Last year screenwriter Dustin Lance Black earned an Oscar for Milk, a biopic of Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay politician, elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1977, assassinated one year later.
During his life, Milk called on gays to come out of the closet and be proud, a message that resonated with Black, who grew up in a conservative Mormon home and felt ashamed of his sexuality. Today Black is taking Milk's message on the road, traveling from school to school, speaking with students about gay rights.
Black is also back in theaters, narrating 8: The Mormon Proposition, a new documentary about the Mormon Church's 15-year-long, behind-the-scenes campaign to create, fund and pass California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage and was recently ruled unconstitutional by the federal court.
Black spoke with me about the Mormon Church, Prop. 8, Sarah Palin and the unique struggles of growing up gay in America.
Kors: I have to tell you, I can't stop thinking about my interview yesterday with Pastor Phelps.
Black: Phelps — wow. You know, I considered it a moment of pride when he showed up at the Oscars to protest "Milk." You know you've permeated the public consciousness when he and his gang show up.
Kors: He wasn't hard to stomach?
Black: No, I actually think Fred Phelps does more for the gay movement than bad. People who are on the fence about gay marriage, gays in the military, they see him and say, "I do not want to be anything like him." I think he's converted a lot of potential homophobes.
Kors: Phelps would say, hey, it's in the Bible. Leviticus.
Black: Yeah, I think there are a lot of cafeteria-style Christians nowadays: they pick the passages that serve them and leave the rest behind.
Kors: You grew up in a conservative Mormon home. I'm wondering where you are now religiously?
Black: Well, I'm not Mormon anymore. I'm not welcome in that church. They made that clear.
Kors: The church contacted you following "Milk" and "8"?
Black: No, no, they didn't contact me directly. (Black laughs.) If you know the church, when they want to send a message to gay youths, they work through family. That's how they do it. You're not going to get a call in the middle of the night from the Quorum of the Twelve.
Kors: But by funding the push for Prop 8, you think the Mormon Church is sending a message to all gays.
Black: No doubt about it. It's strange, too, because at the same time, the Mormon Church has proven it can change and change quickly. Think about how the church treated black people. They were way behind the rest of the country on civil rights. Until 1978, the church didn't even allow blacks to hold positions of authority. Then suddenly President [Spencer W.] Kimball, who as head of the church spoke directly for God, had a revelation that black men are men. Next thing you know, the old restrictions were just gone. ... My approach is, I try to stay in touch with the Mormon side of my family. Even if the church hasn't changed, you can set the stage for change in your own world by keeping that conversation open.
Kors: I don't think most people know the history of the Mormon Church, or even its basic beliefs: polygamy in heaven, converting the dead, the sacred underwear, God living on the planet Kolob, the Garden of Eden being located in Missouri. That's part of what makes "8" so great — it lays out several of these beliefs and discusses them in the same way that "Religulous" explored the actual beliefs of Scientology.
Black: That's true: most people still don't know much about Mormonism. But there has been a shift. I think the church has done a remarkable job in bringing itself into the mainstream. That wasn't always the case. I remember in the 1980s — I was still in San Antonio, and my family sent me to a Baptist Church camp. They had a class on cults, and I thought, "Oh, this will be interesting." I didn't realize I'd be walking into a talk about the religion I grew up in.
Kors: You think Mormonism has made it mainstream.
Black: I do. Or, I did. Now with the attention the church has gotten from Prop. 8, I think it's being pushed back out of the mainstream. I'd be willing to bet there are some regrets in the church's PR department.
Kors: What did you do for movie "8"?
Black: Just the narration, though [director/writer] Reed [Cowan] and I did talk about the direction he was taking the film. He was incredibly receptive. But it was more what any friend would do for another, looking over their work. Our experiences are quite similar. We're both gay, both grew up in Mormon homes. He had harder feelings about the church than I did. My thought was, let's present the truth without judgment. I don't believe in judging others' beliefs, except when they attack other people.
Kors: I understand the film started out as a look at Utah's extraordinary number of homeless gay youths, kids kicked out of their families for coming out.
