Coming Out: Dustin Lance Black Tells His Story

By: Daniel Villarreal

In celebration of National Coming Out Day (October 11) will be sharing stories throughout the month from several members of our community who not only kicked down the closet door, but continue to inspire, encourage, and give us hope for a brighter future.

Most people know Dustin Lance Black as the young, Academy Award-winning screenwriter behind Gus Van Sant's Milk, a historic biopic of LGBT activist Harvey Milk.

But long before his acceptance speech at the Oscars, Black was just a scared kid growing up in San Antonio. His father had been a Mormon missionary who converted Black's mother and sired two boys before abandoning them, leaving Black's physically paralyzed and unemployed mother to raise her kids on welfare.

His mother eventually married an abusive military man, intensifying the atmosphere of self-hatred Black already felt from his Mormon upbringing. He discussed it in his introduction to the book MILK: A Pictorial History of Harvey Milk:

"I grew up in a very conservative Mormon military household in San Antonio, Texas. I knew from the age of six what people would call me if they ever discovered my “secret.” Faggot. Deviant. Sinner. I’d heard those words ever since I can remember. I knew that I was going to Hell. I was sure God did not love me. It was clear as day that I was “less than” the other kids, and that if anyone ever found out about my little secret, beyond suffering physical harm, I would surely bring great shame to my family."

"I had my first crushes on a boy neighbor when I was like six, seven. I knew what was going on, I knew I liked him, but what Texas did and what the culture of growing up Mormon, growing up military [reinforced], was, the very second thought I had, 'I really like that boy, and it's not just as a friend,' the very second thought was, 'I'm sick, I'm wrong, I'm going to hell. And if I ever admit it, I'll be hurt, and I'll be brought down.'"

"So I had two choices: to hide — to go on a Mormon mission, to get married and have a small Mormon family (eight to twelve kids)—or to do what I’d thought about many a time while daydreaming in Texas history class: take my own life. Thankfully, there weren’t enough pills (fun or otherwise) inside my Mormon mother’s medicine cabinet, so I pretended and I hid and I cried myself to sleep more Sabbath nights than I care to remember."

"Then, when I was twelve years old, I had a turn of luck. My mom remarried a Catholic Army soldier who had orders to ship out to Fort Ord in Salinas, California. There I discovered a new family, the theater. . . and soon, San Francisco.

Despite the physical abuse Black suffered at the hands of his stepfather, his mother encouraged Black to pursue his interest in theater arts. During high school he began learning about acting and stagecraft working with The Western Stage in Salinas-Monterey, California.

Around this time, he made his first visit to San Francisco which, at the time, was still feeling the devastation of nearly 20,000 lives lost to AIDS. And that's when he first heard of the life and legacy of Harvey Milk:

"That’s when it happened. I was almost fourteen when I heard a recording of a speech. It had been delivered on June 9, 1978, the same year my biological father had moved my family out to San Antonio. It was delivered by what I was told was an “out” gay man. His name was Harvey Milk.

"Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio, there is a young gay person who all of a sudden realizes that she or he is gay. Knows that if the parents find out they’ll be tossed out of the house. The classmates will taunt the child and the Anita Bryants and John Briggs are doing their bit on TV, and that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. . . and then one day that child might open up the paper and it says, “homosexual elected in San Francisco,” and there are two new options. One option is to go to California. . . OR stay in San Antonio and fight. You’ve got to elect gay people so that that young child and the thousands upon thousands like that child know that there’s hope for a better world. There’s hope for a better tomorrow."

"That moment when I heard Harvey for the first time . . . that was the first time I really knew someone loved me for me. From the grave, over a decade after his assassination, Harvey gave me life. . . he gave me hope.

Nevertheless, Black remained closeted until his senior year at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. He described his gradual identification with gay men and dramatic coming out to the LGBT video series I'm From Driftwood below:

Unbeknownst to him, Black also had an older gay brother Marcus, the same brother who used to stand up for him and reassure him whenever Black got beaten by their stepdad or denounced by Mormon religious leaders:

“[Marcus] just really is the quintessential, sort of stereotypical—my mom would be mad at me if I say this but it is true, and he said it—he was a redneck. I never imagined it. When he called me up on the phone, I could hear something was wrong. He said, ‘You know my friend Larry?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Larry—missing tooth, likes to watch Nascar, like to kill animals together?’ He was like, ‘Yeah. Larry broke up with me.' I was like, ‘Really? That’s shocking!’ I felt like, in a way, I was discriminating [against] people like that. I was stereotyping people because I never figured he was or could have been [gay]."

Marcus died of cancer earlier this year. Reflecting upon the current state of LGBT activism and his brother's life, Black said:

“We say, 'It gets better,' but what work are we doing to make sure it gets better everywhere? It really hit home for me in the past few months because my very tough, auto-mechanic, Nascar-loving brother came out of the closet a couple of years ago and he was having a really hard time. And I kept giving him all of my 'It gets better' and all my hope speeches. And it just wasn’t helping. I felt like a fool. I felt very self-centered, because of course it got better for me—I came out in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He came out in Texas and Michigan and Virginia, where you still lose your job and your home for being gay. And nobody’s coming out in his communities. There’s not a feeling of hope in his communities.”

Black has since become a influential artist in the LGBT rights movement, not only for his masterful writing in Van Sant's Milk but also for using his play about the federal court battle over California's Proposition 8 to help raise money and awareness to overturn the notorious anti-gay law.

Everyday, that day seems closer at hand.

Black closed his 2009 Oscar acceptance speech for Best Screenwriting by paying homage to Milk, and offering a message of hope to other LGBT kids who experienced the same sorts of confusion and pain he and his brother felt while growing up.

"If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, or by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.'"

"Thank you, and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk."