Lady Gaga & LGBT Shock Value Activism

Lady Gaga & LGBT Shock Value Activism

"Are you listening?!?"
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As the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards were wrapping up, Cher presented the final award for Video of The Year on stage. “The Winner is… Lady Gaga,” she stated. No shock there, since Lady Gaga managed to sweep six other awards earlier in the night for the “Bad Romance” video as well as the award for Best Collaboration for the “Telephone” video with Beyoncé. The shock came when the singer stood up and began to walk onto the stage to accept the prestigious award. At that moment, the true nature of her dress began to materialize in the minds of the viewers, begging the question, “Is that… meat?” There she was, standing on stage accepting the most coveted award of the night, in a dress made entirely of raw meat – paired with matching meat shoes, a meat fascinator, and a bejeweled meat purse (of course). The appearance instantly provoked a surge of reports on the jarring ensemble – some positive, some negative, and some just flat out confused.

Today, the meat dress plays a pertinent role in fashion and music history and has since become one of the most buzzed-about moments of Lady Gaga’s career. The meat dress is one of the most controversial fashion looks to date and 2010 was dubbed “the year of the meat dress” by Harper’s Bazaar. Still, the question that remained was, “Why?” The answer may be surprising; as most Gaga-related things are.

Lady Gaga, an artist synonymous with over-the-top fashion and controversy, is a jack of all trades when it comes to entertainment. With numerous credits as an actress, songwriter, director, producer, philanthropist, model, and magazine-editor, she has established herself as one of the key figures of our time, with an estimated $280 million dollar net worth in 2015. But there is one title immersed in the ever-growing resume of Lady Gaga that goes beyond fame and fashion: activist. A significant amount of Lady Gaga’s fans, dubbed “Little Monsters,” identify as being members of the the LGBT community and their support has designated her as one of the “12 Greatest Female Gay Icons of All Time,” among the likes of Madonna, Bette Midler, and Cher. Even with a plethora of love from the LGBT community, some may be surprised to know that many of her most shocking and infamous moments have been a form of activism for a wide array of issues affecting the LGBT community, the meat dress being no exception. While activism is often associated with pickets and rallies, some activists use attention-grabbing actions to highlight an issue —I call this “shock-value activism.” This idea of “shock-value activism” is certainly not a new concept, as groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and The Truth use shocking images, commercials, and advertisements to advocate for their cause. Lady Gaga is one of the leading “shock-value activists” in the entertainment industry and has utilized shock value tactics on numerous occasions to bring awareness to important issues, particularly those affecting the LGBT community, like inequality and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The infamous meat dress of 2010, the moment that is still brought up when talking about Lady Gaga today, was in fact a bold statement about the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that was signed into law in 1993. The law prohibited gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly in the military and allowed for the legal discharge of those soldiers solely based on their sexuality. With Barack Obama promising to overturn the law while campaigning for President of the United States in 2008, many activist groups in the LGBT community were optimistic about the potential for significant progress to be made during his administration. Many groups, such as Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Servicemember’s Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a network of LGBT soldiers affected by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” took action to make the repeal a reality. SLDN led the fight to overturn the law in 2010 which included meeting with Lady Gaga to discuss the need for action.

Lady Gaga supported SLDN’s work on two occasions in the fall of 2010 to call for an end to the discriminatory law. The first occasion was in fact marked by the meat dress. When appearing on an episode of 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper, Lady Gaga described the message behind the notorious outfit, explaining, “What I was really trying to say was dead meat is dead meat. And anyone that’s willing to take their life and die for their country is the same. You’re not gay and dead, straight and dead. You are dead.” While the dress alone obviously did not influence the government to repeal the law, it did raise public awareness of the legislation drastically. A law that few had even mentioned since its enactment in 1993 was suddenly at the forefront of every article and news story reporting on the meat dress.

The second occasion of Lady Gaga’s work with SLDN took place at a rally in Portland, Maine on September 21, 2010, roughly a week after the Meat Dress mayhem. The rally was organized by SLDN and featured a speech, written and delivered by Lady Gaga, entitled, “The Prime Rib of America.” By this point her outlandish outfits had become an expectation, but the artist yet again managed to shock the public, albeit in a different way.

