11 May 2019

Dustin Lance Black - Mama's Boy

From Saturday Morning, 10:04 am on 11 May 2019

Dustin Lance Black grew up Mormon in Texas – where being gay was not only a sin, but a crime.

The screenwriter, director, film and television producer and LGBTQI activist has recently written a memoir about his upbringing called Mama's Boy, which details his journey from unlikely origins to winning an Academy Award for the 2008 film Milk and helping to overturn Prop 8with his deeply conservative mother by his side.

Dustin Lance Black

Dustin Lance Black Photo: Supplied / Hachette

Black says it was his grandmother’s assurance that anything is possible, passed on to his mother and then to him, that lead him to where he is today.

“I don’t really believe in the impossible,” he says.

“Even though we were raised in this very conservative home, and faith, and military - they all have strict rules of what’s good and bad and right and wrong – my mum had this most valuable characteristic I think there is in a parent and that is, she was incredibly curious.”

She passed this on to her sons, says Black. And it was a characteristic that led him to theatre.

Lance’s father, he believes, married his mother, who is paralysed from childhood polio, as a way to escape being drafted for the Vietnam War. He left when Black was 6-years-old only for the pair to meet again 10 years ago.

“It was so incredibly unimpressive that it didn’t even make the book because he was exactly what my grownup self had come to think he must be, who a man is who would abandon three small children with a paralysed woman who had never driven or had a job. He matched that perfectly.”

Black says he is lucky his father vanished, not needing a role model like that in his life. At this time in his life, his mum had fallen in love with his second step dad and Black was standing on stable, solid ground.

“All I really needed was my mum. I went from sleeping on couches, to writing a hit HBO show (Big Love) within a year and a half.”

The truth is liberating, he says.

Black’s mother suffered abuse and violence in two of her Mormon marriages.

“When we went to them and said, at 8-years-old, I have black eyes and bloody noses, I can’t go to school, my mum has black eyes and at one point…there’s a giant 6.2 [foot] military man chasing a little woman on crutches down a hallway with a knife.

“And the church did not step in.”

It was very telling that the church believed it was the woman’s responsibility to create an environment suitable for her husband, he says.

“She was blamed for his outbursts and his anger and his violence,” says Black.

“There’s no changing a person who’s violent in that way.”

Black met with the church when he set out to tell this story, so he could share his concerns with them.

Fundamentalism is incredibly abusive of women, he says.

“It’s time for us to stop abusing women in the name of God.”

When Black’s Mum found out he was gay, it didn’t go well, he says.

“I did not want to come out to my Mum, I was not ready, it scared me, I thought that I’d lose her.”

But it was a big aha moment when she did find out. She took a flight to Los Angeles to meet his friends, without telling her that most of his friends were gay and lesbian, and without him telling them that his mum was deeply conservative.

During a dinner in his apartment, his friends assumed his mum was accepting, and shared personal stories about the tough times they had been through as gay and lesbian young people.

“One by one they leave and before I know it, it’s just me and my mum and we’re sitting next to each other on my college futon and she pats the seat next to her and I scoot closer and she looks at me with tears in my eyes, I’ll never forget, she gives me the biggest embrace, the strongest embrace that I ever remember having from her up to that point and it meant she loved me, and she loved me for all of me for the very first time.”

The stories from his friends had dispelled the myths his mum held about LGBTQI people, he says.

“I thought, if that’s the power of personal story-telling, well that’s what I’m going to do with my life.”

He says he can draw a direct line between that day sitting on the couch with his Mum and making the film Milk.

When Black was 13, his Mum met a young, handsome soldier who had orders to ship off to California. The family left Texas and the Mormon Church and started over.

Harvey Milk filling in 1978.

Harvey Milk filling in 1978. Photo: / CC BY-SA 3.0

Once there, Black got into theatre and one of his directors, who was in charge of the apprenticeship programme, played him a tape of a Harvey Milk speech.

“At that point in my life I’d never heard of an openly gay person, I thought being out was something that happened to you, I thought you were outed, I’d certainly never heard of an openly gay man who’d achieved something, who’d been elected.”

It sparked something in him and years later he wrote the screenplay for Milk.

At first, he was rejected for the project by Warner Brothers because they wanted someone with an Academy Award – something he didn’t yet have.

But, he stuck it out.

“Every project has heard the word no 1000 times, you only need the word yes.”

Milk was nearly finished when the Proposition 8 debate flared up, which reversed the right of gay and lesbian people to marry in California.

“What had happened, which became very clear, was that the gay rights movement had become very myopic, it had forgotten it’s connections to other civil rights movements, the women’s movement, the fight for racial equality – these are things that Harvey Milk had been great at building those coalitions, and we had forgotten those.”

When Black won his Academy Award he promised on stage he would help led the US to full federal marriage equality.

“It was only thanks to my good Mormon Mum who said ‘Lance, a promise is a sacred thing’ that I put film-making aside for a while to see if we couldn’t move the numbers and win a Supreme Court case.”

Now, Black is a father himself - he and British Olympic diver Tom Daley have a one-year-old son.

He says he would love to have dozens of children.

“You can kick the kid out of the faith but you can’t take the culture out of the kid.

“It probably won’t happen but Robbie has been such a wonderful growing experience, eye opening experience, I love him dearly.”