News & Politics

Lady Gaga, Superstar: Her Valiant Efforts to Help Repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The outrageous pop star has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of DADT.

The thought of Harry Reid, stoic and bespectacled senator of Nevada, having a Twitter conversation with Lady Gaga, former burlesque dancer-turned-campy pop superstar, is a pretty remarkable development of the modern world–-an example of social media’s bridge to Narnia working its magic in real time. But even more remarkable was the topic of their Tweets. United in their opposition to "Don’t ask, don’t tell," in September Gaga (nee Stefani Germanotta) beseeched her nearly seven million followers to phone Senator Reid for a scheduled Senate vote on the policy. Reid tweeted back, assuring her there would be a vote the following week, and promising that “Anyone qualified to serve this country should be allowed to do so.”

Explaining filibusters, calling out McCain, mobilizing her followers to call their senators--Gaga has done all these things through her Twitter account. As a music critic, I find Lady Gaga songs untenable at best, but on her activist strength alone, it seems petty to grouse about the number of times the radio/club/supermarket has made the world listen to “Papparazzi.” And while her spectacular stage productions could be viewed as contrived (though it’s remarkable that she regularly does avant-garde performance art on network television), the least contrived thing she’s done so far is also the most important.

As the New York Times pointed out on Sunday, Gaga is but one in a string of pop divas making tracks openly supporting LGBT causes. But she’s so different from the Keshas and the Katy Perrys in the pop landscape. Arguably the biggest pop star in the world, Gaga has taken her pro-gay singles beyond the charts and into the real world of brave, outspoken activism, using her power and voice in support of gay and feminist equality. In addition to RT’ing Reid, she spent the better part of September on the case of Senator John McCain, who was then attempting to drum up a filibuster against the repeal of DADT, tweeting at him, sending him YouTubes from backstage before concerts and beseeching him. (McCain, for his part, responded that he was “glad she’s paying attention,” then proceeded to infantilize her knowledge on the topic.)

Later that month, Gaga released an open letter to the Senate on her Web site before flying up to Portland, Maine, to address a rally in support of a DADT repeal. She analogized gay rights to the dress of raw meat she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards, saying, "Equality is the prime rib of America, but because I am gay, I don't get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer. Shouldn't everyone deserve to wear the same meat dress I do?"

Despite the odd metaphor, Lady Gaga has regularly brought clarity and lucidity to the anti-DADT movement. Last October, Gaga delivered an impassioned speech at the National Equality March on Washington. “The younger generation, my generation, we are the ones coming up in the world, and we must continue to push this issue forward...we must demand full equality for all....Obama, I know that you’re listening. Are you listening?” she growled. “We will continue to push you and your administration to bring your words of promise to a reality.... To do my part, I refuse to accept any misogynistic or homophobic behavior in lyrics, music or actions in the music industry.”

The crowd drew an estimated 150,000 people and was credited as inspiring a new wave of young gay activists; as Don Gorton wrote on Equality Across America, “Most attendees were part of the Millennial Generation that has come of age since 2000; many were standing up for equality for the first time ever. Relatively few attendees’ names would be likely to appear on the lists of established LGBT organizations. And yet if this highly motivated generation is somehow engaged in work for equality across America, the movement that began at the Stonewall Inn 40 years ago will grow by leaps and bounds and double its longevity.”

For the faction of her fanbase that’s too young to remember Madonna’s forays into androgyny, much less her lyrics and liner notes about the gay community and AIDS, Gaga is a formidable figurehead for LGBT youth. And, like Madonna, the qualities that helped build up her gay and lesbian fanbase–-theatrics torn from the drag playbook, a proclivity for outsized everything, shared musical DNA with Freddie Mercury, etc.–-are the same qualities that make her an excellent, charismatic ally for the movement. She even endured an ugly shred of homophobia herself a couple years ago, when the silly rumor that she was a hermaphrodite based on a fuzzy, faraway concert photo set the Internet ablaze. Her response was to appear on the cover of Q Magazine topless with a fake bulge in her pants, poking fun at the meme while showing she didn’t care what people think of her, particularly when it involves gender identity.

Even as DADT’s status sits in limbo, with a Federal Appeals court’s indefinite extension on the policy, a Congress in stalemate and President Obama’s unwillingness to repeal it under presidential powers, the cultural movement against DADT presses on, Gaga at the helm. She’s recently finished her next album, Born This Way. The title track echoes her rally chants to “Bless God, bless the gays,” emphasized by the stand-tall, gay-positive chorus, I’m beautiful in my way/ cause God makes no mistakes/ I’m on the right track/'cause baby I was born this way. Let’s hope Gaga outlasts DADT by many, many years.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.