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Giving a voice to the voiceless

Dustin Lance Black won the Academy Award and Writers Guild of America Award in 2008 for his film “Milk.” SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Before Dustin Lance Black became the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” he struggled with his sexuality throughout adolescence in Texas with a Mormon, military family.

Tonight at 8 in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom, Black will speak to students about the value of diversity, LGBT equality and how he brought the story of Harvey Milk to the silver screen. 

Black said he drew from experience to create works in film, television and literature that earned him a Writers Guild of America Award and an Academy Award for the 2008 film “Milk.” 

“If you’re growing up in the Mormon Church as a military kid in the South, you very quickly hear names for what you are. People aren’t sorry about saying the F-word or ‘homosexual,’” he said. “You’re hearing these things in church and school, and so it doesn’t take long to figure out what those words mean and figure out that they might be you.”

By the age of 6, Black said he felt his first crush on a boy and quickly knew he was different. He was always told different was bad.

Black said his dark and fear-filled childhood kept him in the closet. Afraid his family would disown him and God would send him to hell, Black did not come out about his sexuality until he was a senior in college. 

“My coming-out story isn’t just a story for gay and lesbian people to hear, or LGBT people to hear, it’s a story about the power of being different,” Black said. “The ways in which you’re different are the ways in which your point of view is different, and unique points of view help us solve problems creatively in the workplace. For so long and in so many corners of this country, people still view difference as a liability and I’m here to say that it’s your greatest asset.”

Working in drama throughout high school and in community and professional theater, Black said he was hungry for a second take. 

He said he saw that second chance in film, so he attended UCLA film school where he began exploring screenwriting.

By 2006, Black already had a healthy career under his belt when he heard about a show HBO was working on about Mormon polygamists called “Big Love.” 

He lobbied for a meeting with the creators of the show and got a position as the only Mormon writer on staff, eventually working his way up to executive story editor and then co-producer.

Growing up, Black heard about Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay public official in the state of California. Black also discovered a documentary about him, while in college. 

A few years later, he heard there would be a film made about Milk, but it wasn’t until Black was on “Big Love” that he decided to take matters into his own hands and write the entire script on his own dime.

“We were in the doldrums in terms of the LGBT movement. I felt like the leaders were asking for crumbs, they weren’t going after federal equality, they seemed satisfied electing straight allies instead of gay people and we were losing at the ballot box left and right,” Black said. “It just felt like we had lost the lessons of Harvey Milk who said don’t ask for crumbs, demand the whole thing, show some self-respect.”

Though “Milk” was eventually a great success, the film was not an easy sell. Black researched, wrote and cast the major film in secret so as to collect enough talent so the studio couldn’t say no.

“It was a film that I was encouraged by my agent not to write; it was a battle I was encouraged by my agent not to fight,” he said. “I heard time and again, ‘You already have a big TV show, just enjoy your success, don’t cause waves right now in your career in this town.’ Certainly no one wanted to make ‘Milk,’ not at first.”

Many of Black’s films focus on LGBT people or issues that they have faced, but there came a time when Black decided that it just wasn’t enough to make films and decided to take political action.

Black co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the organization responsible for overturning California’s Proposition 8 marriage ban in June 2013, along with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and their lawyers, Ted Olson and David Boies.

California was only one victory for Black, as he said he feels LGBT people shouldn’t have to hide behind city and county lines to be protected by the law.

“This is one of the reasons I’m coming to Florida. I don’t like going to New York or California to make speeches anymore; I want to go to the states, particularly in the South, which is where my family is from, and to let folks know that this fight isn’t done until every LGBT person is treated equally in the state and the area that they love,” he said. “They don’t have to flee to California or New York to be equal.”

Black is the second speaker in this semester’s University Lecture Series, sponsored by the Center for Student Involvement, which will pay $19,500 for Black’s lecture. Doors to the event open at 7:30 p.m.