Dustin Lance Black - Screenwriter and Activist HARDtalk


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Dustin Lance Black - Screenwriter and Activist

Stephen Sackur speaks to film-maker Dustin Lance Black about the struggle for LGBT rights. After remarkable international success, is it time to declare a famous victory?


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Welcome to HARDtalk, I'm Stephen Sacker.

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It's 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain.

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In those 50 years, the campaign for LGBT rights has won landmark

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victories in many parts of the world, perhaps best

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symbolised by the normalisation of gay marriage

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My guest today is American filmmaker Dustin Lance Black.

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He won an Oscar for the film Milk and has just completed a major

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series on the struggle for gay rights.

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Has the time come to declare a famous victory?

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Dustin Lance Black, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Thank you for having the. To what extent do you think that your

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experiences from childhood to now has a gay person have come to define

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your creative output? Oh, boy. It is one of the many things about me that

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does define me creatively. Certainly when I am teaching my students -

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because I teach classes in screenwriting sometimes - and I say

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to them, tell me about you, what is it about you that is unique, where

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do you come from, what are you interested in, these are the things

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that make you incredibly unique. And the things that make you unique

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could make you marketable in the competitive film isthmus. They give

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you that unique voice -- business. I encourage them to look at your own

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voice and the core of who you are because it can make you marketable

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and you can succeed. I think far too often writers and filmmakers try to

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go for what is profitable, what is hot at the moment. And the truth of

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that is you are going to get your butt kicked in the end because

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someone else is going to be very passionate about that subject. So,

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at the core of you and your sort of self identity, being gay is a really

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important part of that? Sure, being gay is a big part of that, because

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that has a connection to love and who I love and who I spend my life

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with and the family that I am going to build. But also where I grew up

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in the United States probably formed who I am. So, growing up in the

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south in a very conservative atmosphere, growing up in the

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military and understanding what that meant. The two are woven together in

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a sense, because I think it is right to say that you had an awareness of

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being different and of being gay whether you put it that way yourself

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or not, you have an awareness of three early in your childhood and

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that was something that in the community you came from, the

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religion you were born into, that was tough. You mean with the

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Mormons? Yeah. My mum, my father, the entire side of the family was a

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devout Mormon, I was a devout Mormon growing. I believed what I was.

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Including when I was seven years old church beamed in the prophet. He

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came onto the screen. It was as close to God... It was Godlike, very

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intimidating. I will never forget him saying next to the sin of murder

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comes the sin of sexual impurity, homosexuality. Now, I might not have

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known what that meant at that moment, but I soon learnt... At

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first I thought it was a new Scrabble word, because it had a X in

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it and all of those syllables. Soon I learnt I would bring great shame

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to myself and my family if anyone found out that I had a crush on the

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boy down the street, which I did. That I would also be going to hell.

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I would not be with my heavenly father. So I... And if I did fall in

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love it would have to be something hidden, suppressed. Imagine... That

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is an enormous darkness to take through childhood, adolescents and

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into adult hood without being able to discuss it. There was no one to

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discuss it with. You would be in trouble. If I discussed it in the

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military, you couldn't be openly gay. You would be kicked out. If I

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discussed it with anyone in our society, which was very conservative

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at the time, I would be in great trouble - in some places it was

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still a crime. You would be expelled. I would certainly be

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expelled from the things that create community where I am from, so my

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church, from my neighbourhood and from my school I would be a pariah.

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And that creates isolation, and that isolation makes young, talented LGBT

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people fade and stop trying to stand out in positive ways. And for me

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that isolation ultimately lead to thoughts of taking my own life.

