Gay Gold: At the 2003 Tonys, Two Men Kissed and People Went Wild

The moment perfectly encapsulates the state of gay rights at the time: A simple kiss between partners was swooned over and condemned.

Welcome to Gay Gold, our regular look at gay characters, storylines, and performers that were (or weren’t) embraced at major award ceremonies.

Even though it was the clear frontrunner that year, Hairspray was still responsible for several surprises at the 2003 Tony Awards. For one thing, Melissa Jaret Winokur won the award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Tracy Turnblad, triumphing over presumed winner Bernadette Peters in Gypsy. (Somewhere, right now, a gay man over the age of 50 is bitching about this still.)

But even more memorably, after they won the Tony for Best Score, the Hairspray composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman startled the home audience when they concluded their speech by kissing on live TV.

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Eighteen years later, the moment reads as pretty innocuous, but back then, it stirred up all kinds of press. And while actor Michelle Pawk used her own Tony acceptance speech that night to celebrate their smooch, legendary musical theatre writer (and gay man) Fred Ebb sniped that the duo had made a spectacle of themselves by flaunting their bedroom behavior.

To me, that’s a pretty good indicator of what 2003 was like for us queers in America: We were in the thick of a major cultural transition away from perpetual homophobia and into the much more accepting (if still deeply imperfect) era we live in today. It was fraught and confusing, but it was an improvement. A loving gay kiss on an award show was still shocking, but some people were shocked with pleasure.

If the Tonys ever actually hand out prizes to the current crop of nominees, then we’re guaranteed to see one of the gayest ceremonies ever. And it’ll owe a little something to that sweet and lightly revolutionary smooch.

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