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The Oscars A Source of Inspiration

For many members of the LGBT community, the highlights of last week were the Oscar acceptance speeches of Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn for their respective wins in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor categories. Both winners took the opportunity to make powerful statements about homophobia and gay rights.

Black’s inspirational message was directed primarily at gay and lesbian youth, whom he reassured “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.”

Penn, speaking as an ally, turned his attention to gay marriage, stating that “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 way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

These words may sound like common sense for many of us, but antigay forces took a completely different perspective. Reaction on right-wing message boards ranged from relief that Milk didn’t win the Best Picture award to the well-worn complaints that Black and Penn were “promoting homosexuality” with their speeches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, subscribers to the STAR satellite channel, which reaches 300 million viewers across 53 Asian countries, realized that the sound mysteriously disappeared when Black and Penn spoke. A spokesperson for the company claimed their decision wasn’t based on homophobia, but instead "a responsibility to take the sensitivities and guidelines of all our markets into consideration."

Considering that most acceptance speeches tend to be mundane, Black and Penn certainly touched a nerve. When I learned that some people considered these speeches worthy of censorship, I got to thinking about the power of celebrity endorsements on social issues.

A lot of people felt that this was an ideal way to keep gay rights in the public eye since there had not been much national attention on the subject since the controversy surrounding Rick Warren’s appearance at President Obama’s inauguration. Because the Oscars attracts an audience of millions, it is assumed that these speeches are able to influence people in a way that may not be possible in their daily lives, whether due to the lack of a visible gay community, or, in Penn’s case, the fact that the words came from a respectable straight person.

As I read their statements over and over, I found it interesting that Black and Penn both made it a point to reference young people. Today’s world is such a different environment for gay youth compared to when I was a teenager. Gay people seemed to be barely on the radar when I was kid, and positive references to gay people were even more difficult to find. I always felt like I was getting “secret knowledge” on those rare occasions when I was able to find information about gay people.

Now it seems you can’t get away from acknowledge the presence of gay people. There are gay cable channels, gay-friendly shows on network television, gay movies, and a multitude of web sites and publications focused on gay youth. Gay-straight alliances are expanding at colleges, high schools, and middle schools.

As a result of this more welcoming environment, gay kids are increasingly comfortable coming out at ages that were unfathomable for previous generations of gays. A 2006 study from San Francisco State University put the average of coming out at 13, and many of these gay youth seem to have a less antagonistic relationship with their straight counterparts than I recall having during my school years. They also have more self-confidence and, in my opinion, seem to mature out of the “extended adolescence” that many gay men find themselves living into their 30s and beyond.

Indeed, things have changed so much in the last fifteen years that when Milk was released, I was surprised to learn that many young people weren’t aware that gay bars were routinely raided as documented in the opening of the film. This is where older LGBT people can do a great service by passing on gay history to the rising generation. That way, gay kids could be able to derive a sense of pride that is not dependent on Hollywood films. As touching as the Oscars were, they cannot be our sole source of inspiration.

From “Blackout” for 3/2/09 by Anthony Rucker


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