Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black refuses to settle for anything less than full LGBT equality.
“Milk. It does a body good.”
So goes the famous marketing catchphrase from years ago. In the case of Dustin Lance Black, however, Milk did more than just good — it changed the trajectory of an already-successful career when the 34-year-old filmmaker won the 2008 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his work on a critically lauded hit that depicted the political rise — and tragic death — of LGBT legend Harvey Milk.
Dustin Lance Black
Still, Black would prefer not to ascribe too much importance to the win.
“Milk was so incredibly personal,” he says, “that any benefit given to my career, I often feel pretty guilty about.
“But I’m not going to lie,” he adds. “It was a beautiful thing to be recognized like that — a dream come true. But it’s not like any of us were doing that project for the rewards. We’re so incredibly thankful that the film did really well and was received the way it was, and that it continues to get out there. I love that it’s selling really well on DVD, experiencing kind of a long life.”
Black, who will speak on Monday, Jan. 25, at the DC-JCC, for an event produced by the center’s Kurlander Program for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement, was raised a Mormon, and that religion’s harsh, negative view on homosexuality forced the young man to repress his gay feelings until his college years.
Since coming out, much of Black’s career has followed a distinctly personal trajectory — a pathway that began in the ’90s when he attended UCLA Film School.
“If you ever look at my student projects, they are deeply personal — so personal in fact that I think some people found them esoteric. You couldn’t understand what I was talking about.”
Most of his post-college efforts as both a writer and director — from 2000’s The Journey of Jared Price (a job accepted by the young, broke filmmaker solely for the $2,500 paycheck), to his work on the acclaimed HBO series Big Love, which pulls back the curtain on the Mormon world like none before (he left the series after its third season), to Milk — have helped him fuel another life, one as an outspoken proponent for full LGBT equality. It’s a visibility that has been granted to him because of his celebrity — and he takes the responsibility very seriously.
“I know people call me idealistic, but I think we have to demand full equality in all matters now,” he insists. “I do not believe in a piecemeal approach. We have to say loud and clear what it is we truly know we deserve — which is full equality, not just in the military, not just in marriage, not just in protection from housing and employment,” but in all matters pertaining to America’s LGBT population.
“We have to make it known what our dream is,” he continues. “We have to name that dream — and that dream is a dream of full equality. If we don’t name that dream, how are we going to inspire the grassroots? How are we going to inspire future generations? And how will we ever expect in our lifetimes to see it become reality?”
One could argue that Dustin Lance Black has named his own personal dream — all the while following it to a search for his own happy ending.
Yet his dream has not been without the occasional nightmare. Not long after Milk was released, revealing personal images made the Internet rounds, and Black became part of the gossip feeding-frenzy that saturates today’s culture. He will address the subject tangentially, even politely, but the experience of having one’s life brutally dissected and judged by the masses clearly still carries with it a tremendous amount of pain.
Black emerged from his brush with “celebrity scandal” pretty much unscathed — he’s no Tiger Woods, after all — and moved on with his life’s work. He’s currently involved with the federal Proposition 8 case, now unfurling in California, and was recently named to the board of the esteemed Trevor Project, a suicide and crisis hotline for LGBT youth. He’s narrating 8: The Mormon Proposition, Reed Cowen’s Sundance-bound documentary that explicitly exposes the Mormon church’s involvement in the passage of Prop 8 (“It really shows the damage that it does to the couples and the young people both inside and outside of that church,” says Black) and is putting finishing touches on his latest directorial effort, What’s Wrong with Virginia?, starring Jennifer Connelly, Amy Madigan and Ed Harris.
“Virginia is a really personal story,” Black explains. “It’s a very un-traditional, mother-son relationship about a kid raising his mom. It’s not based on my mom but on another person who helped raise me who was a functional schizophrenic.”
And while the movie has a gay character, Black cautions that “it’s thematically not a gay film. I’ve got other issues to deal with, you know — I’ve got to tackle some parenting issues in my head.”
As for the Trevor Project, Black has been a fan of the organization for years.
“If you’re putting yourself on the front line of moving policy towards equality,” he says, “you go, ‘Okay, that’s all well and good and we know we’re doing it for the future generations.’ The kids that are going to be born now, maybe they can grow up never hearing that they don’t have an equal shot of having their love honored and maybe that will afford them better self-esteem. Maybe it will make it easier for those kids.