Arriving to the podium in an understated black suit, white dress shirt, and simple blonde hair, Lady Gaga surprised many by her serious and understated appearance. She began her speech by taking the oath that all soldiers take when entering the Army; however, after doing so, she bluntly added, “Unless, there’s a gay soldier in my unit, sir.” Spectators were taken aback by the bold and direct calling-out of the homophobic mentalities that some soldiers in the military possessed. Lady Gaga went on further to proclaim that LGBT soldiers should be given the same rights as straight soldiers, stating, “I should have the ability, the opportunity, the right to enjoy the same rights — the same piece of meat — that my fellow soldiers, fellow straight soldiers, already have included in their Meal of Rights. It’s prime rib, it’s the same size, it’s the same grade, the same cost, at wholesale cost, and it’s in the Constitution.” The comparison of equal rights to prime rib is not only an attention-grabbing metaphor but it also utilized the lingering buzz of the meat dress. Videos and transcripts of the speech soon went viral, being reported by sources such as CNN, MTV, the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post, to name a few. The virality of the speech managed to bring even more attention to the law and, unlike the meat dress, was a direct effort of activism.

Another example of Lady Gaga’s direct activism for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue was a video, uploaded to her YouTube page on September 17, 2010, in which she requested her fans call their local senators to ask them to vote for the repeal, even calling her local senators herself. The call to action was effective, reaching many senators and urging online activists to go beyond “clicktivism” and physically voice their opinion. While the first vote on the law was not a victory for the activists, a bill calling for the end of the law soon passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Obama on December 22, 2010, finally overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Lady Gaga was honored for her activist work by SLDN who awarded her the Randy Shilts Visibility Award at their 19th Annual Dinner, stating “Lady Gaga’s outspoken commitment to end “Don’t Ask” discrimination helped to renew the call for repeal on the national stage and emboldened millions of young people to get engaged, take action, and play a decisive role in repealing this bad law.”

After a short hiatus from the media, Lady Gaga returned to the spotlight with a performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards. With a lot of anticipation surrounding the appearance, no one quite knew what to expect from the singer but the result still managed to shock viewers. During the Red Carpet broadcast, reporters’ heads turned when a female model in a skin-tight, yellow latex dress led four half-naked men in matching yellow latex shorts who were carrying a large egg-shaped contraption, which encased Lady Gaga. While Lady Gaga was only slightly visible in the egg, the sheer, alien-like appearance of the model and men were enough to shock viewers. With prosthetics on their temples and cheekbones and eyebrow-less faces, the four men carrying the egg, along with the woman escorting them, were quickly the victims of relentless flashes from the paparazzi and reporters. To the surprise of most viewers, Lady Gaga did not come out of the egg on the red carpet and was instead “birthed” on stage at the beginning of her performance of “Born This Way,” her latest single. The imagery of Lady Gaga emerging from the egg while singing the lyrics of this pro-equality anthem was soon contextualized as an effort to counteract the Christian Right’s belief that being gay is a choice. With lyrics like “No matter gay, straight, or bi – Lesbian, transgendered life – I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive,” Lady Gaga clearly voiced her support for the LGBT community and included them by name in a pro-equality anthem that would hold the number one spot on the Billboard charts for six weeks.

One of the key tenets of equality is viewing everyone on a level playing field, and viewing sexual orientation as a birth-trait (rather than a choice) is one of the biggest battles in the fight for equality. This is an important distinction to be made because nearly all equal rights in American history have been “granted to groups based on race and sex because those are genetic, born characteristics.” Establishing sexuality as a born characteristic is therefore crucial to granting the LGBT community equal rights, like legalizing gay marriage, adoption by same-sex parents, and equal opportunity employment. The massive popularity of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and the bold message behind it helped positively shift public opinion toward this realization that being gay is a birth-trait, in the same way that being straight is.

Roughly six months after the release of “Born This Way”, Lady Gaga was scheduled to open the MTV Video Music Awards on August 28, 2011. Before the awards ceremony even began, Lady Gaga shocked the press by not appearing on the highly-televised red carpet. This ignited rumbles of anticipation for the performance, which began with a single spotlight on a man with black greased-back hair, wearing a dirty black suit and a cigarette in hand, engulfed in smoke. The man began to walk towards the audience and uttered the words “My Name is Jo Calderone and I was an asshole” before delivering a four-minute monologue about his troubled relationship with Lady Gaga. While the man did strike a somewhat similar resemblance to Lady Gaga, it wasn’t until he began to sing “Yoü & I,” Lady Gaga’s latest single, that it became clear that it was in fact Lady Gaga behind the wig and suit. While she was certainly not the first performer to do female-to-male drag, she took it a step further than most and remained in character the entire night, even accepting that award for “Best Female Video” as Jo on behalf of Lady Gaga. The performance of Jo was much more than a fashion statement (as opposed to Katy Perry’s cheese-cube hat).

