Late-night talk-show host Craig Ferguson refers to the Academy Awards as the gay Super Bowl. Few would argue that Oscar night is not a favorite in the queer community.
Oscar head writer and well-known queer activist Bruce Vilanch, celebrating his 20th year writing for the Academy Awards show, apparently agrees: The day before the ceremony, when asked if he still enjoyed doing the Oscars, Vilanch told The Associated Press: “It’s the greatest show on earth. It’s the biggest show in the world. Short of the Super Bowl, it’s the most gigantic thing. Everybody shows up. People who don’t go to the movies watch it. People who don’t watch television watch it. It’s kind of a cultural watershed, so it’s tremendous to be a part of it.”
For queers, the 81st Academy Awards were more tremendous than usual. While queers are always legion behind the scenes at the Oscars — Vilanch among them — this year queers had a literal front-row seat with the nomination of “Milk” for Best Picture; Gus van Sant for Best Director; Sean Penn for Best Actor for his role as gay martyr Harvey Milk; Josh Brolin as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Milk’s murderer, Dan White; and Dustin Lance Black for Best Original Screenplay.
One of the best Oscar ceremonies in recent memory was made all the more so by the poignant and fierce acceptance speeches by two “Milk” winners — Black and Penn.
In Black’s speech, he spoke of growing up in a Mormon household in Texas until he and his mother moved to California. The 35-year-old Black thanked his mother for her life-long support. He then noted how iconic Harvey Milk had been for him: “I heard the story of Harvey Milk and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am, and that one day I could even fall in love and get married.”
Black, who has referred to Milk as his compass, told the Oscar audience that if Milk had not been murdered, “he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”
There were cheers and tears when Black spoke, and those were repeated later in the evening when Penn won for Best Actor. While Mickey Rourke had been a sentimental favorite for the award, it was obvious from the audience response how much Penn’s performance — and the actor himself — was appreciated.
The always-intense Penn began by saying, “You commie, homo-loving sons o’ guns” — bringing the house down.
After giving his thanks, Penn, known for his left-wing politics and a contributor to the No on Prop. 8 campaign, declared: “For those who saw those signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”
The crowd cheered and applauded.
Oscar night is all about fairy tales coming true — whether on the streets of the world’s most populous city or on the streets off Castro. It was a year of stellar work by a range of actors, writers and directors, making the wins for “Milk” all the more awesome.
Between them, Black and Penn brought Harvey Milk back to life. And for queers all around the world watching the awards, seeing queers out in front — not behind the scenes doing hair and make-up or writing the jokes for others to deliver — was historic, poignant and affirming. Another Cinderella story for the ages.
Black’s and Penn’s speeches are available on ABCnews.com, YouTube and Hulu.