Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, Pedro, 8, When We Rise) has been watching the news lately with righteous anger.
The trailblazing activist, who welcomed a son last year with husband Tom Daley, recently sat down for our new virtual series Inside with The Advocate (watch the video above). No subject was off the table amid the ongoing protests happening in the United States, the United Kingdom, where he currently lives, and around the world against police brutality and white supremacy.
This year marks the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, a riot that fought back at police harassment and eventually led to the gay civil rights movement.
As we approach Stonewall Day on June 26, a global livestream event raising critical funds for LGBTQ+ organizations most affected by COVID-19, Black, a Stonewall Day ambassador, spoke candidly about the catalyst behind his fight for social justice.
“We all have our own path that’s led us to a life of social justice work,” says Black, who writes honestly in his 2019 book Mama’s Boy (Penguin Random House) about his childhood in Texas, raised by a single mother who was disabled. “Mine starts not with my gayness. Mine starts with how I saw the world treat and judge the assumptions they made about my mother’s capabilities because she was shaped like an 'S' from scoliosis that was brought on by polio. She was paralyzed from the chest down. She walked on braces and crutches. She looked incredibly different and people treated her like a freak. I saw how people short-changed her. I remember that seed of fury being planted in me at 3, 4, 5 years old because it felt unfair. It felt untrue.”
Lance’s mom never let her disability define her life. In fact, she would have a career running one of the most esteemed laboratories in the U.S. government.
“I knew full well that my mother was capable of everything, anything and everything,” he says. “She defied those odds, yet people judged and discounted her. And when you see [prejudice] once, you start to see it in other situations. Certainly by 6 years old, when I knew I was gay and being treated differently, it would take a while for me to discard the shame and realize it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right. Growing up in the South, I saw it constantly when it came to race.”
“I just grew up angry,” he explained. “I grew up so angry that this is how the world treats difference. Angry because it’s not right to the individual, and frustrated because I knew these people [who were discounted]. These are literally my family, myself, my friends, and my neighbors. And I knew how powerful and smart and creative we were, and we were all being discounted because we were just too different. How stupid was the world to do that? How much better could we be? How much further along could we be if we stopped doing that?”
He continued, “As I grew up into an adult, it becomes even more silly. Creatively, politically, when it comes to science and technology, doesn’t it just make sense to have eyes on a problem that have different experiences and backgrounds and education? Doesn’t that mean we might get to a solution faster? I get so frustrated and angry at how we as human beings injure ourselves by succumbing to the ignorance of prejudice. We injure ourselves.”
Black adds, “White, straight, Christian men: You injure yourselves.”
Black was deeply engaged in the court fight against California’s anti-marriage equality Proposition 8. In October 2009, he delivered a speech in front of the Capitol to nearly 200,000 queer rights activists. Currently, he is adapting an FX miniseries of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book Under the Banner of Heaven, about a double murder in a Mormon fundamentalist community as well as a documentary for Live Nation on the queer roots of rock and roll.
“History moves slowly,” he explains. “But it’s not our jobs as activists to pace ourselves. What our job is as activists is to demand justice, to demand equality, and to demand all of it — and right now. And yes, when someone offers us crumbs, we should be mad. We shouldn’t be satisfied. They don’t get the big thank you until we get full equality in all matters under civil law in all 50 states for all people. We are so far from that in so many ways right now, and what I would encourage people on the front lines is not to demand partial measures because then you’ll get half of that. Demand it all.”
“It’s one of the things that that LGBTQ+ community happens to be good at,” he says of the 50-year fight for equality in the gay civil rights movement, which was largely fueled by queer people of color. “In the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve had a lot of successes and we owe it to our Black brothers and sisters and neighbors to share our experiences: What worked and didn’t work, and to fight for their equality as hard as we fight for our own. Because they are connected. They are absolutely connected. I urge queer folks who know how to throw a good riot, and a good protest, and a good march, to organize around that to make things happen that will ensure change. We owe it. We owe it to our brothers and sisters and other social justice communities to share that knowledge, to share that strength, and to be visible and vocal for them.”
Of the Black Lives Matter protests, which have seen hundreds of thousands of protestors across the globe, Black describes the moment as a “wakeup call to the world.”