Gender issues are an increasingly pressing issue and while they are not exclusive to the LGBT community, they are commonly associated with it. Challenging gender stereotypes and gender expression via pop performances has been done before, most notably by Annie Lennox’s impersonation of Elvis Presley at the 1984 Grammy Awards. However, the performance of Jo Calderone was one of the most-televised and widely-reported attempts at changing gender expectations to date. When asked about the success of the performance, Murray Hill, one of the leading drag-kings in the female-to-male industry, replied, “There is barely any visibility for FTM, drag kings and lesbians on television. There is a huge imbalance. For Lady Gaga, the biggest pop star in the world, to go on TV with millions of people watching in drag as a man and then to actually say ‘lesbian and transgender’ live is undeniably powerful and creates change. She ups the visibility big time and gets the language into the mainstream.” Reporters’ reactions to Jo were extremely mixed: some found it amusing, some thought it too political, and some were at a loss for words. For an issue that relies mainly on the public’s perception, it was a bold move for Lady Gaga to force the conversation into the mainstream media and helped sparked the conversation of drag, transgender, and gender roles in a society where those topics were often swept under the rug.

Lady Gaga’s success as a musician, actress, and fashion icon is proven by her array of awards, records, and accolades, but her success as an activist is much more difficult to measure. With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 and the legalization of gay marriage in 2015, it is easy to measure the success of the LGBT issues that Lady Gaga advocated for. While it is difficult to measure Lady Gaga’s personal impact in passing the legislation behind those victories for the LGBT community, the awards given to her by the SLDN and similar pro-LGBT groups highlight her significant role in increasing the visibility for the issues. With an array of activist efforts toward equality for the LGBT community like a moving speech at the National Equality March in 2009, a performance at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner, a heartbreaking speech for the victims of Orlando, and various Pride appearances, Lady Gaga has proven herself to be an outspoken activist of equality for the LGBT community and have earned her gay icon status. While some may prefer traditional sit-ins, pickets, and protests as commendable activism, “shock-value activists” like Lady Gaga should not be overlooked. Wearing a dress made out of raw meat is just as big of a statement as holding a sign at a protest, and any effort toward making this world a more equal and accepting place should be commended — even if that effort includes hatching from an egg live on stage.


Cover Image Credit: entrelineas.com.mx

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No, I Don't Have To Tell You I'm Trans Before Dating You

Demanding trans people come out to potential partners is transphobic.
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In 2014, Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old Filipina woman, was brutally murdered after having sex with a U.S. marine. The marine in question, Joseph Scott Pemberton, strangled her until she was unconscious and then proceeded to drown her in a toilet bowl.

Understandably, this crime triggered a lot of outrage. But while some were outraged over the horrific nature of the crime, many others were outraged by a different detail in the story. That was because Jennifer Laude had done the unspeakable. She was a trans woman and had not disclosed that information before having sex with Pemberton. So in the minds of many cis people, her death was the price she paid for not disclosing her trans status. Here are some of the comments on CNN's Facebook page when the story broke.

As a trans person, I run into this attitude all the time. I constantly hear cis people raging about how a trans person is "lying" if they don't come out to a potential partner before dating them. Pemberton himself claimed that he felt like he was "raped" because Laude did not come out to him. Even cis people that fashion themselves as "allies" tend to feel similar.

Their argument is that they aren't not attracted to trans people, so they should have a right to know if a potential partner is trans before dating them. These people view transness as a mere physical quality that they just aren't attracted to.

The issue with this logic is that the person in question is obviously attracted to trans people, or else they wouldn't be worried about accidentally going out with one. So these people aren't attracted to trans people because of some physical quality, they aren't attracted to trans people because they are disgusted by the very idea of transness.

Disgust towards trans people is ingrained in all of us from a very early age. The gender binary forms the basis of European societies. It establishes that there are men and there are women, and each has a specific role. For the gender binary to have power, it has to be rigid and inflexible. Thus, from the day we are born, we are taught to believe in a very static and strict form of gender. We learn that if you have a penis, you are a man, and if you have a vagina, you are a woman. Trans people are walking refutations of this concept of gender. Our very existence threatens to undermine the gender binary itself. And for that, we are constantly demonized. For example, trans people, mainly women of color, continue to be slaughtered in droves for being trans.

The justification of transphobic oppression is often that transness is inherently disgusting. For example, the "trans panic" defense still exists to this day. This defense involves the defendant asking for a lesser sentence after killing a trans person because they contend that when they found out the victim was trans, they freaked out and couldn't control themselves. This defense is still legal in every state but California.

And our culture constantly reinforces the notion that transness is undesirable. For example, there is the common trope in fictional media in which a male protagonist is "tricked" into sleeping with a trans woman. The character's disgust after finding out is often used as a punchline.

