Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lady Gaga Confounds: Gay Rights vs. Compassion for Animals?

When someone tries, sincerely, to support you and defend a dearly held belief, but in the process does something else that offends you, how do you respond?

I was torn by the recent appearance of Lady Gaga in Portland Maine, delivering a passionate (even strident) speech calling for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Because of her huge popularity, her influence on pop culture, and her undeniable creativity and talent (whether or not you are inspired by her music or outrageous grabs for attention),  I was happy to hear her verbalize my feelings against this policy, and turn up the heat on the issue. 

But her speech came soon after her appearance on the MTV Video Awards, where she wore an abominable dress made of raw beef.  In her speech in Portland, she compared American rights to choice cuts of meat, to Prime Rib.  She argued that gay people have not been entitled to the Prime Rib of American rights, and asked (rhetorically, I think) "Doesn't everyone deserve to wear the same meat dress as I do?"

When I saw her on the Video Awards (and also her cover on Vogue), draped in the flesh of an animal who died for her self-promotion, all I could think of was the undercover video I saw in May (and posted here) in which cows on a dairy farm in Ohio were terribly abused**. The dress looked like the thoughtless flaunting of some animal's suffering.

Lady Gaga said she meant no offense; she may have sincerely believed in the comparison she was making.  But it made me uncomfortable, and in spite of agreeing with her position on Don't Ask Don't Tell, I was embarrassed to be associated with her message; I didn't want to wear her "meat dress",  and if she sought to convince those who could make repeal happen, I thought she was doing more harm than good.

I was conflicted and confounded. 

To deal with my confusion, I sought clarity from the very organization that moved me to change my thinking about livestock, Mercy for Animals.  I sent an email of inquiry to Nathan Runkle, Executive Director of the Organization.  He responded immediately and heroically, with a link to his own blog, in which he posted a letter he sent to Lady Gaga applauding her stance on Don't Ask Don't tell, yet explaining the disappointment of the message sent by her grisly attire:

"My heart also sang Sunday night as you made a bold and powerful statement on behalf of gay rights...taking a thoughtful stand against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I sincerely admire your dedication to pursuing justice on behalf of those of us who are still marginalized for simply being who we are. For that, I am sincerely grateful.
...Your work on behalf of gay rights is truly helping push our society out of the dark ages and into a more enlightened time.
Yet, as someone who has dedicated over half my life to advocating on behalf of animal rights, as well as gay rights, my heart sank Sunday night when you revealed “the meat dress.” Although you explained that your intention was “not to offend vegetarians or vegans,” the unintended consequence of this “fashion statement” was the promotion, and glamorization, of cruelty and violence toward animals.
As a style icon, your attire has entertained and inspired countless fans. And, in such a position, I hope you would agree that fashion should be fun and creative, not fatal and cruel...."
(See Nathan's entire letter here)

It took courage and integrity for Nathan Runkle to speak his heart and disagree with a high-profile individual whom he admired.  I appreciated the position taken by Nathan and Mercy for Animals, applauding Lady Gaga's support for an important social issue, while taking exception to, and seeking to correct assumptions about, displays of careless cruelty.

Even Ellen Degeneres, a well-known vegan and animal rights (and gay rights) advocate, appeared uncomfortable with LGG's dress, and her explanation of it: that if we don't stand up for our rights, we will have as few rights "as the meat on our bones".  To her credit, Ellen diverted discomfort by offering an alternate garb to make a statement: an outfit made entirely of kale:

Lady Gaga tries hard--maybe too hard in this case--to convince her fans that she is truly behind them.  If she wants to be politically relevant and not simply shocking; if she would use her influence to persuade naysayers to her point of view, rather than simply preach to the choir; then, perhaps she can channel her passion through her strong voice and considerable songwriting talent.  She has the ability to use her music in powerful ways she may have yet to imagine.  And she is influential enough to put it over.

She is a generous and abundant performer, strikingly, visually voluptuous.  With her fashion instinct, her imagery conjured from a cauldron of her and her designers' unconscious, her sense of fun, and her incidental Italian background, she could well become the Fellini of modern popular music.

And I hope she takes Nathan's letter to heart, and uses her considerable influence to join celebrities like Ellen to help protect the truly helpless creatures who depend on us 100%.

In any case, where Don't Ask Don't tell is concerned, she needs a new metaphor. 


(**POSTSCRIPT: The Ohio dairy farm worker who was accused of the abuse of the dairy cows seen in the undercover video pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals.
He was sentenced to eight months in jail, ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, and is barred from contact with animals for three years. He must also receive counseling through a program that specializes in treating individuals involved in animal abuse cases.
The conviction was a victory of course...but wow....this kind of mistreatment is considered only a misdemeanor....)

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