4 LGBT-Focused Oscar Acceptance Speeches That Got It Right
By Kevin OKeefe
Barring a freak change in voting patterns, Jared Leto will become an Academy Award-winning actor come Sunday evening. To some, the impending news may be stunning: My So-Called Life’s Jordan Catalano is going to win an Oscar!? For others, a more pressing concern is Leto's acceptance speech.
Leto came under fire on multiple occasions and for different reasons this Oscar season, including those questioning why he was cast as Dallas Buyers Club's Rayon instead of a trans actress, but on the whole, criticism was loudest about his award acceptance speeches. His Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor brought the biggest flare up. Leto has since corrected course, and we're eagerly anticipating a big win for him on Sunday.
Why not take a moment to look back on how others in Hollywood have proven that an Oscar speech can be a major milestone in LGBT history. Considering the award is for playing a trans character, some would argue it needs to be such a moment. Since we’re in the Oscar mood anyway, let’s take a look at them, from Swank to Hanks and a whole lot of Milk.
Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry, Best Actress (1999)
Swank wasn’t the first to play an LGBT character, nor the first to reference being inspired by an LGBT person in an acceptance speech. She was, however, the first to speak so openly about transgender rights in her tribute to Brandon Teena, the murdered transgender man who she played in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. This speech is more often remembered for Swank forgetting to thank then-husband Chad Lowe — she made it up to him when she won a second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. But Swank deserves a place in the great acceptance speech canon for being bold, not only as an actress, but as an award winner.
Sean Penn, Milk, Best Actor (2008)
“You commie, homo-loving sons of guns,” Penn began as he accepted his second Best Actor Oscar in a speech far more memorable than his first. Penn was damning of Proposition 8 supporters — “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,” he warned. He added simply, "We've got to have equal rights for everyone.” Penn’s speech was strangely touching in its aggressiveness, and it wasn’t the only win for the Harvey Milk biopic that night.
Dustin Lance Black, Milk, Best Original Screenplay (2008)
Since he won his Oscar, Black has only focused more on the movement for marriage equality — though recently, he’s been in headlines more often for dating Tom Daley than for his work. But in this shining moment, his work as an activist and as a screenwriter came together in the form of an Oscar acceptance speech. To LGBT kids, Black shared a message of compassion: “You are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value.” He concluded, simply, “Thank God for Harvey Milk.” Black is unique as the only LGBT person on this list, which makes his personal statement all the more powerful.
Tom Hanks, Philadelphia, Best Actor (1993)
Hanks was the first to mention being inspired by an LGBT person, and the first to create a bit of a mess by doing so. “I would not be standing here were it not for two important men in my life,” he said halfway through his speech. “Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher... and one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson. I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men who I had the good fortune to be associated with.” Touching, of course, but Farnsworth had apparently never outed himself to Hanks — though he claimed to be fine with the reveal after the fact. The incident inspired the Kevin Kline film In & Out three years later.