Thus, not being attracted to trans people is deeply transphobic. The entire notion that someone isn't attracted to a group of very physically diverse group of people because they are trans is built on fear and disgust of trans people. None of this means it is transphobic to not be attracted to individual trans people. Nor is it transphobic to not be attracted to specific genitals. But it is transphobic to claim to not be attracted to all trans, people. For example, there is a difference between saying you won't go out with someone for having a penis and saying you won't go out with someone because they're trans.

So when a cis person argues that a trans person has an obligation to come out to someone before dating them, they are saying trans people have an obligation to accommodate their transphobia. Plus, claiming that trans people are obligated to come out reinforces the idea that not being attracted to trans people is reasonable. But as I've pointed out, not being attracted to trans people supports the idea that transness is disgusting which is the basis for transphobic oppression.

The one scenario in which I would say a trans person should disclose their trans status is if they are going to have sex with someone and are unsure if their partner is attracted to whatever genitals they may have. In that case, I think it's courteous for a trans person to come out to avoid any awkwardness during sex. But even then, a trans person isn't "lying" if they don't come out and their partner is certainly not being "raped."

It is easy to look at the story of Jennifer Laude and claim that her death was due to the actions of one bigot. But it's more complicated than that. Pemberton was the product of a society that told him that disgust towards trans people was reasonable and natural. So when he found out that he accidentally slept with a trans woman, he killed her.

Every single cis person that says that trans people have to come out because they aren't attracted to trans people feeds into the system that caused Jennifer Laude's death. And until those cis people acknowledge their complicity in that system, there will only be more like Jennifer Laude.

SEE ALSO: Yes, You Absolutely Need To Tell Someone You're Trans Before Dating

Cover Image Credit: Nats Getty / Instagram

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You Know Economic Capital and Social Capital, How About Energy Capital?

Gaining capital = gaining mobility.

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The most over-used phrase in America is "All you have to do is work hard to get ahead." Another one is the classic, "You can't have a million dollar dream with a minimum wage work ethic." Both of these exhausted ideas are busted by looking at the importance of economic and social capital.

Obviously, our capitalist system is not an equal one. One of the ways in which we're distinctly separated is by our economic and social classes. When we advance by making gains, we accumulate capital, which mobilizes us and enables us to more easily climb and gain more capital. The growth, then, is exponential. If we are born into a great deal of capital, it is immediately easier to gain more.

Economic capital is clear enough; we may call this wealth. It's about our money, our assets.

Social capital, on the other hand, is our position in society. It includes our network and the power of those with whom we hold relationships, our education, and the communities in which we are raised. For example, people raised by parents with college degrees have social capital because they are in positions to understand and help out with the processes of applications and financial aid and the dynamics of post-secondary education.

But there's another kind of capital that plays a role in our mobility. This is energy capital.

This is where my issue with the "minimum wage work ethic" concept arises. I've worked near-minimum-wage jobs. I've worked in fast food. And in every case, I am confident in stating that my coworkers and I worked extremely hard. When I worked at McDonald's, I would go home every day and collapse on the couch because it had taken everything out of me. Physically, my feet were killing me. Emotionally, I was exhausted and tense from being mistreated by customers who dehumanized me. And since I also wasn't making enough money to have extra economic capital, I had to dispense even more emotional energy once I got home to stress over finances.

One of the biggest critiques of fast food workers like myself is that we just need to work toward another job. Yes, that's very true. But the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was get on the job hunt; all I really wanted was to go to sleep. And since I had no connections (less social capital), this job search would take a lot more effort than someone who could contact a family friend.

Meanwhile, there exist people at the top who can make a great deal of money without working all that hard. Some can even get away with no work at all. Some can also then pay for cooks and nannies and housekeepers and wealth managers and tax professionals and tutors for their kids and plumbers and electricians and repairpeople and restaurants and so on and so forth. And they don't have to dispense nearly as much energy.

Now, I don't want to insist that energy capital is always linked to higher economic or social capital. Many people with a lot of economic and social capital work extremely hard. Similarly, there do exist people with no economic and social capital who are in that position because they expend no energy at all.

However, it is necessary to consider energy as an additional criterion in building the capacity for safety, power, and mobility in society.

This is also tied up with privilege. People in positions of privilege (i.e. men, white people, Christians, heterosexual and cisgender people, temporarily able-bodied people, etc.) need not expend the energy to consider stereotypes and prejudices on a day-to-day basis; they can focus all of their energy on their mobility, which already comes easier.

Extra energy is extra capital. Know where you're privileged.

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