Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black took the stage Monday night with one message: “Agitate when necessary, cause trouble, never follow a step behind anyone … never ever follow the steps of someone who leads with fear as you pursue your passion.”
Black, whose resume includes the film “J. Edgar” and the HBO series “Big Love,” earned a Screenwriters Guild Award and an Academy Award for his 2008 film “Milk.”
As part of the Center for Student Involvement’s University Lecture Series, Black was paid $19,500 to speak to the crowd of 100 students about the value of diversity and how it has played a role in his award-winning career.
Black grew up as a gay Mormon in Texas, living in constant fear of being found out.
After moving to California as a teenager with his mother, Black was introduced to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the state of California, through a speech played on a boombox in his drama teacher’s classroom, which he said saved his life.
While in college at UCLA film school, he expanded his friend group to include gays and lesbians, many of whom had been exiled from their families.
While many of his friends knew of his sexuality, he described the true coming out moment as telling the people he was most afraid of losing.
“A lot of people are coming out all the time, coming out with your ethnicity, with who you pray to, there’s a lot of people coming out and you might have to come out your whole life if you’re LGBT,” Black said.
His mother initially had worries, but one night, over dinner with friends, his mother heard the stories of his gay and lesbian friends who faced rejection from their families.
“She heard the stories of actual gay and lesbian people,” he said. “Not politics, not the law, not the science … it took an actual story from the heart, and in one night it dispelled all the myths and all the lies and all the stereotypes from the church, from the military and growing up in the South. And that is the power of personal storytelling.”
Black used that power and mixed it with troublemaking, taking a note from Milk to create the film that brought the politician’s name back into the discussion.
“I got a credit card, and I started traveling to meet with real people. I started with Cleve Jones, who was Harvey Milk’s protege, and he introduced me to more people and I was spending more money on dinners and gasoline. After over a year, I finally had enough people where I felt like I had a story and I went back to the producers.”
Following his meeting with producers, all of the research he had been done was shot down. He left feeling disappointed, but not defeated.
“I called Cleve Jones, who had been my ally this whole time and I said ‘Cleve, this is what happened, but f— them, I’m going to do it, I’ll do it myself.’”
Entirely in secret, Black worked to write the script and cast the movie with award-winning actors such as Sean Penn, James Franco and Emile Hirsch, a move that made the film impossible for producers to reject.
The film went on to be a great success, earning Black the Academy Award in 2009.
“Very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours,” he said in his winning speech.
That promise made him a lot of enemies in the LGBT movement and placed him under fire as they felt he was pushing the limit too far, setting the movement back even further.
After his older brother who lives in Virginia came out as gay, Black felt he needed to step up his game.
“My freedom isn’t my brother’s freedom and I needed that to be the case,” he said. “We need to take the fight to the federal government and we’re not doing that. I saw a solution and I was really scared but did I have an obligation? Absolutely. You have to act.”
It took four and a half years for Black to help win marriage equality in Virginia, but when he finally did, he wanted nothing more than to call his brother and celebrate. However, in that period of time, his brother had been diagnosed with cancer and died, unable to live with the rights that Black said he rightly deserved.
Closing his speech at USF, he emphasized the importance of diversity, identifying it as one’s greatest asset.
“Go out there with your passion and your purpose and your difference and start to change the world,” Black said. “Start to change it right here in Tampa, and across this country and across the world. You’re not going to do it with the ways you’re the same, you’re going to do it with the ways you’re different.”