Black: Yeah, a lot of the homeless youths are gay. The suicide rate for gay kids is also four times that of heterosexual kids — more than eight times if they're rejected by their families. I'm on the board of the Trevor Project, which runs a helpline for gay kids in crisis. We're a safety net. And a lot of these teens, they need help immediately. ... You have to understand: it was really hard growing up. I knew I was gay. We'd go to church on Sundays, and beamed in every Sunday was President [of the Mormon Church Spencer W.] Kimball, the seer, the one who knows — who speaks the word directly for the Lord — and he would tell us how next to the sin of murder is the sin of impurity: homosexuality. When you're told from the age of 8 that you're criminal, you're wrong in God's eyes, that breaks your spirit. A gay boy isn't going to be able to heal from that without help.
Kors: Were you ever suicidal?
Black: Oh, sure. (Black pauses, laughs.) I don't mean to say it so casually. It's just, the majority of gay teens go through that suicidal stage. With this recent fight over Prop. 8, I found myself thinking back to those times, those nights where you sit and debate whether life is worth living. You're told that you're here to do good in God's eyes. But then you're told your very nature is evil. It's very isolating. This thing that's inherent in you dooms you. So then, why is life worth living? It's a logical progression.
Kors: Have those messages from the church changed in recent years?
Black: Not from the church leaders. But from the Mormon people, yeah, I think so. Hey, you go to Salt Lake City, and there's a thriving gay scene. A lot of rank and file Mormon families, they're open to discussions.
Kors: What do you think caused that change?
Black: There's a broader social shift that's happened. Gay and lesbians started coming out, started telling their stories. That was Harvey Milk's message: come out — that coming out is the most potent outreach tool we have. If everyone came out, then everyone would realize, there are gays and lesbians among their friends and family. Then people's views would change.
Kors: How was your family when you came out?
Black: Good. I mean, I know children who are thrown out of their homes. My mother, well, she was anti-gay in the way most people are: casually. She was against gays in the military, against gay marriage, that sort of thing. Once I came out, she was like, "Hmm, this gay thing isn't what I thought was." It took about a year of talking with her about relationships, the way anyone does with their mother, and slowly she shifted from talking about "the gay thing" to asking questions, like "How are you two getting along?" and "Is he treating you right?"
Kors: What about your dad?
Black: Oh, I'm not in contact with him. But my stepfather, who was in the military, I got a big hug from him. (Black laughs.) He had no problem with it at all.
Kors: Obama's been pretty clear in his opposition to gay marriage.
Black: I think the president is way behind on this issue. There are a lot of rights just for married couples, and by leaving the system discriminatory, it's wrong. A lot of gay people say, "Oh well, he doesn't mean it. He's just opposing gay marriage for political purposes, to make peace with conservatives." That makes my stomach turn even more. If he doesn't believe in what he's doing, if he's opposing gay marriage just for political purposes, that's awful. And it's wrong.
Kors: A lot of gays are willing to settle for civil unions.
Black: They are. And that enrages me. It smacks against everything Harvey [Milk] taught. He always said, "Ask for everything. Demand equal rights." He railed against gay and lesbian leaders who asked for crumbs.
Kors: Did you support Obama in 2008?
Black: I did. And I'll confess, I campaigned for him too, knocking on doors through neighborhoods in Las Vegas. At the time, Obama looked good. And we were facing the prospect of having Sarah Palin as our vice president.
Kors: What do you think the consequences of her election would have been for the gay community?
Black: I don't know. I mean, I certainly don't agree with her politics. But honestly, I don't really understand what her politics are. Seems like instead of articulating a coherent world view, she's thinking, "How can I get on the nightly news, on cable, on the front page of these newspapers?" Whatever her politics are, I'm sure they don't include fervent support for gay rights.
Kors: It's funny because during the campaign, she kept saying, "I'm not homophobic. I even have gay friends."
Black: But that's exactly it: Palin does have gay friends. All of these political leaders do. Which makes it all the more unbelievable that they would oppose these rights. Would you turn to a friend, to a member of your family, and say, "I can have this right but you can't"?
Kors: What do you say to people who say, if we allow gay marriage, next they'll start pushing for polygamy?
Black: Those are two really different things. The ban on gay marriage, we're talking denying people rights for a character trait.
