Dustin Lance Black hit the ground running both creatively and as a gay activist following his Best Original Screenplay Oscar win for MILK this year. While juggling a handful of Hollywood projects, including an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for MILK director Gus Van Sant, and Black’s own Hollywood feature directorial debut, What’s Wrong With Virginia, Black has made appearances all over the country, from LGBT events to college speaking engagements.
Taking a break from writing on a recent Sunday afternoon, the San Antonio, raised Black discussed the upcoming National Equality March (scheduled for Oct. 10 and 11 in Washington, D.C.), his experiences touring the country, closeted Hollywood actors, and, for the first time, a national LGBT awareness campaign he will launch this summer.
WATERMARK: Let’s begin with the March on Washington. How did it come about and what is your involvement with it?
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: I’m doing anything Cleve [Jones, human rights activist] asks me to do—I guess that makes me a humble servant to the march on Washington. It starts with blogger David Mixner calling for a March on Washington a couple of months ago—for a serious march, not a gay Lollapalooza. And Cleve Jones, who has been so incredibly skeptical about having another march, read that piece and believed that now is the time.
We’ll likely never see an opportunity like this again in our lifetime, which is having a President who I firmly believe is interested in full equality for LGBT people, and a Congress I also think is.
There have been promises made by the Obama administration while he campaigned, [yet] he’s set no dates, he’s shown no way forward, meaning he’s not pressing Congress or demanding or requesting legislation. We need to make our voices heard.
There’s a philosophy that you only can achieve full equality through the federal government. All the leaders before us have known that. But we haven’t demanded it until now, and if you look at the history of any civil rights movement in this country, federal equality is the only way to full equality.
How important is it that Obama be in town and actually acknowledge or appear at this march?
I think it’s incredibly important that Obama is invited to speak. Cleve is the organizer at this point, and I know he’s negotiating that and in contact with the White House. If Obama does show up and speak, I think that says a lot. And if he doesn’t, that also speaks volumes. I’m all for him being given the only VIP invite to speak.
What other plans or activities are you involved with around this event?
A few things. I’m involved with an education campaign called STAND UP, which will be officially announced next month. STAND UP is a campaign of outreach and education. We’re making a national call for LGBT people’s stories [through] the Courage Campaign (couragecampaign.org). Once we get all of these stories I’m going to take some of the best filmmakers on the road and document those stories and 8-12 of them will be turned into 30- and 60-second ads, which will be aired nationally. In this commercial campaign LGBT people, in their own voices, will introduce themselves to America.
We know that 70% of Americans who have changed from voting against LGBT people to voting for equality do so because they’ve come to know a real LGBT person. Our personal stories have the power to change minds and help win full equality for LGBT people across this country.
Do you feel that we’re making progress in the struggle for full equality?
We’re doing far better in terms of polling numbers for gay marriage than interracial marriage at the time of [1967’s] Loving vs. Virginia. I also think until we start acting like we deserve full and equal rights—federal rights—in every state and county, who outside our community is going to feel like we deserve them? Put yourself in the shoes of someone looking in from the outside and they’re saying, “Oh these people don’t even feel like they deserve full equality, they feel they only deserve it in these little liberal areas and ghettos.”
What have you learned or discovered while on the road making personal appearances and speaking?
I’ve gone to many cities across the country that are either conservative, or like in Columbia, Mo., are considered a purple area because they flip-flop from red to blue each election. In one of these places I was met with “You A Fag” written on the big wall of the green room. I’m met with that initially but as I get up and speak and begin to relate my story and I ask people from the audience to relate their stories—which is always a part of what I do—you can feel the homophobia melt away.
I know it sounds corny, but having had the chance to travel and speak in every kind of town there is across this country, I feel more than ever that all Americans love LGBT people, and those who think they don’t simply have not met us yet.
How do you feel when you’re in the company of closeted stars or talent in Hollywood? Harvey Milk’s resounding message was ‘we all must come out,’ after all.
I don’t have a lot of closeted friends. I have a lot of actor friends and they’re out, working actor friends.
A lot of my friends, like T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris, they all came out and are still working and doing great things. They’re not just playing gay roles, which is exciting and feels fair. Hollywood’s opened up a lot.
Five years ago I knew lots of closeted and aspiring actors who wouldn’t even go to gay bars because they were afraid they might get spotted by their agent and lose representation. That’s where I really found the problem to be. It’s not with the directors or studios. It’s with the agents and managers.
Have you heard from a lot of gay kids in the heartland, like the phone calls Harvey Milk would get?
It’s not phone calls anymore. It’s Facebook. But I have gotten thousands upon thousands of emails, probably split between young people reaching out, their parents, and a lot of gay people saying thank you.
Are there any other Web sites or LGBT activism organizations we should look up now or become involved with while we prepare for the march?
First off, to get involved in the March on Washington I’d encourage people to go to EqualityAcrossAmerica.org. I’m obviously really invested in the Courage Campaign because they do grassroots and door-to-door activism. They go to a different city every month and train people how to make real change in their area. I’m a big supporter of the Trevor Project and GLSEN. Gay straight alliances are very important to me. There’s a project right now called Live Out Loud which is encouraging LGBT people who have done something notable in their life, whatever their field, to go back to their high schools and talk to the student body—gay and straight—about what their experience has been as a gay or lesbian person since leaving high school.