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Because you tell a young person that when they first feel love that

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that's not going to lead to things like dates and the prom and marriage

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but that it could lead to prison or electroshock therapy and certainly

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disown them from church or home, you wonder what is the purpose of

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living. You took the decision, you came out to your mother, it must

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have been very difficult, when you were 21. Yeah, I was 21 years old. I

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didn't mean to come out. We were living in Washington, DC and I was

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home for Christmas. We would sit up and talk all night long. You have to

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understand, my mum had been paralysed from a young age. So she

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was different too but she was very conservative. At a certain point I

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wasn't giving anything to the conversation. I wasn't speaking. She

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filled in the blanks. She was mad about "Don't ask, don't tell", which

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was a law at the time that as long as no one knew that you were found

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out... Staying in the closet. It not only hurt the people in the

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military. My mum didn't see it that way. She was angry because it let

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gay or lesbian people in in any form. These people she had been

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taught were next to murderers in terms of sin. These people who were

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wrong and sick and broken. She just kept going on about it. I cant out

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because at a certain point, even though I was literally praying not

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to, I could feel the warmth of my tears hit my cheeks. And a good

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southern mum can read those tears. She said she knew when I started to

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cry, I will get teary just thinking back to that moment, because I

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didn't want to come out, I wasn't ready to come out. That coming out

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experience, her reaction to it I will never forget. She just got very

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quiet, her heartbreaking, knowing her son would face challenges she

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didn't want him to. She said why, why would you choose this? That is

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what thought was. Will never forget pointing to her crutches, she was

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paralysed from polio, on the debt, and I said, mum, why did you choose

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those? And she didn't have an answer to that. That was the beginning of

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our conversation and it was a conversation that would go on for

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quite sometime. It was not easy. She did not immediately accept me but

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there was a lot of unlearning to be done. A lot of that happened when

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she met my gay and lesbian friends when she came to my graduation from

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UCLA film school and she heard the stories of gay and lesbian young

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people. And they didn't match up with what she heard from the Mormon

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prophet, the military, those personal stories, not political

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stories, not about the Constitution or science, personal stories from

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these young people and myself eventually and raced the generations

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of homophobia she had learnt from the church and from the state and it

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was gone -- erased. I will never forget after a night near my

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graduation when she spent an entire evening with my gay friends, that

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she finally held me and Huntony and in those tears I knew that the lies

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and distortions were gone -- hugged me. That was love. Understood and a

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standing who I am and that was love. You have said something important.

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As I have looked at your career, research in meeting you, your faith

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in storytelling and the degree to which it can make a difference to

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the way people see and think. Because I want to take you forward

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now, you said you want to UCLA film school and after that you developed

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a very successful career writing, screenwriting. And I think by the

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time you were 30- 31 you had extraordinary success. You became

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preoccupied with telling the story of one man, Harvey Milk, the first

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publicly gay elected official in any US city in San Francisco. Right.

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What was it about the Milk story that you thought would change hearts

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and minds? I will break that down a bit. First I think only a story can

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change hearts and I think only hearts can change minds. That is how

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I see it. If you want to change it, don't start here. That is a mistake

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we see on TV programmes and news programmes all day and night. Start

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here, tell a personal story. That is - personal leap over the walls built

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by politics, region, religion and by race - go right through them. I have

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always believed in the power of story to do that. And I get that

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from the south, I learned it from a bunch of conservative southern folks

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who liked whiskey and telling stories that night. Secondly, there

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was a story - I was lucky enough at a certain point, my mum remarried at

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a good Catholic, which meant he went to church twice a year. And he was

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much more open-minded and he had orders to ship off to the Bay area

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in California and my mum loaded up the car with three boys, a cat and

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all of our belongings in the trunk and we took off to California. There

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I heard the story of Harvey Milk as a teenager. A story of an openly gay

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men. I didn't know that there was such a thing. I thought, boy, that

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is a dangerous thing to be. That is how his story progress. Yes, like

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you said, he won an election, winning at the ballot box. Let me

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stop you there because Sean Penn makes an amazing appearance. Let's

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give people a sense of what it was like in the 70s when Harvey Milk was

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making his name. Let's have a look. My name is Harvey Milk and I am here

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to recruit you! I want to recruit you for the fight to preserve your

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democracy, brothers and sisters. You must come out! Come out to your

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parents, come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends.