Kors: You see it as an inherent characteristic, like left-handedness.
Black: Oh, far more inherent than left-handedness. Finally, in the Prop. 8 trial, we were able to present evidence that being gay is part of the fabric of who a person is. We don't want a society that designed solely for straight people. That would be tyranny of the majority.
Kors: You have people who say it's a choice. Even for men who are attracted to other men, they can still choose to be with a woman, get married, live a traditional life.
Black: I know. And a lot of gay conservative Christians do that. It's sad. They're not experiencing the loving connection they'd get from a gay relationship.
Kors: I was listening to an old "Loveline" episode on my iPod this week, and Dr. Drew was talking about a study in which straight men were shown gay porn. The images activated the threat center of their brains.
Black: Well, I don't give that kind of a study much credence. (Black laughs.) Gay porn — that isn't what gay life is about any more than straight porn is an accurate look at straight life. A real gay relationship, it's a lot more about who's going to pick up the dry cleaning.
Kors: Yeah, but when straight men think about homosexuality — even gay marriage — the first thing they think of is gay sex.
Black: I know. It's the way churches drilled it into people's heads. When [anti-gay activist] Anita Bryant spoke about gay people, she would talk about these bizarre sexual practices few gay people ever engage in. But those oddities, that became our image, what people thought of when they thought of us. Coming out is an antidote to all that weird sex talk. It demystifies homosexuality. ... Listen, if this were just about sex, we wouldn't want to get married. I'm sorry to rock the boat for homophobes, but it's about love.
Kors: Are there any benefits to being gay? Perhaps in dating, things move a bit faster.
Black: Oh, that's just a stereotype. (Black chuckles.) You know, the gay rights movement and the sexual revolution started at the same time, and in some ways, the two got mixed in with each other. But remember, this push for gay marriage, we're talking about a younger generation that had no part in that. When they grew up, the bathhouses had been closed for years. They never knew a world without HIV, AIDS, safe sex education. Frankly, if you're looking back to the old days of sexual revolution, I'm sure there was just as much promiscuity in the straight world.
Kors: In 1995, when I was a junior in high school, I wrote an article about Bobby Griffith, a gay kid at my school who had committed suicide after his conservative Christian mother pressured him to change. The article was a big deal. Now I'm thinking, coming out in high school, it probably wouldn't be a big deal at all.
Black: Depends where you live. I went to high school in Salinas, California, and in the cities around there, [the Trevor Project] still gets a lot of calls. But it's true: there is a generation now of gay and lesbian kids that don't have that initial jab of self-loathing, a generation that can just have a normal adolescence. They're the ones fueling the movement.
Kors: Are you saying that you still struggle with self-esteem?
Black: Oh, it's something I'll always struggle with.
Kors: Even after the Oscar?
Black: (Black laughs.) Especially after the Oscar.
Kors: Explain that to me.
Black: Well, when you grow up being told constantly that you're less than, you end up always questioning whether you're any good. So when people are heaping praise on you, it's out of sync with how you see yourself. You question your value even more. It's partly why I work so hard. I don't get money for this activism stuff. I just want to make sure no one goes through what I went through. A kid's damaged self-esteem is the hardest thing to repair.
Kors: Obama has been adamant that we're one America, not red states and blue states. But doesn't the gay rights battle show that to be false — if coming out in New York or San Francisco is no big deal, while coming out in Mississippi is still incredibly difficult?
Black: Absolutely. And we saw that with Constance McMillen, [the Mississippi high school student prevented from attending her prom with her girlfriend]. Obama's view is a sentiment that holds true to the American ideal. And he was right to express it. But without actions, it's nothing. It's hot air. He's said the first half. Now it's time for him to do the second half.
Kors: I cover the military, and the soldiers I talk to, all of them are so against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." They don't care at all if guys in their unit are gay, and a lot of them tell me they're insulted that the military brass thinks they would discriminate.
Black: It's good to hear that. I remember when I was young, meeting friends of my mom who were in the Army and gay. Of course they couldn't be openly lesbian in the Army. But they had life partners; they even adopted kids. Gay soldiers have been serving for ages.
