Vanessa Redgrave got booed for it. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins were fairly shunned for it. Richard Gere was mocked for it. Speaking your mind at the Oscars has never been a recommended pastime.
Last night’s Academy Awards broadcast must surely be proof, then, that we are evolving. S-l-o-w-l-y.
Sean Penn, in what most odds-makers would call a surprise, won his second Best Actor Oscar for playing slain gay activist Harvey Milk, wryly greeted his standing ovation with "You commie, homo-loving, sons-of-guns," and told anyone who was watching that if they continued to support anti-gay legislation like California’s Proposition 8 they were "shaming" themselves and their grandchildren. Somewhere in a quiet home in New Jersey, my aunt and uncle dropped their bibles into their clam dip.
It’s not a great idea to place too much importance on any ceremony featuring a roomful of actors. Rooms full of actors are dubious prospects. Truth be told, for all the hoopla about Mr. Penn’s terrific transgression, I found it annoying that the same ceremony trotted out another tired joke about how hi-larious the idea of two men together can be: During a lame if lighthearted montage about film comedies, Milk costar James Franco, watching a clip of Penn and himself kissing, put an arm around a visibly worried Seth Rogen (oh, the unending comic goldmine that is gay panic! That’s acceptable? Would the Academy have, say, put Franco and Rogen behind a bucket of fried chicken for a "funny" visual gag at the expense of The Color Purple?).
But as a major pop culture event riveting whole nations of people—many of whom do not give gay rights a second thought—it was stunning to hear first Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (another surprise winner) and then Penn open their hearts in such a bald, bold manner.
It’s Black, actually, who most touched me. Although I loved Penn for using the word shame with such ferocious mettle, I cried when Black spoke and I tear up even now as I write about him addressing that audience. I grew up glued to the Oscar celebration. Black obviously did, too. I can only imagine how happy it must have made millions of kids and teenagers to watch that proud, unashamedly emotional, beautiful young gay man show them that—who knew?—they were invited to the party, too.