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

Dustin Lance Black Gus Van Sant x390 (Getty) | Advocate.com

It's a lesson Black has learned well. About Gay Hollywood , the 2003 AMC reality series he appeared on, he says dismissively, "I don't even know what that was. It was all white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian gay guys in their 20s." He says he was galled by the show's lack of diversity. "I was like, I know better than this. Why did I get myself into this? "

Luckily, Black's future is filled with promising projects, including a movie about Washington politics and a TV series, neither of which he's ready to discuss. He's also preparing to direct the film What's Wrong With Virginia , which he wrote five years ago. "It's a very personal story," he says. Loosely based on his childhood, it's a drama about a boy who is caretaker to his impoverished, schizophrenic mother. (In reality, someone else in Black's family is a functioning schizophrenic.) Jennifer Connelly and Liam Neeson are attached to star.

On a cold day in early April, Black was in Washington, D.C., taking a private tour of the U.S. Capitol. Just as he and his guide had ascended the winding staircase to the top of the dome, where -- just beneath the bronze statue called Freedom -- they were poised to take in the 360-degree view of the nation's capital city, Black's phone started buzzing with a flurry of text messages. Days after the Iowa supreme court had ruled in favor of marriage equality, the Vermont legislature overrode a veto by its governor and legalized same-sex marriage. "It was one of the more poetic things ever for me," says Black, who had spent the previous night on the phone trying to lobby state lawmakers. "We were like five votes short," he says excitedly. "I got answering machines."

Black is elated by the accomplishment. "I think anyone interested in civil rights must be thrilled," he says. "I was tickled pink." But while some might see the victory in two states as a shot in the arm for the one-state-at-a-time approach, Black stands firm in his conviction that the movement must "abandon the strategy of gradualism" and "take the fight federal," he says. "I believe now is the time."

He has yet to articulate a detailed plan for a nationwide campaign, but in late March he spoke at Outgiving, an annual gathering of gay philanthropists in Las Vegas, and his call for federal civil rights legislation seems to have surprised some leaders who have invested years -- decades, even -- in a historically proven strategy of state-by-state progress. "I'm sure they just wanted me to sound inspirational, do a five-minute version of the Academy Awards speech," Black says.

"The federal plan that Martin Luther King helped bring about…came after decades of what some might disparage as 'state-by-state' work," says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. "The federal government doesn't issue marriage licenses, states do." But Wolfson understands that Black is the one currently holding the microphone. "Lance Black has a really important voice and a great opportunity to help move people to action."

He and other activists would be wise to try to utilize that voice. Black's writerly idealism and youthful impatience along with their experience could be the perfect combination -- on the state and national level. Because, as his "coconspirator" Jones explains, Black may have had his 15 minutes in the spotlight, but he's not going to stop rattling the cages any time soon. "Lance looks young and he has a cute face," Jones says, "but no one should underestimate this young man. Believe me."

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