Forty Under 40: Dustin Lance Black

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tops The Advocate 's Forty Under 40 issue -- the Oscar winner for Milk made the acceptance speech of a lifetime with his passionate plea for gay rights.

BY Ari Karpel

May 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

1027 DUSTIN LANCE BLACK 02 XLRG (KENNETH CAPPELLO) | ADVOCATE.COM

Black gave a lot of consideration to what to say in that speech. "I thought if I was [still] 11 or 12 years old in San Antonio, Texas, what would I want to hear?" he says. "What people don't know is there's all these other events leading up to the Oscars -- Q&A's, speeches, talks," at which he honed his message.

The practice paid off. The blogosphere is filled with declarations of love for Black. Even Oprah Winfrey fawned over him on her show, bringing his exposure to a level few writers attain. One of those writers, Oscar-winner Diablo Cody ( Juno ), took Black aside during the awards season to coach him. "She saved my life. She was like, 'You're feeling this way now, and prepare to feel X, Y, and Z,'È‚f;" he recalls, explaining that Cody's advice was about "making sure you don't disconnect from your work."

Partly because Black grew up Mormon and struggled to come out of the closet, his life story -- like Cody's -- is a magnet for media attention. But unlike the tattooed former stripper, Black has a message that hits at an emotional core. He's received beautiful letters thanking him for his speech. "Kids write, 'My mom spoke to me for the first time about being gay,'È‚f;" he says. "I'm so humbled by that."

In West Hollywood, Black is like the patron saint of gay writers. After a Writers Guild gay filmmakers' panel in March, he was pounced on by a young woman bearing cupcakes. Her male companion excitedly blurted out that he and Black have a Facebook friend in common. Pressed on how it feels to be so sought after, Black is guarded. "There's no safe way to answer that question," he says. You get the sense that while he relishes the attention, Black has mixed feelings about where that attention is coming from. Take his nights out on the town. "People don't say, 'Oh, you were cute giving that Oscar speech,'È‚f;" he complains. Black, who is single, seems to draw a lot of lesbian couples. "They are interested in marriage equality, and we start engaging in [political] conversation. It's great, but all of a sudden it's 1:30 a.m., you've had two more vodka-and-sodas, and you've spent your whole night talking to these cool lesbians about relationship rights," he says, sighing. "That's why I don't get laid."

Nonetheless, the payoffs are deeply meaningful. Black's mother, who is battling cancer ("She's going to be fine," he says), accompanied him to the Oscars. "It's been a huge journey for her. She was weeping with pride that I said I want to thank my mom for always loving me even when there was pressure not to." His mother, who uses crutches and braces to get around because of a childhood bout with polio, raised Black and his two brothers on her own in a conservative Mormon community in San Antonio.

"We were welfare kids," Black says. "My father vanished, literally just took off one day." His mother remarried twice; the second time, in Black's early teens, she brought the family to Northern California, where his stepfather was stationed in the Army. "Trust me, the coming-out process was not easy," he says. "My mom did not immediately go, 'I love you.'È‚f;" Now she's 100% supportive. "All she's worried about is when am I going to get married and have a kid. She wants to be a grandma."

But not everyone has come around. "Mostly it's the judgment of silence [from my father]," who is Mormon. But after the Oscars, he says, "I got one letter from a cousin or something [of my father's] expressing the great shame I've brought to our family." Black's voice softens to a whisper as he swallows his emotions. "I was disappointed by that."

Tags: film

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