She said she couldn't do this without us," Sari Rachel Forshner tells PEOPLE of Lady Gaga

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated December 08, 2020 10:38 AM

The 2016 Oscars were filled with clever stand up, celebrity jabs and tons of Girl Scout cookies – but it was Lady Gaga‘s powerful performance of her Best Original Song nominee “Til It Happens To You“, which she wrote with songwriter Diane Warren for the documentary, The Hunting Ground, that stole Sunday’s show.

The star-studded audience was left in tears after the singer, who revealed in 2014 that she was raped at 19 years old, was joined by 50 other sexual assault survivors on stage, all holding hands and bearing written phrases like “We Believe You” on their arms.

Two brave young women who backed Gaga on the Dolby Theatre stage, Sari Rachel Forshner, 23, and Jasmin Enriquez, 24, say they were both “amazed” to see the tear-inducing effect their performance had on big-name celebrities like Kate Winslet, Brie Larson and Rachel McAdams.

“I saw Kate put her hands over her mouth and her eyes were watery,” Enriquez tells PEOPLE. “I know that’s what we were going for, to show people our pain and vulnerability, but seeing her react that way made me emotional. I had tears running down my cheeks.”

“Brie leapt out of her seat and was hugging every single one of us. She was like, ‘I’m sorry I’m holding this up, but I have to do this!’ ” Forshner tells PEOPLE of receiving an insistent hug from Best Actress winner Brie Larson.

Forshner, who was raped while attending college in 2012, adds that Gaga connected “deeply” with all 50 survivors during their Oscars rehearsals because “there is no bond as strong as shared trauma.”

“As much as this was a really incredible experience for us, I think it was also incredible for [Gaga] to be surrounded by so many people who understand this,” she says. “She came around and hugged every single one of us She was crying, we were crying, it was very emotional.”

The “Born This Way” singer penned a heartfelt social media message on Tuesday about her emotional journey while prepping for the Oscars.

“The first day of rehearsal with all of the survivors I could barely get myself together,” she writes. “I told them I was so sorry I couldn’t be Lady Gaga for them, that I couldn’t even get dressed. I could barely get through the song, couldn’t hit any of the high notes. Hair wet, sloppy tee shirt jeans uggs, tissues. They all hugged me and told me that it was okay because it was more real this way, that they understood that they were in pain too. They told me they were there for me to support me because they believed this message needed to be heard.”

She adds, “Without them I never could have felt strong. They accepted me for me, at my lowest and that was good enough for them, so somehow through the magic of their courage they made it good enough for me too.”

Forshner says Gaga told participant survivors she didn’t want them to be just “bodies” on the stage.

“She said she couldn’t do this without us. She spoke very candidly about how she feels about [assault]. She’s Lady Gaga and even she sometimes still feels alone in this,” she says.

Forshner, who is contributing to a collection of survivor essays due out in April, We Believe You, adds, “I, as well as many of the people, feel fiercely protective of [Gaga] When you’ve all been through the same stuff, it doesn’t matter how well you know each other, we are all really close now.”

Enriquez, executive director of sexual health education organization Only With Consent, says Gaga’s Academy Awards presentation was “more than just a performance.”

“It was all of us at our most vulnerable and really fighting for everybody so that they wouldn’t have to go through that again, and I think Lady Gaga really believed that,” says Enriquez, who was raped by an intimate partner during her first year at college. “You could hear the rage and the angst in her voice, but it was because we all share trauma and we know that looking into the cameras there were other people who were identifying.”

Although “Til It Happens To You” didn’t win for Best Original Song, both women hope the ballad and the documentary film on campus rape it is featured in, The Hunting Ground, will reach the thousands of sexual assault victims that exist across the country – showing people they are “not alone.”

“Gaga said she hoped people left seeing how strong we all are. I hope it has an impact and makes people think differently,” says Forshner.