The Born This Way Foundation and Bullying

When I started my Ph.D at USC I was just wrapping up a major writing project for the Berkman Center working with danah boyd on online bullying and sexual solicitation. In retrospect, the latter has faded, whereas harassment and bullying remains an extremely pressing issue, particularly when exacerbated by LGBTQ suicides. In fall of 2009 there were few campaigns that were based on empowering youth. The alternatives were basically glorified PSAs, or astroturfed “online communities” that no kid would consider spending time on. That’s why Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation has me particularly geeked out.

Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta formed the Born This Way foundation, which was launched at an event last week at Harvard University. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation donated 1 million dollars, and Lady Gaga pitched in $1.2 million. It’s founded on three pillars:

Safety (creating a safe place to celebrate individuality)
Skills (teaching advocacy, promoting civic engagement, and encouraging self-expression)
Opportunity (providing ways to implement solutions and impact local communities)

Their press release talks of exploring the best ways to “reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.” Gaga was quick to describe the foundation as focused on grassroots “youth-empowerment” rather than just bullying, but this seems to be the first area they have staked out, as evident in the working papers assembled and hosted by Berkman and discussion at the event launch. Here is why I am hopeful that this is a valuable step forward:

1. Re-framing of bullying
As danah boyd and John Palfrey note in their 20 Elements that you Must Know (created for and linked from, ““Bullies” aren’t the source of the problem; they’re often a symptom of the problem.” Bullying is imbricated with a litany of other risk factors, including substance abuse, sexual abuse, and depression. Mary L. Gray, now at Microsoft Research, advocates for more education about difference, rather than linking homophobes to the “cause” of suicides. Generally, we have a “limited capacity to celebrate difference.” Weeding out bigots isn’t going to alleviate the problem. We need to offer kids an alternative that addresses environmental factors and a positive way they can act on their altruistic impulses through a transmedia activist network.

2. Helping youth connect and find their voice
One way we can think about how Born This Way can move forward is to think about how it differs from previous attempts to help LGBTQ youth. The “It Gets Better” campaign was started by columnist Dan Savage and his husband in September 2010 to address the serious problem of suicide among LGBTQ youths, who remain at increased risk. It eventually migrated to its own website, and now hosts over 30,000 videos. It was an admirable campaign focused on connecting and giving hope to LGBTQ youth. However it was also criticized for framing self-harm and suicide through the lens of the privileged white male who has the ability to move to a large city and go to college. It also presumes a certain type of environment, one that must flee to survive; Mary Gray’s In the Country, for example, presents a different vision of rural queer. Many of the suicides in recent memory (e.g. Tyler Clementi) have been college students, which opens up the possibility that not addressing bullying among youths merely leads to adults who exhibit the same behavior, and it’s hardly a “rural problem.”

I applaud the success of the campaign, but disagree with its framing of who has a voice and when. Saying “it gets better” is that it is a statement that you must wait for your life to get bearable. This is a reflection of the very dire circumstances youth find themselves in, but it also neglects to give youth a more empowering message. For many youth, it could be easily argued that it must get better NOW.

3. Transmedia Platforms
Participatory culture requires low barriers to entry and spreadable content to flourish. Gaga is well-situated to capitalize on her network. As has been pointed out, Gaga just passed 20 million Twitter followers, and unlike many celebrities, she also follows a good portion of them (140,000) back. Conversations and testimonials are also sparked on YouTube in the comments section of her videos. It Gets Better focused on the importance of video testimonials as a vehicle to deliver extremely emotional messages. Gaga has been a vocal friend to the LGBTQ community, such as when she thanked “god and her gays” at the 2009 VMAs (later clarified/expanded on the eve of the Equality March). It’s unclear the role of the Born This Way website; right now all features is a blog, basic information, and a way to post your picture on the site.

4. Celebrating Difference and Togetherness
One trick with capturing altruistic impulses through a movement is to still remain cool. As Amy Wilkins points out in Wannabes, Goths and Christians, “young adults employ freakiness as a mediating category between geekiness and cool” (p. 27). Goth dress style and “freaky bodies,” according to Wilkins, is shock tactic that lends greater power to their identity, while also being a marker of taste. Thus, Gaga dubbing her fans as “monsters” lets them define themselves, celebrating their difference by coming together through shared rituals and dress. This admittedly basic framing (I am side-barring for simplicity her music and very public history) stretches back to Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of cultural studies. The question is if she can turn identity play into identity politics or a broader sense of community that avoids the pitfalls of Born This Way and can mobilize youth to change negative cultures and improve support networks.

The next step for us is to keep track of the foundation’s efforts while also comparing them to similar organizations focusing on LGBT bullying, such as the Make it Better Project, and participatory culture coming out of popular forms more generally, like the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better.


  1. I really like how you’ve arranged Born This Way, Imagine Better, and Make it Better into a little cohort. The names of these orgs almost form a change narrative on their own! It also reflects the diversity of challenges that the broad “bullying” discourse has come to represent. I wonder if the orgs themselves recognize each other as peers? How might they craft their individual strategies to (ahem) maximize synergy among them?

  2. Hi Andrew and Rhea,
    Thanks for writing and sharing this, very interesting!
    One thing I’m curious about is how this foundation may also travel beyond Lady Gaga fans.
    I know that nerdfighters and HPA members often mention It Gets Better and The Trevor Project (for which Daniel Radcliffe did a PSA) as LGBTQ-related orgs they are involved with – may be interesting to see if Born This Way will join it. As you say, one challenge is to stay cool while helping others, I think another challenge
    is just to get young people there and involved. In our civic practices paper, Sangita and I talk about how participatory culture serves as the glue that keeps participatory culture civics going. If right now all the website has is a blog and a sign up, it seems like work will be necessary to get young people to come there, keep coming, and be involved (Pottermore, for example, is a different kind of platform, but one that so far – as far as I can tell from members’ experiences – has not really managed to engage young people, despite its very promising initial characteristics).

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