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Come out to your neighbours, come out to your fellow workers! Once and

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for all, let's break down the myths and destroy the lies and distortion!

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So, that is Harvey Milk at the sort of height of his compelling

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rhetoric. The sad, terrible thing is that no sooner had he sought of won

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an audience for this powerful message than he was murdered, shot

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and killed, 1977, because he had a lot of enemies. Right. I wonder

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whether you from Harvey Milk's life that you were going to have to fight

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very hard and confront people and difficult things to get your message

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out there? Well, I take my lesson from Harvey in many ways. It is that

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you have to reach out to unexpected allies. And by unexpected I mean

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some of those people who you might think are your enemies. If you are

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going to build the coalitions to create progress. Now, that means

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looking past yourself, looking past your needs and desires, and I don't

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just mean 1978, I mean 2017. Minorities need to live listen to

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the message, how do you breach the coalition of the uses? Care for your

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neighbour and your own needs. How do you understand every single person

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in this planet right now is a minority in one way or another. It

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depends how you slice the pie. You can help them find the interest that

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they have in your plate if you help them with yours. He went to the

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union workers, white, working class union workers who could not afford

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to put their talented kids through school, and created an alliance with

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him, with them, that is how he got elected. What you have said to me is

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incredibly positive and it is about building alliances and coalitions,

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perhaps some of them unexpected, but you also have to take things on and

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it seems to me one of the things you have done, you have had to do, is

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confront to a certain extent your own religion and your own

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background. Sure. For example, you have had a lot of successful TV

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scripts and films in your life and you have taken time-out to be a

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political activist. One of the things you were most activist on was

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proposition aid, came the fight to stop gay marriage in California. For

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a while they were successful. My church was leading the way

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financially. You had to take on the Mormons and you made a film about it

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which, too many people inside the faith that you had been born into,

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was disgraceful. Was a betrayal. I would imagine it was also a

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revelation to many of them. The director of the documentary said

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would you take part in this and help make the documentary that holds the

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church accountable? I was nervous and I called my mother and she said

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he do you go again. I said, yeah, but I just want to tell the truth.

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What trouble can we get in if we do that? We were just following the

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money. On the other side of that, there was no attack from the church.

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They gave me a phone call. They said speak with us. We want to meet with

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you in Salt Lake City. The lessons are learned from my mother, keeping

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channels open, I said yes. I went there. Day invited me to a Mormon

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Tabernacle Spectacular. It is their biggest show of the year. They

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invited me and some gay and lesbian families. What became evident was

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that those lesbians and their children, they were having as much

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trouble keeping those children quiet as the straight couples. The

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challenges were not different. I will never forget the white-haired

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man, the bleak -- public relations manager of the church, he took my

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hand, and said, do you want a family one day? I said yes. He got tearful

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and said I did not realise that. In the subsequent conversation, it

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became clear the mission was about breaking down the institution the

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Mormon church holds dear. And what they learned in those days and weeks

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was that we want our families protected and respected, along with

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our children. That is the bottomline. That is interesting.

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Although you are now a campaigner and activist for gay rights, you

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sound like a conservative, especially when you talk about what

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marriage means to you. We have language in common with

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conservatives and progressives. We all have children. We start speaking

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the same language when we are all together. What is interesting in

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politics, both in the United States and much of the West, is the fight

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you are fighting, the right for a marriage, it has been won. -- gay.

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63% of Americans believe it is right and accept and embrace it as part of

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America. You have just made a film called When We Rise, looking at 40

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years and more of gay rights, you have been filming and reporting and

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remarking on a journey that has reached its final destination.

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Absolutely not. Gay marriage was the prime mover unexpectedly of our

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movement. We all got together with some folks, legal minds, and we sued

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the State of California and the Federal Court over the proposition.

