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LGBTQ Nation: J. Harrison Ghee & Alex Newell made history at the very queer 2023 Tony Awards


J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell made Broadway history on Sunday night, becoming the first openly nonbinary performers to win Tony Awards. Their wins for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical and Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical, respectively, were high points in a ceremony that included plenty of LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Ghee, who won for their lead role in musical adaptation of Some Like It Hot, thanked the show’s company, “who raised me up every single day.” They also dedicated their award to the trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming community. “Whoever was told you couldn’t be, you couldn’t be seen, this is for you,” they said in their acceptance speech.

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These two actors are the first out nonbinary Tony Award nominees. They made history.

The actors have made history even as other non-binary actors have rejected nominations for any gendered-acting awards.

“Thank you for seeing me, Broadway,” Newell said, accepting their award for their featured role in the new musical Shucked. “I should not be up here as a queer, nonbinary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts. And to anyone that thinks that they can’t do it, I’m going to look you dead in your face that you can do anything you put your mind to.”

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As the Associated Press notes, Ghee and Newell’s wins in the performance categories follow composer and writer Toby Marlow’s Best Original Score win last year for Six, which made him the first openly nonbinary person to ever win a Tony Award.  

The 2023 Tony Awards took place against the backdrop of the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, something that out host Ariana DeBose drove home from the outset of Sunday night’s telecast. The Oscar-winner opened the show by flipping through a blank script, segueing into a wordless opening number. She went on to explain that awards shows like the Tonys are usually scripted by members of the WGA, but that this year, every presenter would be working without the benefit of pre-written patter on teleprompters.

“We don’t have a script, you guys,” DeBose told the audience. “To anyone who thought last year was a bit unhinged, to them I say, ‘Darlings, buckle up.’”

Actor Denée Benton took that opportunity to blast Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis (R) for his slate of racist and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, including the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law and the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.” During her speech honoring the 2023 recipient of the Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education, Benton likened DeSantis to a member of the Klu Klux Klan.

“While I am certain that the current Grand Wizard—I’m sorry, excuse me, governor of my home state of Florida…” Benton joked as the audience burst into applause. “I am sure that he will be changing the name of this following town immediately. We were honored to present this award to the truly incredible and life-changing Jason Zembuch Young, enhancing the lives at students at South Plantation High School in Plantation, Florida.”

Benton wasn’t the only presenter to take a swipe at DeSantis and other Republicans pushing “Don’t Say Gay” copycat laws. “I’m Marcia – and no matter what state we’re in we can always say Gay – Harden,” the actress said before presenting the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play to Jodie Comer.

“I am Marcia – and no matter what state we’re in we can always say Gay – Harden”#TonyAwards

— Spencer Althouse (@SpencerAlthouse) June 12, 2023

Elsewhere in the show, Parade director Michael Arden used his acceptance speech for the award for Best Direction of a Musical to deliver a powerful message to trans, nonbinary, and queer youth.

Parade tells the story of a life that was cut short at the hands of the belief that one group of people is more or less valuable than another and that they might be more deserving of justice,” he said. “This is a belief that is the core of antisemitism, of white supremacy, of homophobia, of transphobia, and intolerance of any kind. We must come together. We must battle this. It is so, so important, or else we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our history.”

“To our beautiful trans, nonbinary, queer youth, know that your queerness is what makes you beautiful and powerful,” Arden continued. “Everyone in this room sees you and needs you and will fight alongside you and we will win.”

“Growing up, I was called the F-word more times than I could remember,” Arden added, before audio was cut on the CBS and Paramount+ broadcasts. On Twitter, journalists Dave Quinn and Spencer Althouse reported that Arden continued, “All I can say now is I’m a f****t with a Tony!”

The director of ‘Parade,’ Michael Arden, speaks to the queer community during his #TonyAwards acceptance speech

— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) June 12, 2023

“Growing up I’ve been called the f word more times than I could remember. And all I can say now is I’m a f—ggot with a Tony” – Michael Arden #TonyAwards

— Dave Quinn (@NineDaves) June 12, 2023

Michael Arden’s bleeped-out Tony Award speech is instantly iconic:

“Growing up, I was called the F-word more times than I could remember. And all I can say now is I’m a faggot with a Tony!”#TonyAwards

— Spencer Althouse (@SpencerAlthouse) June 12, 2023

Other LGBTQ+ winners included Sean Hayes, who took home the award for Best Lead Actor in a Play for his role in Good Night, Oscar, while composer John Kander and performer Joel Grey both received special Lifetime Achievement awards.

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