“But every now and then you stop and go, ‘What about the kids right now who are 12, 13, 14? Some of these kids are still getting told they are not worthy, that they’re going to hell. Or they are abused at school. If you can just get them to hold on and survive for another five, 10 years, you know it’s going to be so much better, and they can enjoy the fruits of all this other work that we’re doing now.
“And all that work we’re doing right now with politics and policy? That’s not really for me and my generation. We’re big, strong adults. We can defend ourselves. This work is for those kids, so they can have their love, their relationships, their families. We’ve got to make sure they survive long enough to enjoy it.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your early years.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: I was born to two devout Mormon parents in Sacramento, Calif., but didn’t live there long. We quickly moved to San Antonio, so I always feel like I grew up a Texan. We were very, very devout Mormon kids. There are three of us, all boys. A lot of the Mormon membership [in San Antonio] is military because it’s a big military town, and it’s a very patriotic crowd, the Mormon congregation.
Within a few years, my father disappeared. So three boys were being raised by a Mormon woman who had suffered from polio when she was little. She couldn’t walk without crutches, had never driven a car, had never held a job. It became quite a survival story — three little boys and this beautiful Mormon woman.
MW: How did she cope?
BLACK: She’d had some college education in Louisiana growing up — she never finished because she fell in love with my biological father. [Once he left], she went into civil service and studied as a microbiologist. The military, God bless them, helped her finish her education.
That took many years. I went through one rather abusive stepfather that the Mormon church set my mom up with. After that, my mom met this young, handsome Army soldier — who was Catholic — and we all ran off to California together when I was about 14 years old.
MW: Did he convert?
BLACK: No, at that point we’d stopped going to the Mormon church. My mom had decided it was best for us not to be involved anymore. We had been through two abusive Mormon fathers and the Mormon church didn’t respond to our cries for help. It’s a very patriarchal society — they believe that it’s a woman’s duty to make the household fit for the Mormon priesthood holder, which means that if there is abuse going on, they look to the wife to correct it. In this case, that was just impossible. It was about two Mormon men who should not be fathers. I think at that point she thought it was an unhealthy atmosphere for her kids and she left the church.
MW: And you?
BLACK: It was hard for me. I had grown up in this church, was very devout, was a big believer. I hung on a bit longer than she did before I started seeing into some of the things I thought were abusive about the church as I got older, including the whole gay issue. Finally I also decided it was time to leave, at which time I did a stint in the Baptist religion, which was jumping right into the pot from the frying pan. [Laughs.]
MW: You should have given Jewish a shot.
BLACK: Yeah, maybe I’ll give Jewish a shot. You guys have great food. [Laughs.]
MW: Did you ever find out what happened to your biological father?
BLACK: I did. We hadn’t heard from him for a good 20 years. I hunted him down using one of those Internet searches. He still lived in Texas. I had a little half brother and all that kind of stuff.
It was quite revealing for me. I had often thought, ”This man rejected me and it was about me.” I still had that nagging heartache, the heartache of a 6-year-old who had been abandoned.
When I met him, it was a healing experience because I saw him as the man he is, the kind of guy who would abandon a woman with three kids. He’s still very, very Mormon and he still used a lot of the Mormon rationale for why he left and how this life is but a grain of sand and in the next life we’d all be reunited. The Mormon jargon helped a lot of Mormon men rationalize some of their misbehavior.
MW: Your mom, I’m guessing, is happy now?
BLACK: Very happy now. She lives in Manassas, Va. She worked at Walter Reed Army Medical for many, many years. So did my stepdad. They’ve been together for 22 years. It’s worked out really great. They’ve been in Virginia since about 1995. I was in college and would come out every summer and lifeguard at the Virginia pools. On my days off my mom would drop me off on the mall in Washington on her way to Walter Reed and I would just poke around the Smithsonian all day. Those summers were really beautiful. I have a love affair with Washington, D.C. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.
MW: When was your gay awakening?
BLACK: I was 6 years old. I had a toy car and it went missing. A couple days later one of my older brother’s friends showed up with my car spray-painted black. And I’m like, “This dude stole my car.” I was a very intensely shy kid, so I wasn’t going to confront him. I just watched him walk away. And as he was walking away, my heart started racing, my breath grew shallow and I realized in that moment — it was a flash — I knew I didn’t want to fight him. I knew I wanted to kiss him.
