Lady Gaga Angers the Pope in Rome

The pop diva's appearance at a gay pride rally in Rome this weekend had revelers ecstatic and the supreme pontiff on the defense. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports from the wild scene.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters-Landov

Against the backdrop of a purple sunset behind St. Peter's Basilica, Lady Gaga revved up a raucous crowd at the Europride gay rights festival in Rome on Saturday night. "Ciao Roma," she yelled to a rambunctious gathering of drag queens, gay and lesbian couples, and heterosexual families with children. "Let's exorcise our anger and baptize our pain and stand here strong. Today let us proclaim the defense of love."

Pink inflatable smiling penises and gay pride flags wafted in the cool breeze over nearly one million people who jammed into the ancient Circus Maximus stadium, where a few weeks ago the Vatican celebrated the venerated life of Pope John Paul II. Earlier in the day, a colorful parade of gay rights revelers wound its way through Rome's historical center with representatives from more than a dozen countries demonstrating against discrimination based on sexuality. Drag queens dressed like Gaga herself and groups in bishops cloaks kissed and hugged on the cobbled streets. Hunky men wearing little more than feathers mingled with lesbian women of the Violet Movement. "Gagare l'omofobia" or "Gag homophobia" was the prevalent theme, playing off Gaga's name.

Lady Gaga's presence in Rome drew particular ire across town at the Vatican, where top church officials have condemned the Europride celebrations. Homosexuality is a particularly touchy issue at the Holy See, which has been roiled by pedophile scandals and the unveiling of Rome's gay priests. Earlier this week, a group representing gay Catholics sent an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, insisting that the church's silence on the issue is read by many as an endorsement of homophobia. "We ask Your Holiness to condemn violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals and to ensure that criminal punishment for sexual relations between people of the same sex are lifted around the world."

Similar anti-Gaga feelings were echoed at the top levels of the Italian government. Italy has a miserable record on gay rights and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is a proven gay-basher, most recently telling his supporters, "My passion for young women is better than being gay." Many in Berlusconi's close circle condemned the march and Lady Gaga's involvement, which they say is meant only to incite hate and condone homosexuality. A small anti-gay counterprotest on a parallel street did nothing to dampen the spirits of the boisterous parade attendees.

Lady Gaga, who pointed out her Italian heritage by reciting her real name, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, with a perfect Italian accent, has become a strong advocate of gay rights. David Thorne, America's ambassador to Italy, was integral in securing her participation in the event. "Lady Gaga has been a public advocate for LGBT issues, which are very important to us," he said when her attendance was confirmed. "As Secretary Clinton says regularly, human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights. I am very proud to have an Italian-American artist of her stature visit Rome and we look forward to the concert."

Gaga, whose short bobbed hair was dyed mint green, spent most of her stage time delivering a smart speech. After first thanking Donatella Versace for her black and white evening dress from the late Gianni Versace's final collection, she touched on what she felt was one of the world's greatest injustices, delving into the sensitive topics of suicide and self-loathing many gay and lesbian youth experience. "For some governments, gay rights are not a political or social priority," she said. "And the principles of non-discrimination are ambiguous." Then she turned to her own experience. "I am often questioned, why so much gayspeak? And just how gay is Lady Gaga? On a gay scale of one to ten, I am Judy Garland Fucking 42."

She was in Rome to speak about gay rights, not to sing, and the crowd had been warned ahead of time that she would only perform one song, which could be none other than "Born This Way," her nod to gay rights which she performed a la Elton John at a grand piano. But before stepping offstage, she delighted the crowds with a surprise second song "The Edge of Glory," during which she paused briefly to remind the crowds why she was there. "Just remember that you are not on the edge all by yourselves," she said. "We are all standing here together."