Jamey Rodemeyer was a gay Lady Gaga fan from New York state. Bullied for his sexuality, the 14-year-old became a kind of online activist against harassment, even filming an “It Gets Better” video. Then, on Sept. 18, 2011, he tweeted at Gaga before taking his own life: “Bye mother monster, thank you for all you have done.”
Kids like Rodemeyer moved Gaga, 29, to establish the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit determined to show disenfranchised teens they weren’t alone — the pop star herself had struggled with depression. “So many young people were saying, ‘How did you do it, Gaga?’ ” says her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, 61, who serves as the organization’s co-founder and president. “‘How did you overcome the issues you had?’ ”
Born This Way first sponsored the Born Brave Bus Tour, a pop-up resource center that drew 150,000 visitors in two years. But more recently, the foundation has shifted its focus to peer support and preventive initiatives, including research on youth and mental health in a partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and in a forthcoming collaboration with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which will be announced soon.
Gaga’s new single, “Til It Happens to You,” also aligns with these missions. Released Sept. 17 in conjunction with the 2015 campus-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, the devastatingly personal ballad — co-written with Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren — draws upon the sexual assault the artist suffered at the age of 19. “We don’t have to be victims,” says Gaga. “If we share our stories and stick together, we’re stronger.”
Why did you create Born This Way?
This foundation was born from the years I spent watching my fans grow up. Many of them were really young: 11- to 17-year-olds in very tumultuous times. They would tell me their stories — and many of them were very dark. As I began to care for them and to see myself in them, I felt I had to do something that would remind kids they’re not alone. When they feel isolated, that’s when it leads to suicide.
Was Jamey Rodemeyer’s death also a catalyst?
Yes, absolutely. Jamey’s death, as well as the suicide of a lot of young teens that year, right around the release of Born This Way. When that album came out, Jamey heard pieces of it and was posting about it on the internet, but unfortunately, he was already in that very deep dark space. Jamey and other teens who take their lives young because they feel different — I wanted to make [ their deaths] a lesson instead of a casualty of our negligence.
You’ve met thousands of people who’ve been affected by the foundation. Who is someone you can’t forget?
There are a lot of kids that I could talk about. One I’ve become very good friends with is this girl, Emma. She has cerebral palsy. She’s in a wheelchair. I met her on the  Born Brave Bus, when it followed the Born This Way Ball Tour, and we shared a very deep connection about the pain she was in. There were all these people around — cameras and journalists wanting to capture the moment between us — and I said to everyone, “Could you leave us alone?” I just wanted to be alone with her and ask her if she was OK. She was in her chair, kind of hunched over, but still with this very brave smile on her face. I swore I was in the presence of maybe one of the greatest people. Moments like that make you go, “Everyone should learn from this person — this person knows what it means to self-empower through adversity, this person knows what it means to be strong when you’re not.”
When you’re listening to these kids’ stories, what’s the fundamental problem?
Depression and anxiety really link them. There is something in the way that we are now, with our cell phones and people are not looking at each other and not being in the moment with each other, that kids feel isolated. They read all of this extremely hateful language on the Internet. The internet is a toilet. It is. It used to be a fantastic resource — but you have to sort through shit to find the good stuff.
These kids just want to feel human, but they feel like robots. They don’t understand why they’re so sad. There are scientific reasons, which the foundation researches, why you feel sad when you look at your phone all day.
I’ve suffered through depression and anxiety my entire life, I still suffer with it every single day. I just want these kids to know that that depth that they feel as human beings is normal. We were born that way. This modern thing, where everyone is feeling shallow and less connected? That‘s not human.
What makes you proudest about Born This Way?
When I see the friendships these kids have built. When I see a child with an eating disorder sit down with somebody who has a lifelong terminal illness and somebody who’s in transition — that makes me feel like we’re doing something no one else is. This is my life purpose, this foundation. This is why I was brought to life, I think.
Where does your social responsibility as an artist begin and end?
They’re the same and always have been. Contrary to what many people think about me as a performer, I’ve never been willing to do anything. Even if my work is sometimes shocking, there’s always a message behind it.
Glamorous? (Laughs.) There’s always a dichotomy within me. If you see me dressing really out there, I tend to be self-deprecating inside. When I dress like a lady, I tend to be feeling very wild and confident. That sounds bizarre, but I get a lot of shit done with that blond hair. I haven’t changed. It’s just that I’m almost 30. I’m learning how to function effectively in society.
And pretend like you’re playing by the rules?
In fact, no. People expect me to show up doing something wild. The thing is, I’ll do what I want when I want to do it. Right now, I want to help young kids come together and be friends. If I need to get the president’s attention — whatever I have to do — I’ll do it.
You met with President Obama in 2011 to discuss bullying in schools. What did you learn?
That he really, deeply cared. I hear from [White House senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett a lot. Even with “Til It Happens to You,” Valerie said, “The video was hard to watch, but I liked how graphic [the approach] was.” That’s another thing Born This Way does: Rape survivors, abuse survivors come to us. I’ve met a lot of kids who have been sexually abused.
What were the personal stakes in recording “Til It Happens to You”?
Never higher. It’s hard to listen to that song, it’s hard to watch it. Diane [Warren] really held my hand. I was like, “I’ve done a lot of things Diane, but can I do this?” She was like, “You can do this.” It was extremely cathartic to know that not only am I not alone, but that other men and women aren’t alone — we all have each other. Even outside of rape culture, there are a lot of people silently in pain about extremely traumatic things.
The hardest part for me was the self-acceptance. There’s an inability to acknowledge to yourself, “Not only did this happen, but I’m pretty f—ed up about it.” And nobody knows how you feel. I didn’t tell anyone [about my sexual assault] for years — and I didn’t tell anyone for years because I didn’t tell myself for years. And my soul just burnt out until it was gone. And then you have to admit you were in pain, and that you died in a way, but you are in control to bring it back, and there are people in the world who’ll help you.
You broke down a few times recording.
Oh yeah, the whole thing. Me and Diane holding one another. The vocals on that record, I’m just crying the whole time. It was a moment I shared with another woman that I will never forget.
You’re very close with Elton John. How has he influenced Born This Way?
He inspires me in ways I could not even begin to list properly. He is my friend, he is like a parent. He looks out for me, he was there for me during the hardest times in my life. He doesn’t allow me to slip into depression without making sure that I’m OK. Everything he has done for AIDS, everything he has done for the LGBT community. He’s just everything — when I’m with him, I just want to help be a part of his genius plan to save the world.
To learn more about the Born This Way Foundation, go to bornthisway.foundation.
A version of this interview appears in the Oct. 24, 2015 issue of Billboard.