Because I was raised in such a conservative environment — Mormon and Texan and military — I also knew what gay meant. You hear that word constantly growing up in that culture. You hear a lot of more colorful words that mean the same thing, some hateful words. So I knew that I was gay. And I knew I was going to hell. I knew that if anyone found out it would bring great shame to myself and my family and that I likely would be rejected from my faith and my family. It was a pretty heavy moment for a 6-year-old. It stuck with me. I did not come out for another 15 years.
MW: What was it like when you finally came out?
BLACK: Liberating. I made up for lost time really quickly. One of my best friends from high school and I moved down to Los Angeles together when I started at UCLA Film School. He came out of the closet to me at the end of my sophomore year. I went off to D.C. for the summer. By the time I got back to L.A. after the summer, it was time. Plus all his new gay friends were coming over and saying to him, ”Hey, P.S., your roommate’s a big queen!”
Within a month I had my first date, and I knew it was right. That first kiss that I had at 21…. I’d had girlfriends but I never had known that feeling of love before. It wasn’t even lust. It was just love. There was something very pure and special about it. I just knew it was right.
MW: That must have been a remarkable feeling for you.
BLACK: A lot of it had to do with religion, with being in a culture that taught repression. I just had come to believe it was okay to repress yourself in that way, to push back those feelings, to put a lid on who you are. I’d become comfortable with that. But at a certain point it starts to boil over, as any pot with a lid will. And you come to this place where you’re possibly going to take your own life, because a life without love is a life not worth living. And so you come to a point you’re going to make this very scary leap. I think the options are so extreme in the mind of a young Mormon kid that once you decide, ”Okay, I’ve decided I’m going to live — and I’m going to live with the consequences of what it means to be myself,” the door gets flung wide open. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing. You go for it. You decide that you’re going to love in this life. That’s what I did.
MW: You’re not a practicing Mormon anymore, but considering your earlier, deeply ingrained beliefs, does a part of you still fear that you will go to hell for being gay?
BLACK: No, not anymore, not anymore. But that did enter my mind a few times along the way.
We are from a very early age created this way — and I think that no God would create a creature — a beautiful, feeling, loving creature — and condemn him to some sort of hell because this is how he or she created them. So I just don’t believe that.
Now it seems, as religions do, they’ve come to start to embrace LGBT people as God’s children. Not all of them yet. Not the Mormon church yet. But it will. You know, the Mormon church in the ’70s did not accept black people as part of the congregation. If you had dark skin you were not allowed to have a priesthood at the Mormon church. And this was in the ’70s. And you’ve seen how they’ve changed that. That’s not part of their belief system anymore. So I think it’s just a matter of time before even gay and lesbian people are accepted in the Mormon church. I think it’s where we’re headed.
MW: Our movement seems to gain an inch here, then lose an inch. How do we gain the inch and keep the inch?
BLACK: It’s a pendulum, and it does swing forward and back a bit. But we do have five states now with legalized gay marriage, so I think that we are making progress. I think we have to be bolder about our choices and how we make progress. I know some of the gay community say it’s too fast, too soon, but I say, ”Until we start acting like we know we deserve full equality, we will not have full equality.” When we are asking for piecemeal quality, the message it sends to the rest of America is, ”Oh, they don’t think they’re completely equal. They don’t think they deserve full and equal rights in all 50 states, in all matters governed by civil law.” Which is what I believe — that we deserve full equality in all 50 states, in all matters governed by civil law. Until we demand that, until we tell America that this is how we feel about ourselves, how do we expect them to see us that way? When we start to show more pride in ourselves and demand full equality, we will start to change hearts and minds. We’ll start to have more respect from the average Americans.
MW: Do you think our organizations are effective enough?
BLACK: Listen, I’m not a professional activist. I’m a filmmaker, a storyteller. But as I’ve gotten into this and done work in the LGBT community and with the LGBT movement, I’ve been able to look inside some of the organizations leading the fight. And there are a lot of them. And there are a lot of people who want to stake a claim to a certain issue — they want it to be theirs and theirs alone.
