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Romano: Sexual assault survivors helped Lady Gaga deliver Oscars' best moment

Lady Gaga performs during Sunday’s Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif. She was joined for the performance of Til It Happens to You by survivors of sexual assault.
Published Mar. 1, 2016

For about 90 seconds on Sunday night, the Academy Awards came alive.

It had nothing to do with celebrities, monologues or boycotts. It was far beyond winners, presenters or red carpet fashions.

The few moments that mattered more than any of the others arrived late in the evening, almost without warning.

Lady Gaga was performing the Oscar-nominated song Til It Happens to You when the curtain behind her rose and television viewers saw dozens of strangers silhouetted in darkness. Slowly, purposefully, they strode into the light and stood firmly.

And the realization washed over the audience that they were staring into the tear-filled eyes of rape victims. Scribbled on their forearms were their messages:

Not Your Fault

It Happened to Me

Unbroken

Survivor

And for the briefest moment, America was confronted with the almost-grudging manner in which we acknowledge date rape and campus assault. The young people on stage remain forever nameless, but they will no longer be faceless.

"You never want to 'out' somebody who is dealing with this very personal matter, but busting the lid on sexual assault is something we need to do regularly," said Noelle Clark, the Suncoast Center's rape crisis manager. "We don't necessarily need to use anecdotes to address the systemic issues involved."

Statistics say you are familiar with someone involved in a sexual assault. It is too common and crosses too many demographics to have escaped the margins of your life.

The problem is many of us still treat it like some tawdry family secret. Or, worse yet, like a misunderstanding, or fabrication.

If you have any doubt about society's uneasy relationship with this issue, just consider the backlog of more than 13,000 rape kits that sit untested at local law enforcement offices across the state. The fact that many kits have been ignored because the victim declined to pursue charges is almost as heartbreaking as the crime.

For what that indicates is too many women are worried about being stigmatized a second time by the intrusive and often-insensitive posture of the legal system.

"Too many of us are left feeling that we are somehow to blame, and those kind of thoughts can murder your spirit," said Rena Romano (no relation), 60, a rape survivor, who now is a motivational speaker and leadership coach in Tampa. "What we have to get across to victims is that it doesn't matter what you were wearing, where you were walking or what you were doing. It was a crime committed against you.

"The one thing I regret most is I didn't speak out against my attacker. I was so beaten down and so worried that I would be blamed that I kept it to myself for years. And I worry that he probably raped someone else during that time."

The Lady Gaga song, which was featured in the documentary The Hunting Ground, didn't win the Oscar for best original song Sunday night. And, in the end, that's simply a matter of taste.

The song's power and beauty lie elsewhere. Its legacy is grander. This was the song, and that was the performance, that made America confront some uncomfortable truths.

It showed us the faces, and the heartbreak, of sexual assault.

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