Miss Pennsylvania inspires others by sharing that she is a child of rape

Valerie goofing around with her great-grandmother Ann Failor.
Valerie goofing around with her great-grandmother Ann Failor. (Valerie Gatto)
Posted: June 17, 2014

MISS PENNSYLVANIA Valerie Gatto was 6 when her mother told her: "Something bad happened to me. A very bad man hurt me, but God gave me you."

That was Gatto's first hint that she was the product of rape. Gatto, a semifinalist during last week's Miss USA pageant, has since made it her life's mission to teach women to protect themselves from sexual assault. She also is intent on "showing people that your circumstances do not define your life."

Out of the darkness, comes light. And oh what a bright light it can be.

Ever since she strutted across the Miss USA stage in a bikini, while a prerecorded video broadcast to the world that she had been conceived by rape, people have been reaching out to her on the phone and by email.

"I know that thousands of people who heard my story are inspired," she told me last week.

Gatto, 24, is cautious, though, lest her message get caught up in the messy politics of the never-ending debate about abortion. She won't say whether she's anti-abortion or pro-abortion rights. What she will say is: "My mother made a choice and she chose life. I'm glad that I'm here."

I asked her about the pageant winner's controversial comment during the question-and-answer segment of the June 8 competition, when then-Miss Nevada was asked about the troubling uptick in on-campus sexual assaults.

Nia Sanchez, a fourth-degree black belt, answered that women needed to learn to protect themselves. That infuriated feminists, who pointed out that men should be the ones being educated, not women.

Gatto shrugged off Sanchez's comments, rightly pointing out that it only makes sense that women should be able to protect themselves.

"You're always going to make people mad, regardless what you say," Gatto added.

Darkness into light

Gatto's mom, Theresa Gaugler, was 19 when she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint behind a building in Pittsburgh by a man dressed in black. A passing car with its high beams on spooked her attacker. He ran off, but not before impregnating her. He was never caught.

Gaugler, a college student at the time, hid her pregnancy from relatives as long as she could, planning to place her baby up for adoption. While in labor, the baby's great-grandmother, grandmother and aunt showed up at the hospital to lend support.

"God doesn't give you more than you can handle," the late Ann Failor, Gatto's great-grandmother, told the young mom. Gaugler decided to take the baby home to her parents' house in Pittsburgh, and that's where Valerie was raised, in a tight-knit, churchgoing family.

Gaugler hasn't spoken publicly about her past, but she supports her daughter's activities, Gatto said.

A bright, precocious child, Gatto began competing in pageants at an early age. As she grew and started asking questions about her dad, Gaugler gradually began sharing age-appropriate details of how she was conceived.

Instead of being embarrassed, Gatto embraced her past. She was 13 when she gave a speech about it to classmates.

"To be honest, I was never silent about it," she said.

After graduating from high school with honors, she attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in business and pledged Sigma Sigma Sigma. She was the girl who was always looking out for other girls on campus. She shared her experience in talks at other sororities and urged members to be safe.

Don't walk around wearing headphones or carrying lots of packages, she'd say. Stay alert. Use a buddy system. Be very careful in public parking garages.

In 2012, she competed unsuccessfully for Miss Pennsylvania but returned the following year to nab the crown.

Now she's hoping to tour college campuses to speak about security. Jobwise, she's looking at acting, modeling - and pursuing a business career at some point.

"My message is truly why I wanted to be Miss USA," she told me last week. "It's funny how it's suddenly timely. It's always been an issue. But right now, it's just being spotlighted in the media."

A report from the U.S. Department of Education last week revealed that the number of sex offenses reported at American colleges and universities is up roughly 52 percent over the past decade.

"I just believe more people are coming forward," Gatto said.

" @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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