doing in its partnership with the Foundation. Sam Bakkila, of the Harvard Trans Task Force, who initially said he was “kind of offended” by the way the Foundation handled its relationship with the LGBTQ community on campus, was at this morning’s meeting and has reconsidered. “I feel like it would be rather presumptuous or self-aggrandizing for me to imply that this huge team of celebrities and policymakers should have collaborated with an undergraduate student group,” he wrote in an email last week. “Hopefully the BTW Foundation found a way to engage the LGBT community and troubled youth in particular — but it really doesn’t have to have anything to do reserving privileged Harvard students in a very LGBTQ friendly environment the chance to see Lady Gaga and other celebrities.”