“I believe loving someone makes you a better person,” says Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black. Moreover, Black doesn’t believe the state can tell you who that person is.
Gay rights activist Black won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for 2008’s “Milk” and visited Elmhurst College on Thursday to deliver his talk “Harvey Milk, Proposition 8 and Me.”
Black’s play “8,” about California anti-gay marriage initiative Proposition 8, was broadcast on YouTube with a cast featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly, among others.
Below, the former writer on HBO’s “Big Love” and screenwriter for Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” talks about his own desire to get married, Harvey Milk and the recent controversy with Pasadena City College, which disinvited him to give its commencement address after it learned of an old sex tape.
You can listen to the entire exchange — in which Black talks about his upcoming collaboration with Ron Howard for “Under the Banner of Heaven” and more — by finding “The Big Questions” on iTunes, YouTube or SoundCloud.
Q: You have a very personal story about how Harvey Milk changed your life. Can you tell that briefly?
Black: I grew up in a very conservative, Mormon home, a military home. I was out in San Antonio, Texas, so I wasn’t even near other Mormons. I was very different than everybody. And I also knew that I was gay from a very young age and … we’re not taught in this country the difference is valuable. Especially where I come from. And we’re taught that it is a bad thing.
And we are taught to fear it. And I think I learned from so many of my mentors that sort of fear was the way. And they led by fear. Whether it was politicians that I grew up with or military folks who were even the teachers, the principals of my high school with their giant, sprayed up hair and paddles with the holes drilled in it.
And literally it was by ... it was a turn of luck that my step dad got transferred to California. And that my mom wanted to break me of my shyness problem, and she didn’t know it was being gay was a big part of that, but she put me in theater classes and I liked them, not surprisingly, and it was there that I heard a [recorded] speech by a guy named Harvey Milk.
He gave this speech when I was 4. I didn’t hear it until I was 14 when we moved to California. His brand of hope and his brand of leadership was actually about me. It included me. And so you can imagine how revelatory that moment was for me. I didn’t know you could be out. I didn’t know lead with hope instead of fear. And I didn’t know anyone was out there fighting for people like me.
It was the first time in my life that I ever heard anyone leading with hope, instead of fear. I didn’t even know that was possible. It was the first time I ever heard a out gay person. I didn’t know that was possible.
Q: So do you believe in marriage equality not just for everybody, but for you? I am asking this because I know you just moved in with your boyfriend [diver Tom Daley] in London. And I had heard that you are going to film a romantic film in London. So romance is in the air, so do you believe in it for you?
Black: Do I believe in marriage for me? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I grew up Mormon, man, are you kidding me?
Absolutely, I want kids so badly and I do. I didn’t have this the entire time I grew up. You know, my father took off when I was a kid. I had a stepfather who was not a great experience. Pretty rough experience. It was horrible. And then around 13, my mom married one of the most amazing men in the world, and I got a taste of what it was like to have two supportive parents.
I know the difference and it is massive. It is just something that I would love to have for my kids. I want a lot of kids. And so that means I think that marriage means a lot. I think the word means a lot. I think the promise to each other means a lot to the two people who enter into that promise and I also think it means a lot to the kids who can draw comfort that their parents have made this commitment to each other. And that the world understands what it means. So yeah, I’m in.
Q: Again, so I have heard about this project, this romantic film in London. It seems like you are in a very good place. So, what does romance in London mean to you?
Black: This was a book: “The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight.” We’re trying to figure out when to shoot it. And we are not going to break the news of the cast here today. But it is cast.
I can be a romantic guy. It doesn’t always come across I guess in the films I choose to do, but this was based on a Jennifer Smith young adult novel that one of the executive producers of “Milk,” handed me. It rang true for me and I spoke with Jennifer, who is the author of the book, and I thought she was fantastic, and we talked about ways that I could make it appeal, not just to the young people who read it and loved the book, but to an older audience as well. And it really addressed some of the issues, of “What is the science of love?” and “How much does that matter?”
Q: Another project, you are working with ABC. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Black: Yeah, I mean, with ABC I am crafting a mini series on the LGTB movement, from the very early ’70s until about last year. That is kind of all I can say. It explores how other movements influenced the LGBT movement. How we don’t just stand on the shoulders of LGBT, we stand on leaders of every civil rights movement in this country. We learn from them. We use their foot soldiers from the peace movement, the women’s movement and the black civil rights movement. Some of the same names and faces. So it is about that. the interconnectedness of equality and diversity in the country.
Q: Pasadena City College just recently asked you back. They had disinvited you to give the commencement address and this all stemmed from someone who stole an intimate tape that you made with a boyfriend and made it public. What did you take away from such an invasion of privacy?
Black: Oh boy. Yeah it was horrible. It was horrible. Something from a very long time ago. But you know that is exactly what it was. And it came out of left field, I’ll tell you that.
But I will say, if someone invades my privacy, that is what they are going to find. I just thought it was time to finally say, I am just not going to be shamed by that anymore. I’ve never been dishonest about who I am. And frankly, I just wonder what some of the administration was up to and searching for, late at night on the Internet? What else they might be searching for late at night on the Internet because this wasn’t something that had come up for half a decade. Might speak more to them, than it does me.
But my commencement speech there, I am doing it for the kids. Like when I said “Yes” the first time, I mean, it is not an easy thing to say yes to. I mostly in London these days. Flying across the world. And so I did that because I was a student at Pasadena City College. I was one of those kids who didn’t have the money to go to a four-year school. I was accepted. I was supposed to go to USC, but couldn’t afford it. And so I decided to stay down in southern California, and I looked for a place that would give me the best shot to get to a four-year school if I was lucky enough to figure out a scholarship or the money or whatever. And that was Pasadena City College. I found it to be a great place. Very supportive ... great honors classes. I felt like I was getting a first-rate education there and there was a professor there who really helped with my application to UCLA film school and encouraged me to make phone calls and be a pest. And I got in.
I always had really fond memories of it, so I said “Yes,” and I said yes because I wanted to let those students know that they have a really great start under their belt ,and if they want to keep going and do a four year education, to go for it. I am there for the students, I am not there for the administration. They don’t need my help, the administration. They might need someone else’s help, at this point, but not mine.
Q: What was fascinating, just watching this from the outside, is it seemed to be something that could have been scandal-ridden and took you off message. But you seemed to make it part of your message which is “I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to be ashamed.”
Black: I’m just telling the truth. That’s my thing. And I feel like when you feel like things are getting murky, and dark and confused, ... tell your truth, be honest, what’s really going on? Get to the bottom of it.
People say, “Where did you get this moral compass? The will power to fight for equal rights?” I got it from growing up Texan. I got it from growing up in the military and I got it from growing up Mormon. It taught me to work hard, be honest and get out there and fight for what you believe in. Now, it’s funny that sometimes I go head to head with the military and with the Mormon church and with the South. But I am using the tools that I learned there, so when I start getting beat up by somebody over at Pasadena City College, I’m going to get tough, I’m going to get honest and I’m going to shed light where there is darkness.
I’m going to tell the truth when things get murky, and if I see ignorance, I say, “Tell the truth, that will make ignorance go away real fast.”