Something extraordinary happened last night at the Academy Awards. Despite having lost the Best Picture Oscar, Milk winners reminded the nation what Harvey Milk stood for: hope.

Best Original Screenplay winner Dustin Lance Black gave a stirring gay rights speech in which he said Harvey Milk had given him hope.

“When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonia, Texas to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope,” Black said in his acceptance speech.

“It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope one day I could live my life openly as who I am and then maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married.”

He thanked his mother, then continued: “But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he'd want me to say to all the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.”

“Thank you. Thank you. And thank you, God, for giving us Harvey Milk.”

Director Gus Van Sant's Milk is based on the life of gay activist Harvey Milk, who in 1978 was fighting a draconian Anita Bryant-backed measure – the Briggs Initiative – that sought to expel gay and lesbian teachers from California schools. Milk, the first openly gay politician in the U.S., fought back against the measure and won, but his victory was short lived. Twenty days after voters had rejected the Briggs Initiative, Milk was assassinated on the steps of San Francisco City Hall by a disgruntled former city commissioner, Mike White.

Gay activists had found solace and inspiration in the film released shortly after three painful gay marriage defeats in Arizona, Florida and California.

Sean Penn, who played Harvey Milk, won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.

Penn scolded voters who passed Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that yanked back the right of gays and lesbians to marry in California on November 4.

“For those of you who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban on gay marriage to reflect on their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes.”

A star-studded audience cheered when Penn added: “We got to have equal rights for everybody.”

Penn said his win came as a surprise but that he had prepared some words in case the Academy was a bunch of “commie, homo-loving sons of guns.”