Activism is the new Black

Posted on 20 Aug 2009 at 10:03am
By Lawrence Ferber Contributing Writer

Dustin Lance Black brought tears to viewers of the Oscarcast. Now the dreamy ‘Milk’ laureate is raising a fist in defiance


PHOTO BY TOM KELLER

Dustin Lance Black hit the ground running both creatively and as a gay activist following his best original screenplay Oscar win for "Milk." 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 his own feature directorial effort, "What’s Wrong With Virginia," Black has made appearances and been honored 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 October 10–11 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 September.

Question: How did the March on Washington come about and what is your involvement with it? Black: I’m doing anything Cleve [Jones] asks me to do — I guess that makes me a humble servant to the march on Washington. It starts with David Mixner calling for a march on Washington a couple of months ago — a serious march, not a gay Lollapalooza. And Cleve, who had been incredibly skeptical about having another march, read that piece and believed that now is the time.

It’s time for two reasons. We’ll likely never see an opportunity like this again in our lifetime, which is having a president who, I believe, is interested in full equality for LGBT people. There have been really exciting and specific promises made by the Obama Administration while he campaigned, and he still occasionally talks about them, but has done nothing about achieving any of those goals. 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.

The second reason, and the thing I think is so incredibly important, is this march is an organizing march. We have reached out to LGBT leaders in all 435 congressional districts and where we couldn’t find leaders we found people we’re teaching how to lead and organize and gather a group of LGBT people that is representative of their district and bring them to Washington. All of this is because 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 quality is the only way to full equality.

How important is it that Obama acknowledge or appear at the march? I think it’s incredibly important that Obama is invited to speak. Cleve is in contact with the White House, and 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 activities are you involved with around this event? I’m involved with an education campaign called STAND UP, which 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 to 12 of them will be turned into 30- and 60-second ads. LGBT people, in their own voices, will introduce themselves to America and to the people in America who need to hear their stories the most — those who don’t know LGBT people personally, because those are the people who vote against equality.

We know that 70 percent 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. The campaign will be impactful, on a Rock the Vote scale, with a significant viral video and online component.

Are we 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 v. Virginia. I also think until we start acting like we deserve full and equal rights, 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." But we do deserve it, we have to demand it, and now is the time.

What have your personal appearances been like? I’ve gone to many [conservative] cities across the country. In one of these places I was met with "You A Fag" written on the big wall of the green room. But as I get up and begin to relate my story and I ask people from the audience to relate their stories, you can feel the homophobia melt away. The discomfort turns into laughter and by the end people are coming up and shaking my hand or shaking their friends’ and starting to have those conversations. It sounds corny but 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 in Hollywood? Harvey Milk’s resounding message was "We all must come out." I don’t have a lot of closeted friends. I have a lot of actor friends and they’re out, working actor friends.

Kevin Spacey comes up a lot as an alleged closet case. I don’t know Kevin Spacey. A lot of my friends, like T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris, 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. It wasn’t this way five years ago, that’s for sure. 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. These are the people doing the filtering and saying it’s so much easier to represent a straight or closeted actor than [openly] gay actor, which is funny because so many of these agents who do that homophobic filtering are gay themselves.

With "Milk" we specifically requested LGBT actors and asked our casting director to do a search. It was difficult because then you have to go through these agents and managers who won’t tell you [who's gay]. We had to go to theater actors, Broadway actors, to audition people who were openly gay

I’m not in favor of outing people unless they’re in a position of power and using that to hurt gay or lesbian people. It’s not my mission to go outing people just so they’re out, so I’m not going to have a confrontation with any actor who chooses to stay in the closet. That’s their personal choice. I wish it was a different choice, I wish they would all come out. But in terms of the more aggressive tactic of outing I would save that for people who are deliberately hurting the gay community and there’s a lot of that in Washington.

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.

How can we get involved while we prepare for the march? First off, to get involved in the march on Washington I’d encourage people to go to the Web site 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 in 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.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 21, 2009.

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