I think that people in this movement need to put their egos aside and certain organizations need to put their egos aside and start to work together more. Anytime anyone tries something new in the LGBT movement, the major organizations say, ”No, no, no, this is our territory, get out of our territory.” That’s ego and it has to go away.
In the gay and lesbian movement we have all these kids, this amazing grassroots movement that’s sprung up since Proposition 8. There’s so much energy in that movement. Potentially, there’s much in the way of resources. We have not harnessed that and I think partly the reason is because some of the older gay leadership is afraid of that youth movement. They want to maintain power, they want to maintain control, they want to maintain the pace of the movement. And they’re afraid these kids will be rash. They don’t trust these kids. And I think they’re making a huge mistake. They could potentially miss this great opportunity to harness that energy. I think these kids are wonderful and inspiring.
MW: We saw evidence of that in the October march in Washington. The makeup of that crowd was much younger than I’d ever seen it. Many of the naysayers were the old guard.
BLACK: The naysayers were absolutely the old guard. Everyone said it would fail. Everyone said no one would show up. Everyone said it would drain the resources. You know how much that march cost us? It cost $150,000. The whole idea was, you need a stage, a sound system, you need Port-a-Potties, that’s it. We didn’t need JumboTrons, big acts, that sort of thing. We just needed the message. The kids provided the energy. And boy, they showed up in droves.
MW: You clearly feel the march was a success.
BLACK: I didn’t care if there were 20 people, it would have been a success to me. Anytime you can get these young people motivated, anytime we can motivate that base, I consider it a success. Am I thrilled it ended up being over 100,000 people? Absolutely. But you know, I think it would have been a success even if it was less. And God bless Barney Frank, I think he’s a brilliant man, but he spoke out against the march, talking about resources and something about the only pressure would be pressure on the grass. We weren’t there to put pressure necessarily. We were there to motivate an entirely new generation, to invite them to the fight in a city where they haven’t been told by some of the older gay guard that, “You are welcome and you will lead this fight, and most likely you will be the generation to win this fight.” That’s what we did it for.
MW: Several years ago I interviewed a Hollywood director named Paris Barclay. He said something that has resonated with me ever since — that in order for society to change its attitude about gays, the visibility first has to come through popular cultural vehicles — television and movies, specifically. Do you feel Milk served as a catalyst of change in that way?
BLACK: It’s hard for me to have any perspective on that. It’s sort of like when your baby grows up and gets elected senator. It’s still your little baby, you can’t really tell how much power it has. And, you know, Milk will always be my favorite child. So I hope so.
But that wasn’t the aim. The aim in making Milk was to let the LGBT movement know that they had a forefather. It actually has many forefathers and foremothers, but it had someone who had succeeded at the ballot box, succeeded in being elected and winning elections despite of adversity, and that succeeded in changing minds in a time when it was far more difficult than it is now, someone that really, genuinely loved all people but namely gay people, and who thought that they deserved full equality.
These are all ideas that I think have vanished. We have gay leaders, but I think many of them lack the confidence to ever demand full equality. They have lost the ideas behind Harvey’s successful strategy — a strategy of coalition building, of outreach and education, and just that steely pride that nothing less than full equality is enough. When I first saw the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, I was moved. When I first read the book, The Mayor of Castro Street, I was incredibly moved. And then every time I heard the stories from real-life people, I was moved. [I wrote Milk] because I felt something was missing from the modern LGBT movement, and that the story had to be told so that we could do what every other culture does, which is to learn from our history, our mistakes and our successes. I hope Milk serves as an example of how we can succeed in the future.
MW: That said, how do we get our leadership to embrace what you’re saying? How does that kind of change happen at the leadership level?
BLACK: I don’t know. Some of it is changing. It’s not just Milk that did that, Proposition 8 failure did that. And some of the leaders, I think, for fear of being changed, have changed their ways and are becoming more aggressive. But I don’t think Harvey Milk ever did anything where he wasn’t told it was too fast and too soon, so you know, sometimes you just have to lead yourself.
MW: Is there anybody specifically that you want to call out here?