Kors: Opponents say allowing soldiers to be out would threaten unit cohesion, similar to the argument against gay marriage, that gay marriage will damage straight marriages.
Black: Yeah, that argument came up in the Prop. 8 case. The judge asked them for proof of that. But they didn't have any, so they dropped it.
Kors: There was talk that Judge [Vaughn R.] Walker should have recused himself from the case because he is gay.
Black: It's ridiculous. Walker was incredibly thorough. This is a man who had been loved by conservatives. In fact, if you look at his case history, he was called a homophobe for some of his previous decisions. He certainly wasn't a liberal, activist judge, and if people sat in that courtroom, they would have seen that.
Kors: [Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy has a record of being pro-gay rights in his decisions. Does that give you hope that if Prop. 8 comes to the Supreme Court, it will be a 5-4 decision?
Black: I can't guess what the justices will do. I hope this case will be strong enough that it's a 9-0 decision. That's the goal. ... If it does end up 5-4, that would be a success of sorts. But you know, setting the legal issues aside, this outreach campaign to gay youths, their families, their peers, it's already been a success — just letting the country know, we're asking for equal rights, not special rights.
Kors: You're saying it's not entirely about a Supreme Court verdict.
Black: Well, I'd be lying if I said that's not important. I want to get married in my lifetime. It's just, there's more to this effort for gay rights than the courts.
Kors: Let's talk movies. You're working on "Hoover," Clint Eastwood's biopic of the former president.
Black: No, no. (Black laughs.) It's a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, the former FBI director. Jeez, President Herbert Hoover: wouldn't that be boring.
Kors: Got it. ... What else do you have cooking?
Black: I just finished a movie called "What's Wrong with Virginia," which I wrote and directed. It's basically about my own experiences growing up with a single mom in the South. The main character in the movie, the mother, she's played by Jennifer Connelly, and she's disabled, just as my mom was.
Kors: Your mom was disabled?
Black: Yeah, she had suffered from polio.
Kors: Did she use a wheelchair?
Black: No, she used crutches and braces, Franklin Roosevelt-style. She wanted to be up, at everyone else's height.
Kors: I want to ask you about a comment from [sex advice podcaster] Dan Savage. He advises gay kids struggling in small towns to graduate high school, then get out to the city, where other gay people are, as fast as possible. A straight girl called in and said he should be advising gay kids to stay and fight — make their hometowns better, more accepting. Savage just exploded at her, told her she had no idea what it was like to be a gay person in small-town America.
Black: That reminds me of a Harvey quote, one I use in every speech. He said, "We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio." Neither approach is wrong. Some can stay and fight. Others need to run away and heal before they can come back home.
Kors: So you never went back to San Antonio?
Black: Oh, yes I did. It was extra special too, to speak again to the kids in my hometown.
Kors: When you speak to the kids, what's your message?
Black: I talk a lot about not being satisfied with partial equality. My message is: don't demand less than your Constitution promises you. For too long the gay movement has been fighting for civil unions, stuff like that. We won't get equality as long as we're satisfied with less.
Kors: Yeah, the movie "8" made me think the gay community was basically asleep. The Mormon Church had been preparing Prop. 8 since 1995, and then in 2008, 13 years later, the whole thing just blindsided the gay community.
Black: I don't think the gay community was asleep. But I do think the leadership of the gay movement has become hesitant and comfortable, collecting six-figure salaries from the gay rights organizations they run. It's a conflict of interest: if gays get equal rights, then there's no reason for their organizations. And they can't be truly interested in putting themselves out of business. That's why they're so satisfied with bits and bits of progress.
Kors: What about you?
Black: (Black laughs.) As a gay rights advocate, I want to be out of this business as fast as I can.
Kors: Film critic Gene Siskel always ended his interviews by asking: what do you know for sure?
Black: Wow. (Black's voice cracks.) ... I know for sure that being gay is inherently who I am, and I deserve to be treated equally. I always knew the first part — now I know the last.
For more information on the Trevor Project, visit TheTrevorProject.org or call 866-4-U-TREVOR.
Follow Joshua Kors on Facebook: www.facebook.com/joshua.kors
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more