Dustin Lance Black hit the ground running both creatively and as a gay activist following his Best Original Screenplay Oscar win for MILK.
While juggling a handful of Hollywood projects, including an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" for MILK director Gus Van Sant, and his own feature directorial effort, What's Wrong With Virginia ( which commences production in Michigan late Sept. ) , Black has made appearances and been honored all over the country, from LGBT events to college speaking engagements.
Taking a break from writing on a recent Sunday afternoon, the San Antonio, Texas-raised Black discussed the upcoming National Equality March ( scheduled for Oct. 10-11 in Washington, D.C. ) , his experiences touring the country, closeted Hollywood actors and, for the first time, a national LGBT awareness campaign he will launch this Sept..
Lawrence Ferber: Let's begin with the march in Washington. How did it come about and what is your involvement with it?
Dustin Lance Black: I'm doing anything Cleve [ Jones ] asks me to doI guess that makes me a humble servant to the march on Washington. It starts with David Mixner calling for a march on Washington a couple of months ago [ on his blog ] . For a serious march. Not a gay Lollapalooza. And Cleve Jones, who has been so incredibly skeptical about having another march, read that piece and believed that now is the time. It's time for two reasons. One is to make our voices heard. We'll likely never see an opportunity like this again in our lifetime, which is having a president who I firmly believe is interested in full equality for LGBT people and a Congress I also think is.
There have been promises made by the Obama administration while he campaigned, really exciting and specific promises, and he still occasionally talks about them but has done nothing about achieving any of those goals. He's set no dates, he's shown no way forward meaning he's not pressing Congress or demanding or requesting legislation. We need to make our voices heard. The second reason, and the thing I think is so incredibly important, is this march unlike previous marches is an organizing march. We have reached out to LGBT leaders in all 435 congressional districts and where we couldn't find leaders we found people we're trying to teach how to lead and organize and gather a group of LGBT people that is representative of their district and bring them to Washington. We will have leaders from all 435 congressional districts represented in the D.C. mall and use that moment as an organizing conference so these people learn about grassroots activism, how to lobby their federal representative back home in their local district, and how to do the door-to-door activism that really does change minds. All of this is because there's a philosophy that you only can achieve full equality through the federal government. All the leaders before us have known that. But we haven't demanded it until now, and if you look at the history of any civil rights movement in this country federal quality is the only way to full equality.
Lawrence Ferber: How important is it that Obama be in town and actually acknowledges or appears at this march?
Dustin Lance Black: I think it's incredibly important that Obama is invited to speak. Cleve is the organizer at this point and I know he's negotiating that and in contact with the White House, and if Obama does show up and speak I think that says a lot. And if he doesn't, that also speaks volumes. I'm all for him being given the only VIP invite to speak."
Lawrence Ferber: What other plans or activities are you involved with around this event?
A few things. I'm involved with an education campaign called STAND UP, which is being announced next month and you're the first person I'm telling about. STAND UP is a campaign of outreach and education. We're making a national call for LGBT people's stories [ through ] the Courage Campaign ( couragecampaign.org ) . Once we get all of these stories I'm going to take some of the best filmmakers on the road and document those stories and 8-12 of them will be turned into 30- and 60-second ads, which will be aired nationally. In this commercial campaign LGBT people, in their own voices, will introduce themselves to America and to the people in America who need to hear their stories the mostthose who don't know LGBT people personally, because those are the people who vote against equality. We know that seventy percent of Americans who have changed from voting against LGBT people to voting for equality do so because they've come to know a real LGBT person. Our personal stories have the power to change minds and help win full equality for LGBT people across this country. The campaign will be impactful, memorable and personal, of a "Rock the Vote" scale, with a significant viral video and online component. Also, in California we have the federal case against Proposition 8, which I'm on the board of.
Lawrence Ferber: Do you feel that we're making progress in the struggle for full equality?
Dustin Lance Black: We're doing far better in terms of polling numbers for gay marriage than interracial marriage at the time of [ 1967's ] Loving v. Virginia. I also think until we start acting like we deserve full and equal rights, federal rights, in every state and county, who outside our community is going to feel like we deserve them? Put yourself in the shoes of someone looking in from the outside and they're saying, 'oh these people don't even feel like they deserve full equality, they feel they only deserve it in these little liberal areas and ghettos.' I think it goes back to a lot of damaged self-esteems and internalized homophobia and sadly I think a lot of us are afraid perhaps we don't deserve full equality and so we're more careful. But the truth is that we do deserve it, we have to demand it, and now is the time.