BLACK: No, not really, because I feel like everyone has their role and people are starting to push harder, so I think we’re starting to do better. But I often think it is really dangerous for us to feed on each other. I’ve seen how [LGBT] people have attacked me, attacked Cleve Jones, attacked the [Prop 8] case — and I’m not going to turn around and do the same thing to these other organizations. I want to support them. I want these other organizations to do well. I want HRC to succeed. I want Joe Solmonese to be the best leader we’ve got. I want Equality California to change and grow and do well. So I don’t think it’s wise to be attacking each other in any situation. We might get into some fights behind closed doors, but that’s healthy. That’s the way it should be.
MW: In your heart of hearts, do you think that America will ultimately fully accept everything we’re asking for?
BLACK: Oh, absolutely. I know we’re going to succeed. We have seen that the more visible we are, the more we tell our stories, the more accepted and understood we are. So unless the Internet crashes, TV goes away and newspapers disappear, I think that we will be free very, very soon. As people meet us and hear our stories, they don’t just tolerate or accept, but they fall in love with us and understand that this is a part of who we are, not a choice that we have made.
I think it’s important that a piece of our argument is truth — which is that this is an unchangeable characteristic, and that it’s highly resistant to change. In fact, almost every psychiatrist or psychologist on the planet would say ”impossible to change.” You can more easily make someone right-handed than left far more easily than trying to change someone from being gay. It doesn’t succeed.
MW: And yet the appalling hatred that we evoke from some people….
BLACK: Well, the KKK still exists. There’s going to be appalling hatred for anyone who’s different in any culture. We shouldn’t be focusing on those people. Most of the country that still may vote in a homophobic manner, I don’t think they hate gay people. I think that with just a little bit of reaching out and educating they could grow to love gay people. Call me idealistic, but I think that’s really true.
Yeah, there are those groups who really, really hate gay people but we can’t focus on them. But we can’t let them do what they did in Proposition 8. We have to keep our eye on them and defend ourselves against them. But really in the long run, in 10 years the majority of the country will overwhelmingly want to vote in favor of gay marriage, and that will be because we’ve changed all of the folks in America who simply haven’t met gay people yet. We’ve changed their hearts and minds. It’s like Paris Barclay said, ”It’s gonna have to come through things like films, television, books and most importantly, people telling their personal stories to their neighbors and co-workers and families.” That will have to happen culturally.
MW: One last question, somewhat personal: After the Oscar win, you became a full-fledged, recognizable celebrity, especially in the LGBT community. How do you cope with knowing that everything you do is subject to either ridicule, condemnation or potential scandal? How do you cope with things that might have been off the radar had you not been in the public light?
BLACK: Good question. You know, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t really hard. I never asked to be recognizable. Being a writer, you never think you’re going to be recognizable and very few directors are recognizable, so it was not something I was ever prepared for or asked for.
Now that I’m here, there are huge benefits to it. Being able to help get the word out about things that you care so deeply about — that’s my greatest honor. And it probably helps get some of my projects made easier right now. That’s very helpful.
But, you know, the other stuff…. People say and do such heinous things — it’s part of our culture to feed off of celebrity. It has a sort of sociopathic nature to it because it assumes that [celebrities] don’t feel, but we do. And it’s really hard. And certain things have been said and done that have made me weep nights for weeks at a time.
So I have learned to focus more on just what it is I’m doing and being in the moment. And for the most part, you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world, because the great stuff far outweighs the bad.
The last thing I would add is this: When America is reading things about celebrities and saying things about celebrities — especially in the context of the gossip world — I would say about only 5 percent of it is true. You know, they get it wrong 95 percent of the time. And either blatant lies or taking things extremely out of context. All news is subjective and that sort of reporting is mostly just plain not true.
MW: Let’s wrap things on a lighter note. When you visit D.C., what do you like to do?
BLACK: Two things. D.C. has one of the best gay sports bars in the country — Nellie’s. I go there to watch football with a bunch of my friends who are in politics and they tell me all about politics and Capitol Hill and the White House and I tell them all about movies. Beyond that, I’m a huge history buff so I still, like I did when I was a teenager, go down to the museums and hunt around for the new exhibits. Just to see if anything inspires me to make another movie.
A Conversation with Dustin Lance Black will take place on Monday, Jan. 25, at 8 p.m. at the DC JCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at the door. Limited VIP tickets, including a pre-event reception with Black, are available. Call 202-777-3253 or visit washingtondcjcc.org/gloe.