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Gary Younge

Scott Wittman, left, kisses Mark Shaiman as they accept their Tony award
A kiss is still a kiss ... even if it breaks all the rules of primetime television

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, personal and professional partners for 25 years, won a Tony, the Oscar of the theatre world, for the score of "Hairspray", which features Harvey Fierstein in drag playing a woman.

In his acceptance speech, shown live on TV, Mr Shaiman turned to Mr Wittman and said: "I love this man. We're not allowed to get married in this world ... But I'd like to declare, in front of all these people, I love you and I'd like to live with you the rest of my life."

Shortly afterwards Denis O'Hare, who won the featured actor (play) prize for his role in Take Me Out, about a gay baseball player, also thanked his boyfriend sitting in the audience. At first, Mr O'Hare says, he had doubts about whether to do so, but decided to go ahead.

"I thought, 'No, no, no, this is the whole point.' The whole point is that we all have to risk something personal to make something happen. The more it's talked about the more it becomes commonplace, the less it becomes freakish. I think it's a good thing."

It is not the first time that winners have mentioned gay partners. In 1983 a producer of "Torch Song Trilogy" thanked his lover when accepting the best play Tony.

But it was certainly the most prominent assertion of gay confidence at the awards yet, and comes at a time of a backlash against gay and lesbian relationships. Last week John Ashcroft, the US attorney general, banned an established gay pride event at the justice department. In April, a Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum, linked homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, and incest.

Michele Pawk, who won the featured actress (play) award for her performance in Hollywood Arms, praised the actors. "I have never been more proud to be a member of this community," she said. "Men kissing each other on stage. Drag queens. Children. It's a perfect world. As it should be."

Hairspray, a musical of integration and romance in 1960s Baltimore, was the big winner, scooping eight awards including best musical and one each for its lead performers. "If a 4'11" chubby New York girl can be a leading lady in a Broadway show and win a Tony," said Marissa Winokur in her acceptance speech for lead actress in Hairspray, "then anything can happen."

It was the second time in three years that a musical from a cult film had cleaned up at the Tonys. In 2001 The Producers became a sensation on being adapted for Broadway from the Mel Brooks film, winning 12 awards. Hairspray was a 1988 John Waters movie starring the late transvestite Divine and a then-unknown actress and talk show host, Ricki Lake.

Vanessa Redgrave also made an emotional speech on Sunday, brushing aside tears as she picked up best play actress for Long Day's Journey into Night.

Ms Redgrave said she remembered seeing the original production in 1956: "I want to thank the actors who inspired me back in 1956 and just blew my mind and let me know what theatre could be."

Same sex kissing is not unheard of on US TV. The first, most memorable kiss was on LA Law in 1992 by Amanda Donohoe and Michele Greene. Roseanne, Ellen, Ally McBeal, Friends, ER, and Spin City followed suit. Gay male affection is far more rare.

In 2000 Sean Hayes and Eric McCormack from Will and Grace shared a memorable moment as they kissed on NBC's Today show in protest at the network censoring a gay kiss, leaving the anchor speechless.

Since then only Kerr Smith and David Monahan's embrace in Dawson's Creek has made waves. Scott Seomin, of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune earlier this year: "To see two men kiss still seems to be that forbidden frontier."

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