“It’s been really heartening to see how people have gathered in the streets and marched here, and all across Europe, across the world,” he says. “For too long, Black lives have not mattered in much of the world — not to white people at least, not to people in power, far too long. In that way, it’s heartbreaking what led to this and we are in a dark place in many ways, but I actually think this darkness is an opportunity for many of us to be able finally see the light inside ourselves. Sometimes it manifests as hope, sometimes as anger, and both are valid. What I’m hoping and what I’m seeing is those little lights inside of us are giving the courage to get out on the streets and raise our voices. When you put all these lights around the world, that makes a bonfire. I think it’s time for some of the establishment and institutions to burn down. Break them down.”
Earlier this year, Black endorsed Vice President Joe Biden for the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. He shares the moment at a dinner party where he witnessed Biden, for the first time, express his support for marriage equality.
“I think the question to ask is, Do we think he’s sincere when he says he sees things different now, and understands things differently now?” he says of queer voters who still have qualms with Biden’s past voting record in support of anti-queer legislations like the Defense of Marriage Act.
Despite Bernie Sanders saying the contrary, Biden actually voted to strike ant-LGBTQ+ language from "don't ask, don't tell," telling congress in 1993, "I have no doubt there are homosexuals who serve in the military and that this won't have a major impact."
“That’s what I had to ask myself in that room. It was Mike Lombardo’s house, who was head at HBO at the time. I was working with HBO at the time. It was a handful of LGBTQ folks — leaders, potential donors. This was right before the 2016 election. It was Chad Griffin [then-head of the Human Rights Campaign] who asked the question that most people in the room thought shouldn’t be asked yet: ‘Where do you stand in marriage equality?’ Our case was headed to the Supreme Court. This question was going to be asked of those in power in D.C., and it was time for him to answer. This is what was meaningful to me: He didn’t have a prepared response… He sat on a stool and he was silent for quite some time, which is also rare for a politician, and when he finally spoke I can’t remember the exact words he used, but he said, ‘Sitting here, seeing Mike, his husband, his children, seeing all of you, how can I say anything but that these families are legitimate and worthy of protections, just like heterosexual families? How can I say anything but that?’”
Biden, who according to Black made a comment that he knew his statement “was going to get him in trouble,” then he asked the room for “patience.”
“He said, ‘Ive said this, can you pease give me hours, days — not weeks — to let the world know that this is where I stand’” said Black.
“I think it’s important that we have a White House where as much as possible, we have people in there who are fighting for their own, for people who look like them and grew up like them, so that we make sure that at least there’s someone in the White House making sure every group of us, in all our diversity, has a number one in the executive branch. We definitely do not have that right now. Diversity is important because I think it’s a greater chance that people are going to fight for equality from a personal perspective. That’s the fastest way to make change, when it’s personal.”
That fight for diversity, he argues, should also be fully engaged in Hollywood.
“If Hollywood wants to wise up, it needs to depict LGBTQIA+ people in the way that we exist in the real world, with all of our diversity,” he says. “The ways we talk about defining and understanding our gender, the gods we pray to, the color of our skin, our backgrounds. Coming out is not the same for everyone; it’s very dangerous for some people, particularly Black queer people and Black trans people, so Hollywood needs to stop with the narrative that coming out is going to be this party that’s going to make you feel so much better and maybe start to take responsibility for healing some of the misinformation — in the South in particular — that makes it so dangerous to come out.”
“Let’s start digging into the narratives we know that are true, that have been suppressed by racism and misogyny and start telling the full picture, start painting it,” he adds. “I’ve said many times, I’m very proud to have done Pedro and Milk and When We Rise, and I’m so thrilled to see other people telling the narratives from our history, rebuilding a lost history, because it has been lost. It’s been robbed of us.”
“Everything we’ve done so far, even in everything you see on Netflix, bless them for doing it, and all the other channels, those are the tiniest little shards of glass. We’ve barely begun building the massive mosaic of who we are. That’s the work that has to continue. It has to continue with an open mind to who we are, with curiousity so that we ask the questions, so that we start to depict ourselves more realistically and most importantly of all: Hollywood has to start to hire in those writer’s rooms writers who reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ+ movement because we, like Harvey [Milk] said, we fight hardest for our own. You have a white gay man in that writer’s room, I hope they do the right thing, and many will, but I guarantee you that Black trans woman is not going to stop pitching that storyline until the show gets it right. Diversity in the writer’s room is going to lead to more realistic, authentic, full portraits of who we are. Maybe, if we work really hard for a few more decades, we’ll start to be able to see the shape of the mosaic of our history.”