On the weekend in which a star-studded reading of the play "8" was performed in Los Angeles, raising $2 million for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group which challenged Prop 8 in federal court, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black discussed how his dramatization of the Prop 8 trial came to the stage as well as his hopes for its future. He also talked candidly about his motivations for writing the play – which was streamed live on YouTube and went viral immediately -- including helping young people come out,reflecting on his own brother who struggled with coming out as gay and who tragically died less than two months ago.
"We had to raise the money to continue to fight this thing right," Black said, appearing on my radio program on SiriusXM OutQ, broadcast from West Hollywood. Black co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights with marketing and p.r. strategist (and new Human Rights Campaign president) Chad Griffin; director Rob Reiner and his wife Michele; and film producer Bruce Cohen. They brought in co-counsels Ted Olson and David Boies and took the case to federal court.
“So many times we went into court and we were outmatched,” Black said. “So we thought we have to do this right. Step one was do this in New York [on Broadway], as a fundraiser. It was so successful in New York, that we thought, ‘Oh boy, we have something on our hands, let's do this in L.A. as well.'"
Black described the process of reaching out to actors for a play that in the end had an extraordinary all-star cast that included George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christine Lahti, Jane Lynch, John C. Reilly, Matt Bomer, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cleve Jones, George Takei and others.
"It's a lot of hard work, a lot of it by Michele Reiner, Rob's wife, who’s been working on this thing day in and day out," he said. "It didn’t hurt that New York went very well. We went out to the people we thought would reach the widest audience. We shot for the stars in that way. Thankfully the very first person we asked said yes. It started with George Clooney and it went from there."
Black discussed the dedication of many Hollywood actors to the cause of marriage equality. The play and the after-party were attended by many others in the Hollywood community, from Barbra Streisand to Sally Field, who showed their support.
"I think it's a testament to the movement, and I think it's a testament to the fact that all of these people know someone who’s gay or lesbian,” he said. “They certainly work with them and they’d like them to be treated fairly. And it’s not every day that someone in Hollywood gets to do something that is both meaningful and has an immediate effect. I think the people who’ve worked with AFER and donated to AFER, they see that we have been able to effect change rapidly.”
In addition to being on YouTube, where it has gone viral in recent days, Black has offered “8” to those who wants to stage it to inform and educate, all in an attempt to get the trial viewed since Prop 8 proponents were successful in court in keeping the actual tapes of the trial from being seen.
“We’ve been working very hard to make sure it’s available for free to any school, any theater company across the country,” he said. “And we will support that. We want it heard. We want this to be an outreach and education tool.”
Part of his motivation is also to help young people struggling with coming out. That issue hit home in recent years as his older brother Marcus unexpectedly came out to him, and tragically died from cancer earlier this year.
“It’s gotten really personal for me lately,” he 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 talked about how Marcus used to protect him as a child.
“I had physical abuse from a stepfather and he protected me there, physically protected me there," he said, reflecting on their Mormon upbringing in Utah. “I had abuse from the church. I remember listening to Spencer W. Kimball, the president of the Mormon church, talking about how I was evil. And [Marcus] was always trying to make me feel like, “Ah, it’s alright, it’s alright.’”
Black never expected his brother would eventually come out as gay too.
“He 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,” he said, laughing. “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 earlier this year, succumbing to cancer 8 weeks after he was diagnosed.
“At a certain point I came out and I found my voice and he never did,” Black said of his brother’s struggles with coming out, and why he’s even more dedicated now to helping young people come to terms with being gay. “And he sort of was lost for many years because he wasn’t able to.”
Listen to the full interview below: