A group of 50 survivors of sexual assault, many college students, were asked to write a message on their forearms that resonated with them. (Some chose "unbreakable," "not alone" and "not your fault.") Come Sunday night, they would be holding their bare arms, outstretched and defiant, while standing on stage next to none other than Lady Gaga at the Oscars as she performed "Til It Happens to You," an Academy Award-nominated song she wrote for "The Hunting Ground," a prominent documentary about college sexual assault.
The message that Jackie Lin, a junior at Stanford University, chose was "I believe you."
Hearing from people, including the very administrators at Stanford charged with investigating her allegations of sexual assault, that they didn't believe her, "was what I struggled the most with," she told the Weekly in an interview Tuesday, the phrase still scrawled in black marker on her right arm.
Lin was one of the 50 sexual-assault survivors, both female and male, who appeared on stage with Lady Gaga at the 88th Academy Awards Sunday night. Others included Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, college graduates who were featured prominently in "The Hunting Ground" as they engaged in grassroots activism, founding a now national group called "End Rape on Campus;" Sofie Karasek (also featured in the documentary), who with two other female students recently filed a civil lawsuit against the University of California, Berkeley, for its mishandling of their cases; political analyst Zerlina Maxwell; and other students from schools including the University of Southern California, Dartmouth College, the University of Connecticut and Harvard Law School.
Lin and the other survivors were asked to participate by the director and producer of "The Hunting Ground," who have collaborated with Lady Gaga (herself a survivor of sexual assault) on this and other related efforts. In the documentary, scores of college students speak out about feeling failed by the institutions they reported their assaults to. The film screened for the first time at Stanford last April to a large crowd at the CEMEX Auditorium, which seats close to 600 people.
Lady Gaga and the group of survivors were introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, who called on viewers to join "It's On Us," a national campaign to prevent sexual violence.
"Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many women and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse," he said, "and tonight, I'm asking you to join millions of Americans ... to take the pledge: a pledge that says that I will intervene in situations when consent has not or cannot be given. Let's change the culture.
"We must and we can change the culture so that no abused woman or man like the survivors that you see tonight will have to ask themselves, 'What did I do?'" Biden said. "They did nothing wrong."
Lin has been "semi public" about her case at Stanford, speaking at at least one public event this school year. In November, she sat on a panel of student-survivors who criticzed the university's response to reports of sexual violence during a student-organized Congressional summit that also featured Rep. Jackie Speier. She hasn't always been comfortable speaking publicly about what happened to her, but said that seeing other survivors who went public with their stories locally and across the country inspired her. At Stanford, that person was Leah Francis, a former student who in June 2014 publicly challenged Stanford's handling of her sexual assault by organizing protests that sparked a wave of student activism on campus around the issue.
"I wouldn't have known who to go to for help or how to deal with it or even have the guts to go through with a hearing if Leah hadn't spoken out," Lin said.
Lin said she was sexually assaulted by a male resident assistant last August. She immediately reported the alleged assault and went through the university's adjudication process which she described at the November Congressional summit as a "kangaroo court" with an internal panel finding her alleged assailant not responsible, she said. She, like many other students who have gone through Stanford's Title IX process, said it felt like the odds were stacked against her, and a flawed process ended in a miscarriage of justice, in her eyes.
The entire Title IX process was like the "wild wild West," where "university officials are like town sheriffs and they hold absolute power" with no appropriate checks and balances, she told a crowd of about 150 students, faculty and community members at the Congressional summit.
"There is no justice on this campus," she said.
What was most impactful about the Oscars experience, Lin said, was not meeting an international celebrity or appearing on an awards show watched by millions of people, but the time spent with other survivors. They spent the weekend together, rehearsing for Sunday night, going out together and sharing stories about their experiences. They even got a tattoo together a unity symbol that Lin designed, with several shapes intertwined (a loop of DNA structure, an infinity sign and a white rose, Lady Gaga's favorite flower).
"I've never felt that I was in such a safe place before," Lin said. She and several others burst into tears the first time they heard Lady Gaga sing the song, whose main refrain is "'till it happens to you, you don't know, how it feels."
"You don't even have to explain why (you're crying)," Lin said. "Everyone just understands. Everyone is really supportive and accepting of each other."
She said she has not found the same safe space at Stanford for survivors of sexual violence. While she knows other survivors, not all are willing understandably so to speak publicly or become vocal activists in the way others have. She and other students fear repercussion for doing so, she said. Others, like Lin, might have told only close friends but not all of their family members about their assaults, for example. Her experiences with the university's psychological and support services have been mostly discouraging and insufficient, she said.
This can be "isolating," she said.
"The kind of network of support we had there was amazing," Lin said of the Oscars. "I would like to try to replicate it here, at Stanford."
The tattoo the group got was Lin's first. She got a small version on her right wrist, just above where she has been rewriting "I believe you" with a Sharpie ever since Sunday night.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created an archive of past news articles, social media reaction and other content related to the ongoing sexual assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.