By Ross von Metzke
Originally published on Advocate.com February 24 2009 12:00 AM ET
In the days following
the passage of California's anti-gay marriage measure,
Prop. 8, gays and lesbians took to the streets to fight back.
Some were angry. Some were hurt. All felt somehow empowered to
make their voices heard. And yet everyone seemed to offer up
the same frustrations. Despite millions of dollars poured into
both sides of the marriage battle, no one had stepped up to the
podium and emerged as this fight's Harvey Milk.
We had leaders -- Lorri
Jean knows how to move a crowd to action, the lawyers for
Lambda Legal surely deserved our respect and gratitude, and the
millions of grassroots organizers managed to get out the youth
vote like we've seldom seen before. But there was no clear-cut
leader. No one carrying the torch and saying, "Follow me.
This way to victory."
When Dustin Lance Black
took to the stage Sunday night to accept the Oscar for Best
Original Screenplay for
he did more for the advancement of equal rights than the
millions of dollars pumped into the No on 8 campaign. He
reached more people than any phone bank could ever hope to. He
had 30 seconds -- a minute, max -- to drive a simple point
home. Gay people are worthy of equal rights.
In the heat of that
moment, his first Oscar win, no one would have thought twice if
his speech had dissolved into a rambling chain of incoherent
thanks -- grasping at straws to be certain he got to everyone
on his list. But centered and collected, with just enough
emotion on his face to make it real, Black did something on
Sunday night that groups full of media-savvy political
strategists were never able to accomplish during the No on 8
He made it
He talked about his
childhood, growing up Mormon. He talked about his mother, who,
despite disapproving looks and pressure from the outside world,
loved him for who he is. He talked about Harvey Milk, his hero,
his lifesaver who showed him that with love and determination,
anything is possible -- even, one day, marriage.
And then he paid it
forward. He spoke directly to those kids out there who, like
him growing up, need someone to look to -- someone to let them
know it's all going to be OK one day.
"If Harvey Milk
were alive today, I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay
and lesbian children out there 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 who have
value," he said, looking straight into the camera. "No
matter what anybody 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."
After months of ads
featuring the parents of gays and lesbians who would be
affected by Prop. 8, teachers and politicians who were against
Prop. 8, and a random sprinkling of celebrities lending their
influence to the cause, Black made it personal. He humanized
In the weeks following
the passing of Prop. 8, a group of gay families got together
and cut a series of ads called Get to Know Us First. Instead of
hiding gay families from voters, the ads let them come out,
front and center, and share their stories.
Lance Black was out
front and center Sunday night -- in front of millions of
people. No matter how much money the No on 8 campaign managed
to raise, that's an opportunity no amount of money could buy.
In the audience, Kate Winslet raised her hands above her head
and cheered him on. Josh Brolin, nominated for
cheered with his wife, Diane Lane, a white knot in support of
marriage equality pinned to his lapel. According to the
Los Angeles Times,
Jennifer Aniston cried in the wings. And at home, my mom
watched and picked up the phone to call. Her response? One
Later in the night,
Sean Penn made a similarly moving speech -- to hear a Best
Actor winner make a plea for marriage equality, and to see an
audience full of people give him a standing ovation for it, is
a milestone, to be sure. But Lance Black's speech was so deeply
personal -- so from the heart and spontaneous while managing to
hit all the key points and then some -- that it became more
than an Oscar speech. For that moment, every gay man and woman
watching from home felt like they'd won an Oscar. Black put in
the work and wrote one hell of a script, but his win was a
score for the entire community.
campaigning is done. Now the fight becomes about getting Prop.
8 overturned and, if that fails, shifting our focus to the next
stage of the battle. And whether Lance Black ever leads a rally
or reaches for the bullhorn to motivate a united gay army, on
Sunday night he stepped out in front of this battle.
For his moment in the
spotlight, Lance Black didn't just honor the legacy of Harvey
Milk. He made him proud.