Two speeches from last night’s Oscars stood out to me.
There was a time when, by the time Oscar night rolled around, I would have seen all of the nominated movies and performances in the major categories, and would probably have seen at least a couple of the nominated documentaires.
Gone are the days, though. Now, a night at the movies takes only slightly less planning than the Normandy invasion.
But I saw Milk. And when Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn gave their acceptance speeches, I came out of the office (where I was busy writing) to hear them.
During Black’s speech, I tried to imagine being the kid that I was when I read The Mayor of Castro Street.
It was 1983. I was a 14-year-old skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy growing up in the south, during the Reagan era. I’d finally come out to myself, and was beginning to come out to friends at school. But I was kind of like “only gay in the village.”. I walked into the Jeff Maxwell branch of the Augusta Library, into the stacks, and found on the shelf a copy of The Mayor of Castro Street.
And Harvey Milk’s story, along with another book gave me of hope.
What I’ll always remember is that at the end, there was a chapter telling the stories of a dozen other people who were gay or lesbian. They were old, young, single, coupled, etc., and they were all living happy productive lives. By the time I finished reading it, I knew two things: I wasn’t the only one, and a happy life wasn’t out of my reach because I was gay.
Those bullets did help shatter my closet door. Not only that, but the world could change and I could help change it.
Black did on that stage what Harvey Milk did in his work. I’ve no doubt that his win and his words gave hope to some kid somewhere who’d never had said to them what Black said. He might have even saved a life.
And Penn. Honestly, I didn’t expect him to win. Given the buzz around Mickey Rourke’s performance (which I haven’t seen yet) I thoroughly expected him to win.
One thing occured to me when Penn spoke to the people outside, fighting to perserve the status quo — and with it, its inherent injustice — and perhaps even to push it further back, to the standards of some previous time.
He was right.
Think about where we are now and how far from the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for ever progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.
And yes, they were progressive movements. By the very nature of their work, they could hardly be otherwise.
/prəˈgrɛsɪv/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [pruh-gres-iv] Show IPA Pronunciation
1. favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, esp. in political matters
From the abolitionists movement, to the labor movement, to the suffragists movement, to the civil rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the LGBT movement; every progressive movement that has advocated for change “as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”
They were and are driven by individuals lending their strength and their hearts to bending the arc of the universe towards justice, because they are comprised of people for whom the status quo is the opposite of justice and people for whom injustice — even though visited upon others, and even though it afforded them some privileges — is intolerable.
And in each case they were opposed by people for whom the status quo and its injustices were and had to be the natural order. People who were (and yes, I love to pick on this quote) standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”
They were yelling “Stop!” as every progressive movement above marched forward, pushing the envelope of change and expanding the the qualifications for full citizenship in this country and full membership in the human family. They were yelling “Stop!” as every one of those movements marched passed them towards freedom, enfranchisement, and equality.
They are still yelling. And we are passing them by, on our way to the same destinations. We may not all have reached all of them yet, but we’re closer than we were, and some of them are already in sight.
We’ll get there. And when we do, they’ll still be standing in that place called “the wrong side of history” yelling “Stop!”
They just won’t be as loud, then.