Harvey Milk, Proposition 8 and me was the theme of openly gay screenwriter, producer, and social activist Dustin Lance Black's lecture May 8 at Elmhurst College.
Winner of the Academy Award and two Writers Guild of America Awards for Best Original Screenplay for the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, Black is also a founding board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights ( AFER ) which led the fight to overturn Proposition 8.
In 2012 Black penned the play 8, based on the closing arguments of the federal Proposition 8 trial Perry v. Schwarzenegger. The star-studded Los Angeles production was broadcast live online and the play has since been staged in eight countries and all 50 states with more productions in the pipeline.
A graduate of UCLA's School of Film and Television, Black was a writer and co-producer of the HBO polygamist drama Big Love, and wrote the screenplays for Pedro, about openly gay HIV-positive Real World cast member Pedro Zamora; and J. Edgar, about J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI.
Along with his work for AFER, Black also served on the board of the Trevor Project for three years and was one of the organizers of the Oct. 2009 LGBT March on Washington. He has also been featured in Out Magazine's 40 Under 40 series and has been listed among the most powerful LGBT people in the U.S.
During the Elmhurst talk, Black focused on the themes of fear, hope, courage, the power of stories and being a troublemaker.
Black explained that he learned about fear when he was first dropped off at kindergarten. He had a panic attack and was immediately sent to the principal's office where he spent the first two years of his school life. His job was to follow the principal around while she disciplined students with a paddle that had holes drilled into it. Black said he learned from her that what made a great leader was to rule the campus with absolute fear and he knew he didn't have it in him to be like his principal.
Fear was an overriding force in Black's early life and "to make matters worse for me was that I grew up in a devout Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas," said Black. While attending Sunday services Black learned about the 'sin' of homosexuality. He later learned how strongly the church felt about the issue when he was caught saying one of the LGBT slurs he heard at home while hanging around with the women's relief society at the church ( he was a Military brat ). A priesthood holder took Black aside and told him that if he was gay he would be dammed to hell. He was six years old.
A few months before that incident Black had already come to the conclusion that he was gay. Black's defense mechanism was to hide who he was and that meant that he didn't have any friends except for one boy named Troy.
When Troy came out to him as Jewish one summer, Black ( who had never heard of a Jewish person ) told Troy that he could change that and because of his internal fear Black lost his only friend. Black noted the irony of him saying to Troy what everyone else was saying to him about being gay.
Black's story changed dramatically when his mom fell in love and married Black's stepfather ( a Catholic military man ) who was being shipped to Monterey, California. It was then that his mom took charge and decided that the only way to cure Black's shyness was to enroll him in drama club at his new high school.
From there, Black went on to a professional theater in Monterey and then to San Francisco. While in San Francisco, Black heard a 10-year-old tape recording of Harvey Milk giving a speech in San Antonio about the importance of electing LGBT people to political offices so LGBT kids know there is hope for a better world.
"Listening to Harvey Milk's recording gave me my life because for the very first time I heard a leader leading with hope not fear and that vision of hope included me. I didn't know it was possible to be out of the closet or to lead with anything other than fear. It gave me to hope to start living my life although it didn't give me the courage to come out to my family just yet. That would come later," said Black.
While in college Black spent time in West Hollywood making friends and soaking up the LGBT culture. When Black was heading home for Christmas his senior year ( his parents lived in Washington, D.C., by then ) he realized he wouldn't have anything to say to his family about his life including his older brother ( who was the polar opposite of him in every way ) so he hid out in his room. He wondered if his family would love him for who he was.
On Christmas day his mom ( who had polio as a kid, was paralyzed and used crutches ) came to his room and wanted to talk about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and her opposition to gay and lesbian soldiers even if they stayed closeted. Black said he started crying because of his mom's anti-LGBT views and in that moment she knew he was gay and wanted to fix him. That never happened because Black returned to college and finished out the year.
When his family arrived for graduation they ended up sharing a meal with his gay and lesbian friends who had no idea about his mom's anti-LGBT views. Black's friends started telling his mom about their lives including their families negative reaction to them being gay and their sex lives. After dinner Black's mom told him that she liked his friends and said that his graduate student boyfriend needed to treat him better and then embraced him for a long time.
"I knew for the very first time in my life that my mother loved me for me. How did that happen? She heard the stories of actual gay and lesbian people not politics. Those stories were able to dismiss the myths, lies and stereotypes she had heard her whole life," said Black.
Black said he was billed as a troublemaker when he was chosen by his classmates to contest the grades they received ( mostly average and below-average marks ) by a professor in one of their film school classes during the end of their senior year at UCLA. The professor threatened to expel Black and he ended up at an expulsion hearing. When the deans questioned the professor she didn't say anything other than "you are all a pack of hungry jackals" ( Hungry Jackal Productions became the name of his production company ) and stormed off so he won and wasn't expelled. Black said the dean started laughing and put his arm around him and told him he liked him because he was a troublemaker. Black said his whole adult life has been about being a troublemaker and he isn't finished causing trouble on behalf of LGBT equality.
The mission of Black's life is to tell personal stories and be a troublemaker while doing it, he explained.
He told the story of his deeply closeted brother ( who later died of cancer before he could enjoy full equality since he lived in Virginia ) coming out to him after he wrapped production on Milk. Black realized that he had to do more to effect change other than just make movies or TV shows so he could help people like his brother who never got to live in a world where they are truly equal.
After people criticized his Oscar speech he met with civil rights leader Julian Bond to get some advice. Bond encouraged him to keep agitating. He did some research and connected with Chad Griffin, Rob and Michelle Reiner and others and they created AFER to take on Proposition 8. Under the leadership of attorney's Ted Olson and David Boies they won and are currently in court to overturn the ban on marriage equality in Virginia.
"Having passion for something is what makes you a leader. Passion will bring you to the fields where you can be a leader like Harvey Milk," said Black. "Where does that come from? Mine comes from all the ways I am different ... and they are the most damn valuable things that God ever gave me and I'm thankful to him for all of them."
Black asked the crowd to investigate the ways they are different and "look at the places they might hold shame as gold mines where they can find their passion." He called on everyone to use their passion to build bridges so two Americas can become one with full LGBT equality.
A Q&A session followed Black's lecture. Then Black signed copies of his book Milk: The Shooting Script.
See www.dustinlanceblack.com for more information.