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If we were going to do it right, we needed some allies. We had a lawyer

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go to The Supreme Court for us, the same who went for George Bush to the

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White House. We told the personal stories, because we understood we

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could get five out of nine votes of The Supreme Court but if we wanted

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to change the culture, make the world safe for LGBT families, we had

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to tell stories, about them and children. Those are the stories were

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told in public in those five years on the way to The Supreme Court.

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They were told in court. They did not only convince those five of nine

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judges, but public opinion is well. I was doing what I did with my mum

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on a massive scale. Getting back to the point over whether you have

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reached their destination, a sense of achievement, how deep it runs,

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Donald Trump is now in the White House... I can barely hear you say

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those words. It is tough for me. I wonder whether you believe the

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election of Donald Trump... Certain things already happened. For

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example, is rollback, the predisposition of allowing

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transgender children in schools to choose which button they want to go

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in, it has been rolled back. -- decision. It is disgusting. You said

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it was so important to build bridges and understand people with different

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views. How do they sit together? I think first and foremost, if this

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was a man I truly believed did this because of his belief, I would be

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more curious about where he is coming from, but it is incredibly

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apparent this man is using fear to get power. That is what that is.

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This is not a man of true faith who believes there is something actually

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wrong here and is taking action on it. This is a man who, like Nero,

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believes if you divide, you can conquer, and he did. People of

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perversity, who -- diversity, who have become drunk

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on their success a little bit, need to look at this. I remember going to

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The Supreme Court remembering how proud we were. But I believed we had

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lost sight of how we got there, through coalition of the usses.

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Anyone on their own is vulnerable. You would hear the chanting, black,

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white, same fight. But I did not see many LGBT people at those rallies.

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We are losing the people that got us where we are. From the passion I am

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hearing in your voice, we clearly have to keep fighting. I wonder if

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you still have to keep the filmmaking on hold to continue this

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political fight. You know, I am doing some filmmaking addressing it,

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like When We Rise. It was billed as a reminder and warning, if we lose

:22:19.:22:22.

sight of our brothers and sisters and other movements, we are

:22:23.:22:28.

vulnerable. That is why it is called When We Rise, not When LGBT Rise. It

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comes from the black movement, and the peace movement from the 70s

:22:36.:22:50.

which we have forgotten about. I was writing this as a warning to get

:22:51.:22:54.

back to coalitions so we would not be defeated and the pendulum of

:22:55.:22:57.

progress would keep going forward. Instead, we were conquered. Now it

:22:58.:23:01.

is a warning. I am doing projects which show a path forward. It is not

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unique to be in this position where the pension is so far back. It is

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part of a process, and there is a way forward. -- pendulum. You have

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talked a lot about what drives your filmmaking and activism. You also

:23:17.:23:23.

said earlier you want a big family. You are married, happily married.

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Yes. Children is definitely something you want to embrace.

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Absolutely. Yeah. I am wondering how would you will fit all of this in.

:23:35.:23:38.

The wonderful thing about writing in particular is that reduction is

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difficult, but with writing, you are also looking for distraction, and

:23:44.:23:49.

children provide that. You need something when your brain is

:23:50.:23:55.

exhausted. No eyes are better than children's eyes to help you do that.

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I want to raise children and look through their rise, to make mistakes

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and encourage them to learn more and more and more. -- eyes. That is why

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I have been in this fight for so long. For me, it is about family.

:24:13.:24:22.

Dustin Lance Black, we have to end it there. But thank you so much.

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Thank you very much. Yesterday was one of those days

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for the southern half of the UK. Yes, the covers were

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on the court at Wimbledon. The rain was heavy at times

:24:52.:24:53.

and the umbrellas were out. It wasn't just across the south-east

:24:54.:24:56.

of England where we saw rain.

:24:57.:25:00.

Stephen Sackur speaks to American film-maker and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

It's fifty years since homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. In this period, the campaign for LGBT rights has won landmark victories in many parts of the world - perhaps best symbolised by the normalisation of gay marriage in a host of countries.

Black won an Oscar for the film Milk and has just completed a major series on the struggle for gay rights. Has the time come to declare a famous victory?