Lawrence Ferber: What have you learned or discovered while on the road making personal appearances and speaking?
Dustin Lance Black: I've gone to many cities across the country that are either conservative, or like in Columbia, Mo., that's considered a purple area because it flip-flops from red to blue each election. In one of these places I was met with "You A Fag" written on the big wall of the green room. I'm met with that initially but as I get up and speak and begin to relate my story and I ask people from the audience to relate their stories, which is always a part of what I do, you can feel the homophobia melt away. The discomfort turns into laughter and by the end people are coming up and shaking my hand or shaking their friends' or classmates' and starting to have those conversations. I know it sounds corny but having had the chance to travel and speak in every kind of town there is across this country, I feel more than ever that all Americans love LGBT people and those who think they don't simply have not met us yet.
Lawrence Ferber: How do you feel when you're in the company of closeted stars or talent in Hollywood? Harvey Milk's resounding message was "we all must come out," after all.
Dustin Lance Black: I don't have a lot of closeted friends. I have a lot of actor friends and they're out, working actor friends.
Lawrence Ferber: I won't name names…
Dustin Lance Black: You can.
Lawrence Ferber: Well, Kevin Spacey comes up a lot as an alleged closet case.
Dustin Lance Black: I don't know Kevin Spacey. A lot of my friendslike T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harristhey all came out and are still working and doing great things. They're not just playing gay roles, which is exciting and feels fair. Hollywood's opened up a lot. It wasn't this way five years ago, that's for sure.
Five years ago I knew lots of closeted and aspiring actors who wouldn't even go to gay bars because they were afraid they might get spotted by their agent and lose representation. That's where I really found the problem to be. It's not with the directors or studios. It's with the agents and managers. These are the people doing the filtering and saying it's so much easier to represent a straight or closeted actor than [ openly ] gay actor, which is funny because so many of these agents who do that homophobic filtering are gay themselves. I know with Milk we specifically requested LGBT actors and we asked our casting director to do a search and it was difficult because then you have to go through these agents and managers and say who do you have who's openly gay and they won't tell you. We hit a wall there. In fact, we had to go to theater actorsBroadway actorsto audition people who were openly gay.
Lawrence Ferber: Are you concerned about the day when you do meet Kevin Spacey?
Dustin Lance Black: No. I'm not in favor of outing people unless they're in a position of power and using that to hurt gay or lesbian people. It's not my mission to go outing people just so they're out, so I'm not going to have a confrontation with any actor who chooses to stay in the closet. That's their personal choice. I wish it was a different choice, I wish they would all come out. But in terms of the more aggressive tactic of outing I would save that for people who are deliberately hurting the gay community and there's a lot of that in Washington.
Lawrence Ferber: Have you heard from a lot of gay kids in the heartland, like the phone calls Harvey Milk would get?
Dustin Lance Black: It's not phone calls anymore. It's Facebook. But I have gotten thousands upon thousands of emails, probably split between young people reaching out, their parents, and a lot of gay people saying thank you.
Lawrence Ferber: Do you have any pop-culture addictions?
Dustin Lance Black: There's nothing I'm watching. OhI do tune in to The Soup. It's brilliant and hilarious and I can watch it on my TiVo in 20 minutes. It brightens my day.
Lawrence Ferber: Are there any other Web sites or LGBT activism organizations we should look up now or become involved with while we prepare for the march?
Dustin Lance Black: First off, to get involved in the march on Washington I'd encourage people to go to the Web site EqualityAcrossAmerica.org . I'm obviously really invested in the Courage Campaign because they do grassroots and door-to-door activism. They go to a different city every month and train people in how to make real change in their area. I'm a big supporter of the Trevor Project and GLSEN. Gay straight alliances are very important to me. There's a project right now called Live Out Loud which is encouraging LGBT people who have done something notable in their life, whatever their field, to go back to their high schools and talk to the student body gay and straight about what their experience has been as a gay or lesbian person since leaving high school.